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Joyce Newman: Living with white privilege

By Joyce Newman

The Black Lives Matter movement has caused me to look critically at many of my long-held beliefs. Having grown up in a racist household, I like to think I’ve overcome my background through life experiences, reading and speaking with minority people about their lives.

But no matter how hard I try, there’s one basic, insurmountable fact: I’m a white woman and have been the beneficiary of white privilege.

And by that I don’t mean financial privilege. In fact, that’s far from the case. During the summer before I went to college, I worked in a New Jersey sweat shop/garment factory where I was the only non-Puerto Rican employee, because that was the only job I could get and I needed the money. But there was a huge difference between myself and other workers: I knew I was leaving in September to go to college; that working in a sweat shop would not be my life’s work. That’s white privilege.

White privilege exists because of historic and enduring systemic racism and bias; it means my family wasn’t prohibited from buying a home because of the color of our skins. We were able to sit at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the 1950s when Black people could not. And even though my ancestors were poor in the 19th century, they weren’t sent to prison under vagrancy laws that punished them for not holding jobs, as happened to Black men in the South after the Civil War.

No one has ever called the police because I took my camera to a park to photograph wildlife. Being privileged by my “whiteness” means I was never followed through a store because I was profiled by my skin color.

I had the honor recently of meeting Cory Booker’s mother who told her family’s story about white privilege. She and her husband were both executives with IBM in New Jersey. But despite their positions, their income, and their credit history, they were denied the right to buy a home in their neighborhood of choice. But when a civil rights group sent a white couple to that same Realtor, they were welcomed in their effort to buy the same home. That’s white privilege.

White privilege has permitted homeowners’ associations in upscale neighborhoods to include clauses preventing owners from selling to Black people.

As a white person I can speak about flaws in our society without being accused of working to undermine its foundation. As did my friend Shelly Aldean, I visited the Black Lives Matter website to view its entire context and I would invite readers to do the same: https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/. Space doesn’t permit reproducing all the group’s beliefs, but here are just some of the tenets I found, hardly the manifesto of a radical group intending to dismantle American society:

“The Black Lives Matter Global Network is as powerful as it is because of our membership, our partners, our supporters, our staff, and you. Our continued commitment to liberation for all Black people means we are continuing the work of our ancestors and fighting for our collective freedom because it is our duty.

Every day, we recommit to healing ourselves and each other, and to co-creating alongside comrades, allies, and family a culture where each person feels seen, heard, and supported.

We acknowledge, respect, and celebrate differences and commonalities.

We work vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people.

We intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.

We are unapologetically Black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a prerequisite for wanting the same for others.

We see ourselves as part of the global Black family, and we are aware of the different ways we are impacted or privileged as Black people who exist in different parts of the world.

We are guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location.

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.”

I would urge all white people to engage in introspection and soul-searching to discover the symptoms of racism we all have. Reflection has been uncomfortable for me, but it’s healthy and productive in the long term if it helps us live in peace with one another. And that’s what this debate is about: loving and respecting one another.