May 18, 2017
For two days this week, I stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial with a sign that said, “Ask Me About White Privilege. Let’s Talk.” How on earth did I wind up there, and what were the results?
It starts with the legend of the Holy Grail.
Once upon a time, there was a Fisher King who was the keeper of the Holy Grail. He becomes wounded, and both the king and his kingdom suffer. Sir Perceval visits the King and sees the Grail, but he doesn’t say the right thing. The kingdom vanishes, and Sir Perceval spends years in his quest to find the Holy Grail again. Finally the kingdom reappears, and Percival asks the wounded King: “Sir, what ails you?” This time he says the right thing: he acknowledges the King’s pain and expresses empathy. Perceval’s question heals the Fisher King and his kingdom.
In my opinion America, too, is wounded, wounded by its original sins: It is a nation founded upon the violent seizure of land from Native Americans, and the seizure of their very bodies from African Americans. America, too, awaits its day of healing, when whites together say and do the right thing: when whites acknowledge the pain and suffering they have caused and still cause people of color; when whites do what it takes to enable blacks whose ancestors were slaves to begin the race of life in America at the same starting line, instead of thirty yards back (those who live in primarily segregated neighborhoods with poor schools and owning, on average, one twelfth the wealth of whites).
To use a baseball analogy, whites are born on third base, and think they’ve hit a triple. No, they were born there. Meanwhile many blacks are back at home base, desperately trying to hit a single. This is the concept of white privilege. It’s in the air we breathe, woven into the fabric of our lives in the U.S. Many whites don’t realize they have privilege, and until they do, they feel less empathy for those with fewer advantages to whom they admonish: “Just work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I did it, and so can you.” African Americans’ response: “What bootstraps? We were too busy pulling up yours.”
People are afraid to talk about the issue of race—it makes them feel uncomfortable. But unfortunately it still matters, a ton, and we need to talk about it.
I’d heard about a Muslim U.S. Marine who is traveling around the country carrying the sign, “I’m Muslim and a U.S. Marine. Ask anything.” Mansoor Shams stands on street corners in cities and towns, hoping to counter misperceptions about his faith. He plans to visit all fifty states. Wow!
But hey, I live in the Washington, DC area and people from all fifty states come to me. Hence, standing at the Lincoln Memorial with a sign designed to start conversations. And it did. School kids came up, and we talked. I handed out a paper with more information and links to websites. One white high school student from West Virginia said she was thrilled to see me there. She’s writing a paper on the internalization of racism, and people back home, well, it was hard for them to understand.
Lots of people asked to have their picture taken with me. I think I made it onto a good number of Facebook pages. My favorite moment was when I was talking to an African American mother and her two college-age daughters, and a white former high school teacher from Chicago came up. He said he was skeptical about white privilege, and raised honest questions. Eventually five other blacks came around and I stepped into the background. They were polite, told him when he had a good point, and told him where he’d gotten it wrong. I was thrilled that everybody stuck it out through the conversation.
An older man from Texas said when he was young, people used to tell him to go back to Mexico. Except he was Native American, from the Yaqui tribe. Oh, the irony. His daughter used to tell him, “Dad, things aren’t like that anymore. Times have changed.” Except that after Trump was elected, people started telling HER to go back to Mexico. An older African American tour guide from Georgia joined our conversation. He tells his groups of eighth graders that when he was their age, he couldn’t order a hot dog in downtown Atlanta.
There were a few unpleasant conversations. One man said blacks should just get jobs. Another said he was a Christian and that I “must” be saved or I was going to hell (I asked, and being baptized a Catholic didn’t count). One said blacks should get married, noting that 72% of babies born to African American mothers were out of wedlock. He had a point—life’s easier financially with two parents. I looked up the numbers, and 29% of non-Hispanic white babies are born out of wedlock these days. Maybe we need to work on that, too.
Even when people didn’t talk to me, I heard kids asking parents, “What’s white privilege?” I trust I started conversations elsewhere, and caused some people to look up the phrase on the Internet. All in all, I’m glad I did it, and from time to time, I’ll do it again. After all, I still have the sign.