Part I: Race: Thoughts from a white kid from Appalachia
If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.
– Lyndon B. Johnson
I don’t know a lot about this topic because my place in society shields me from it. I’m Southern. I’m white. I’m male. I have lived in the South my entire life. I love it. I was born and raised in rural Virginia and until I was 21, I had never visited a state that wasn’t either in the Confederacy or a state that was claimed by them such as Kentucky. That’s how growing up is for a lot of kids here in Appalachia. We don’t “get out much” as some say. Why on earth would we leave? Like many, I always heard growing up how bad the “big cities” were up North. Yeah, we still use terms like “up North” and they don’t mean direction as much as they mean things like culture and color.
How many of you reading this were taught by others around you that you would get killed in a “big city”? That for all of the racism here, if it was even admitted, it also existed tenfold in a large city in the North? That for every black person that experiences racism here, there might as well be two poor white folks that face it there? I heard it then and still do today. I believed this to some degree until I started to travel. I’ve been to Chicago, DC, Detroit, NYC, Newark, NJ, and spent a good portion of my life in Memphis, Tennessee. Not a single time did I face any racial discrimination whatsoever. I took public transportation in all of those cities and sometimes worked in the “bad” neighborhoods as well. Nothing. I’ll add, however, that I’m not naive. I know full-well there are areas in large cities that would be very hostile to me because I’m white, and mostly because of gang presence, I definitely wouldn’t be welcome. If I were hispanic it would probably be the same way. Or if I were black in an area run by hispanic gangs, it’d be the same.That’s because bad people do exist and always will. Regardless, it was nothing like what I was told. You won’t get murdered just being white and in a large city. Still, a lot of people are scared to even leave the area because of what the old-timers, who have never left either, have told them their whole life.
Growing up in this area you’re taught a lot of things. You get used to a lot of things. When I was a child, the correct word for african-americans/blacks was “colored”. I went on for years thinking that this was the actual, politically correct term. How many of you heard that as well? How many grandmothers and grandfathers used that term? “Colored” was what was used to separate those around that used “nigger” from us. How many of you heard that word growing up? It’s the norm for many around here. Confederate flags, any derogatory word you can think of towards blacks or hispanics, and many of the same views Dylann Roof, spewed in his racist manifesto, are things not hard to find. Many people read his words and were appalled as each word dripped with disgusting racism and white supremacy. For others, like myself, it was on par with what you may hear from a family member or overhear if you sit down for breakfast at Hardee’s. That’s why he wasn’t taken seriously beforehand. It’s easy to understand that others looking in from the outside couldn’t fathom how such extreme views could be looked over and the warning signs ignored. I get it, though. Growing up around it you can find it disgusting and not the least bit serious at the same time. I’ve seen more confederate flags than I can count. I’ve heard rants in school, in college, online from locals, etc. all similar to what Dylann Roof said as he was going on his murderous rampage. “They’re taking over”, “They’re raping our women”, and on and on. I’ve heard it all before and I’ll hear it all again. The biggest problem isn’t that one white kid held racist beliefs. It’s that his racism was so common in places here in the South that no one gives it a second thought when it should be addressed and removed like the disease it is. We accept it, some embrace it. Regardless, it’s all packed away in the box labeled “southern heritage” draped with the confederate flag. That’s why any attempt to call out this racism that “southern heritage” shrouds is met with this warped and ridiculous defense of “the way we live” and the “way it’s always been”.
The biggest problem I’ve found growing up in the South is ignorance coats the opinions of the misguided. Racism can be stomped out. It has to an extent in many areas. The problem is that people are ignorant to what racism is or if they’re racist themselves. People can hold racist views and fly off of the wall if you call them out on it. It’s a far greater insult to be called racist than the racism itself here. People hardly flench at the sight or sound of racism, if it’s even considered racist at all, but call something or someone racist? That’s where you’ll get the reaction.
White privilege is something that does exist. I know some of you reading this are saying “here’s a young white kid full of white guilt” or maybe “here’s another white liberal telling us all how black people really feel like he really knows”. I’m not full of white guilt. I don’t even really know what that means. I don’t feel guilty for a lot of things beyond my control or what people who look like me have done for centuries in this country. It’s not that I don’t feel remorse. It’s not that I’m not aware of an oppression that isn’t in some history book but in today’s news paper and will be in many obituaries that will be printed for years to come. I do feel responsible, however. That’s something that I didn’t always understand about living as a white person, a white male, in this country. I also am not writing these words because I think I know exactly how it feels to be black in this country. I’m writing this because I don’t know how it feels. I just recognize and acknowledge that it’s just not the same. I’m not writing this from a POV of a my black peer, a young black male. I’m writing this from what I see as a white person. I know it’s different. It’s different in so many ways that I haven’t even learned about yet.
White-privilege is a term, to me, that comes with a disconnect. Besides the fact that most of us will never have the chance to walk in the shoes of a person of color, the ignorance is exacerbated by the knee-jerk defense mechanism that I mentioned before about how being perceived as a racist is more worrisome than racism itself. None of us, naturally, like being accused of something that we think we are not, no matter the color. We also tend not to like judgements about us, our past, or anything about our character. This is especially true if we feel it’s negative or offensive to us. The word “privilege” implies special or extra rights to many. It’s perceived as additional/extra advantages that one may not feel they possess. That notion is hard to swallow for a lot of people that may have grown poor, disadvantaged, or had a hard life. That disconnect is palpable among people in my area with poverty, drugs, and numerous other issues that one might experience and have come to the conclusion that they don’t hold a higher place in society than someone of color.
No one is saying that whites can’t have a hard life. The issues of class in this country affect all colors, perhaps not equally as a whole, but poor whites in places like Appalachia grow up in and around things like poverty, domestic violence, drugs, and many other issues that plague poor minorities in an inner city. Privilege, however, isn’t implying that you had it easy or have a special set of rights. It doesn’t mean that you’re treated as a special human. No. To me, white privilege is something that describes how we are all supposed to be treated as human beings. A person is supposed to be able to walk down a street in this country and not fear being stopped by law enforcement. A person isn’t supposed to be discriminated against by their skin color in a store, a school, employment, or anywhere at all. That’s how it is supposed to be: normal. No racial stereotypes, prejudice, or discrimination. We don’t have extra rights, we just have the ones we’re born with, that all of us are supposed to be born with in this country. We are treated like human beings. We are approached with the respect or indifference based on the amount of melanin in our skin , not caution and suspicion because of the lack of melanin. Because that’s what it boils down to. The amount of melanin in your skin: the more you have, the less rights you’re born with.
The problem is that in the society we live in all of us aren’t treated like that. Some don’t have those rights. They were born with them but the pale hand of our society took them away. They don’t have the respect the rest of us have. They are much more likely to be stopped by law enforcement, treated with suspicion in many areas of society, and handled as if second-class citizens. That’s just a small part of it and a few issues of many that I haven’t even learned about yet. I do know that minorities aren’t treated as I am, an American citizen. Our society that creates, fosters, and maintains white supremacy ensures that minorities feel like foreigners at home.