Blind Spots: Continuing Conversation on Race in America

The following is the second installment in a continuing conversation on race in America. 

Our eldest child is learning how to drive, a terrifying and stress-filled experience for all involved. Every time we’re in the car, I hear myself lecturing him. “See, there’s a ‘no turn on red’ sign here,” I point out. “Remember, pedestrians have the right of way,” I warn. But the lesson I repeat the most is, “Always check your blind spots!”

As it turns out, that lesson not only applies behind the wheel, but in life in general. No matter who we are, we all have blind spots. Our perspectives are determined by our physical and social location. Our view, as it turns out, is limited by the color of our skin. And just like when we’re in the car, if we don’t check our blind spots, we risk causing harm we never intended.

When it comes to discussions on the topic of race you may have heard people say, “Check your privilege,” which is essentially the same thing that I tell my son when he’s behind the wheel, “Check your blind spots!” Yet I hear a lot of white people (especially those whose lives could be described as anything but privileged), pushing back against “checking their privilege,” because they misunderstand what it means.

The term “white privilege” originated in the late 1980’s in academic circles. In an opinion piece appearing in The Washington Post, Christine Emba and Karen Attaiah summed it up as “a set of unearned assets that a white person in America can count on cashing in each day but to which they remain largely oblivious.” So even though my life might not be described as a walk in the park, because my skin is white, I already have an advantage that I might not even see.

Here’s a real life example of what I’m talking about. On a mission trip, a friend and I were shopping in the same souvenir shop. While I wandered the rows of olive wood crosses and hand carved nativity sets, she was being followed closely by a store clerk. I was oblivious to it all as I paid for what would become a bag of worthless trinkets after I understood my friend’s tearful rage at what had happened to her.

I’m ashamed to say that I defended the store clerk thinking it would make her feel better. “It wasn’t just you, they do that to everyone,” I tried to soothe her. “Here,” I said, “please take mine,” handing her my shopping bag, which only added salt to her wound. That day I lost a friend, and understood my privilege: shop clerks don’t follow me because my skin is white and they have associated shoplifting with black skin (for reasons that stretch far back into oppressive systems that originated in colonialism and still persist today). And that’s not fair. Or Christian, for that matter.

Privilege causes us to have blind spots in our thinking; or to put it another way, it makes us blind to problems that don’t affect us. So “checking our privilege,” means that we must, at the very least, be aware that having white skin means we don’t have to deal with daily injustices like the one I described. (In case you need numbers to accompany this anecdotal evidence, read more here).

If you are a white woman and attended or read about the Women’s March on Washington, you may have been surprised to know that many black women chose not to attend, or if they did, they were critical of it, even if its message came to include marching in solidarity for marginalized groups—such as those with brown or black skin. The common thread running through their reasons? White women who were unwilling to check their privilege–or completely unaware of it.

One black woman carried a sign that was particularly convicting. It read: “So I’ll see all you nice white ladies at the next BLM march, right?” In other words, if white women care so much about marginalized people, why didn’t they come out in droves for Black Lives Matter marches like they did for the Women’s March on Washington? Good question. Perhaps it was because we didn’t feel moved to action for a cause that didn’t also affect us. White privilege, anyone?

Rather than speaking for them, I’ve posted the words of black women below. Some are reader responses to the question, “What do you wish white women knew about black women?” and others have appeared in various articles written on the subject of women and race. White women like me can learn from their wisdom. We can begin to see our privilege and to learn how to “check it.” (Here’s a hint: it starts with listening).

“Womanhood does not make us similar. It actually separates us the most. So don’t assume I’ll be up in arms about your cause white feminist causes when you have no idea what womanist thought is.”

“I don’t think there is one easy way to answer this. But if I had to answer simply, I would like white women to know that our experience as women are not the same. Sharing a vagina does not make us closer [any more] than me being close to black men because our skin is the same. I also wish that white women wouldn’t give us pity out of needing to feel like we should be embraced. We don’t need your advocacy. Never have.”

‘Hey, maybe [black women] have it a little bit harder in this country’ — because we do; black women and trans women do — if we’re having it a little bit harder, it doesn’t invalidate your experience. I really am begging you to not take it personally.” –Jessica Williams, in an article published in the LA Times 

“That their struggle as a woman isn’t as hard as ours… especially in America”

“Things that I wish white women knew about us is that the word feminist [isn’t representative of one experience] nor is the rallying calls around one dimensional messages such as equal pay, $0.77/$1.00… When white women say those things, immediately I begin to think they don’t get it, so caught up in their own problems to understand that messages such as that are not inclusive. And basically, they are saying as long as I benefit that is what matters. I also want them to know that if they expect us to help them with their causes, then they must first realize how they’ve contributed to our oppression and get real about that. For example, realize that when a domestic violence campaign slogan says middle-class white women get abused too, but fails to acknowledge the abuse of Black women that is a problem. Or for an even more concrete example, rallying behind the white woman who was raped in the well-known Central Park jogger incident, but ignore the rape of the many Black women living in the same city but happens to be in the “hood” is a problem. And to not mention these inequities, and to fail to approach women’s issues intersectionally contributes to the continued systematic oppression and discrimination toward Black women specifically, and women of color more broadly. I could continue on, but to speak toward your last question, I wish white women would not assume that what is happening to them is happening to Black women in the same way. Instead, ask Black women how can we help? What are some issues that we can join forces with you on to help move our country forward? This approach shows to me that they believe in and respect the humanity of Black women, but until this approach happens, I think I will be weary of white women’s ‘feminism.’”

On that powerful note, I’ll end by asking you, “How will you ‘check your blind spots’ so to get a better view?” And another quote from an author whose work I deeply admire, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “In my language Igbo, the word for love is ifunanya and its literal translation is TO SEE. I would like to suggest today that this is a time for a new narrative, a narrative in which we truly see those about whom we speak.”

My next post will address the topics of intersectionality and integration. Don’t forget to check out Jaimie and Porsha’s blogs in the meantime. Stay tuned…and keep the conversation going!