The First Step: Recognition

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time….But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.” – Anonymous Aboriginal Woman

“White privilege is like a big, invisible stick,” a friend of mine said recently. “White people will walk into a room of people a darker color than them, and they might say or do something that displays their white privilege. All the other people in the room will duck, and flinch a bit, and the white person will say, ‘Why did you do that?’ They’ll respond, ‘You swung your big stick at us.’ But the white person had no idea they did, or that they even carry it, but they can’t put in down.”

When I accepted the role as racial justice intern a few weeks ago, I didn’t want to write a piece like this. I didn’t want to be a white person writing about how they had no idea there were all of these issues that people of color face. I wanted to write a well-researched, informative, eye-opening first piece. I wanted to do every race other than mine justice. But I can’t do that without doing this one very important thing first. I have to learn to recognize my own white privilege, and more importantly put it to good use.

I grew up in predominately white areas in northwest Washington and Alaska. Both of these areas have rich cultures of Native populations tucked away into corners—on reservations and in villages. In the farmlands north of Seattle, where my family goes back seven generations, migrant workers populate camps set up during the harvest season, or dilapidated apartment complexes and trailer parks. None of these places looked anything like the suburban neighborhoods I safely rode my bike around until dark. As a teenager, I went on mission trips to predominately black neighborhoods of Chicago, and orphanages in Mexico. I grew up thinking they preferred to live that way. I thought they’d rather live in cheaper housing in their own communities, with their family. I had no idea they didn’t have any other choice until I experienced the entrapment of poverty as a single mother.

People find themselves in poverty for many reasons. My circumstances stemmed from raising a baby on my own. When we moved to Skagit County, Washington, where the Census Bureau counts a quarter of the population being Hispanic, I often felt like I was the minority in government assistance offices. In parks and in WIC offices, people spoke Spanish. All around me were families from an area I once paid hundreds of dollars to go “help” as a teenager on a mission trip. But now, they were my child’s friends on the jungle gym. They were our neighbors. We laughed at our children’s antics, but I’d never crossed that cultural barrier before. I’d never noticed it was there, because I’d never noticed they were there, outside of my bubble of white suburbia.

Since I’ve been researching topics, I’ve gone from hardly noticing news stories with racial discrimination issues to seeing them everywhere. The topic of racial justice grew so broad, and so deep, the question was no longer what to write about, it was what not to write about. Plus, I began to feel my glaring whiteness, naivety, and blinded state. But when I speak up for the injustice, it’s that whiteness that will help other white people to listen, understand, and possibly empathize. Though I am not here to apologize, I am here to humble myself, and recognize that I do have an overwhelming privilege being white. I carry a huge stick that I can wave at any moment. I know I can’t put it down, but I’ll do my best to do this issue justice, and help dismantle the barriers that face communities of color.

Posted by Stephanie Land, Racial Justice Intern at YWCA Missoula