Black, White, and Clear

Linda Ketchum shows us why white progressives need to work harder to check their privilege and listen to the stories and needs of their neighbors of color.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have encouraged the LGBTQ community that we’re moving forward in the struggle for civil rights. At the same time, the verdict in the Zimmerman trial clearly demonstrated that racism is still pervasive. We in the LGBTQ community are no strangers to discrimination. We know it when we see it or experience it, even though many of our allies may not see it. There’s a certain privilege in our society that comes with being heterosexual, just as there’s a certain privilege in our society that comes with being white.

From the day I was born it was inevitable and invisible. I could enter a store, get on a bus, or walk through any neighborhood without suspicion. I was seen by teachers as capable of succeeding. It was inevitable and invisible to me and others like me because of our nation’s history. However, for too many of my brothers and sisters it is inevitable but far from invisible. In fact, to them it’s as clear as black and white.

The facts in the Zimmerman case were clear. An unarmed teenager walking home from the store is stalked by an armed adult who targets the child because he’s black. The man calls the police and is told to stay in his car. Ignoring the police, he gets out of his car, armed, and confronts the child; then, when the unarmed child attempts to protect himself he is shot and killed. Zimmerman was begrudgingly prosecuted by the same DA who tried a black woman who, when threatened in her home by her batterer, went to another room and fired two warning shots to get her abuser to leave. Zimmerman was acquitted; the woman was sentenced to 20 years. As clear as black and white.

I have an acquaintance I’ll call “John Smith.” When John’s 7-year-old son had a friend come over, the friend, who is black, called John “Mr. Smith.” However, John Smith, good white progressive that he is, said “call me John.” The child explained that he was not allowed to call grown-ups by their first names, to which John replied, “You can in my house, because those are my rules.” John’s rationale was that the child’s family was simply carrying over a vestige of slavery, requiring the use of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in deference to the white man. It never occurred to him that the child’s parents might have many reasons for not allowing their child to call adults by their first name. One reason may have been the reality that in certain settings, a child of color deemed as not showing proper respect might be treated differently or targeted. John never asked the child’s parents about their reasons; he simply decided that he was more enlightened than the child’s parents. In John’s mind it was black and white.

A recent school board election in Madison saw a well-qualified Latina candidate enter the school board race in November. In December a white progressive woman entered the race, forcing a primary. During the primary a whisper campaign began in white progressive Madison, a whisper campaign that the candidate of color didn’t support the teachers’ union and supported Madison Prep (a not-so-subtle racist attempt to discredit the candidate). A primary was held; the white progressive woman received the most votes and two days later dropped out of the general election because she and her husband were moving to the west coast for him to attend graduate school. When she entered the race she knew that there was a good chance she would not be remaining in Madison, but she ran anyway. As one of my friends said, “Wow, it takes a special sense of privilege to see a school board seat as plan B.” It’s called white privilege.

It’s easy to lament what happened in the Zimmerman trial as just one more example of how Florida is unwelcoming to minorities. But in Madison we have our own personal and systemic issues of racism. It takes the form of whisper campaigns against candidates of color; of huge racial disparities in the criminal justice system; of disparities in employment rates, graduation rates, and the achievement among students of color.

This country was built on the backs of slaves to benefit white people, and white privilege is a component of racism. We must acknowledge that the conversation on race that this community needs to have is not happening, and that we white progressives should be participating in but not leading the conversation. White progressives must be willing to seek out and listen to the stories of our neighbors of color, to build relationships by showing up places where we may not be the majority, to listen and to learn and to understand that, when it comes to racism, we’re not the experts, we’re the perpetrators.

White privilege is real, it’s here, and we white queer folks are used to it.

Linda Ketchum is the Executive Director of Madison-Area Urban Ministry (emum.org).