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16 June 2020

Confronting my White Privilege: Flashback in black and white

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

In July of 2016, we took a family holiday to New York City. Aidan was into photography in a big way, so the old Nikon was our constant companion, a beast that ate all the film we could feed it. On our last day, touring the World Trade Center memorial, we realized that we needed to pick up the photos that awaited us in Midtown. We hopped on the subway and raced to the closest stop, pressed together on the full train. Emerging from underground, Aidan took off for the film store, racing as fast as his 15-year-old legs would carry him, and I laughed to watch him run through the New York streets in pursuit of his old-fashioned hobby.

And then a chill wind went through me. Watching my golden-haired boy weave through mostly amused pedestrians on the street, it hit me with an almost physical force that if he were my Black boy racing through the streets, I would be afraid for him, that I would not let him run, that this afternoon would be shaped and colored by the everyday racism that infects our world like a cancer. I glimpsed from my safe vantage point of Whiteness one element of the terror of what it is to live in a racist society and to be afraid for your child. It’s not just (just?) fear that gets created. It’s also the way joy gets erased, the way the ease and lightness of this moment was fueled by my White privilege. This thing that I was taking for granted—the amusing delight of the simple, everyday event of a boy running to a shop before it closes—this was not a thing that Black people can take for granted. In addition to all of the other horrors, racism steals that simple maternal joy. And somehow I was a part of robbery from other mothers, my Whiteness complicit in the systemic racism that created these conditions. By the time I got to the camera shop, I was in tears.

I have tried to write about this story for years because it changed me. Nothing happened. There was no tragedy. No one even said anything to anyone. But I was different afterwards. I had studied Whiteness and White privilege as a graduate student; I had taught about it as a professor. But in that moment, I was transformed as a mother, by a deeper felt experience of my White privilege in a way I can hardly even name to myself.

I know this is not me understanding what it feels like to be Black. This is not me understanding what the everyday toll of a racist world is on any individual, on any group. There is no way I could ever understand that. But it’s me understanding that to feel such a thing would change every moment of my experience on this planet.

Today I don’t just want to write about that story. I want to write about my silence. I, who had touched into something powerful for one shocking moment, felt the impossibility of writing about it. I felt like a fraud. I still feel like a fraud. I am ashamed—how is it that I could have this experience and not devote my entire life to anti-racist work? How is it that I could feel my White privilege and still reap the benefits of it, still use it every day?

There are very few days that I don’t think about race, about privilege. There are few days that I don’t wonder what it would be like to be a person of color in the many mostly-White organisations I serve. There are few days when I don’t notice how White my organisation is, my field is. But then I feel ashamed again—how have I let this happen? And what about the days when I don’t think about race at all? More White privilege.

But there’s also my White shame, White fear, White fragility. My shame for not giving my life to injustice. My fear that I’ll open my mouth and cause more pain, that I’ll be clumsy and imperfect and make things worse. My fragility over the ways that my words might enrage others, my awareness that my struggle is so absurd in the face of mothers who fear for their children, in the face of the horrific toll of the pandemic on Black communities, in the face of families who can’t rent an apartment, in the face of professionals who can’t get a job.

I understand, in a different way, why people fall silent when they should speak to the pain of others. I got a lot of silence during my own experience with cancer. Many people would not bring it up, for fear of saying the wrong thing. They didn’t want to make it worse, didn’t want to cause me more pain at a painful time. I’m guessing their silence, unhelpful as it might have been, felt to them like a protection of me in a way. But it was also a protection of them. They didn’t want to feel the awkwardness in themselves, to touch into their own mortality, to feel the fear that they or someone they loved would grow sick and die. We all find ways to avoid those things that make us afraid.

This is obviously not the same as the silence around race because of the fundamental differences in the two issues. It’s one thing to have a cancer or to speak to someone about that. It’s another thing to make sense of yourself as a cancer. I notice that for me, as soon as I touch into the ways I am culpable in my Whiteness, I feel like the cancer itself, a multiplying cell in the system that makes us all sick. I, who have devoted my entire career to deep listening, to perspective taking, to trying to create more humane spaces for people to grow—I am a part of the fundamental sickness of this racist world.

White people like me, when we face into the world we live in, discover that we contribute in millions of different ways to the systemic racism that allowed those police officers to think it was okay to kill George Floyd. This means that I’m part of George Floyd’s murder. I’m part of Breonna Taylor’s murder. I’m part of the inequities that show in the COVID rates. I’m part of all of the pain and rage and misery that race inequity creates.

I don’t know what to do about this. At this moment, all I know about complexity and adult development doesn’t give me a path forward. But it gives me the courage to know that I need to be looking at it, talking about it, writing about it. I need to begin to take halting steps—safe-to-fail experiments—that seek to change small pieces of the system in order to see what else is possible. Here are a couple of experiments I’m trying:

  • I’m writing about this topic, even though there’s a part of me that tells me I don’t have the right to speak out and I’m afraid of doing it badly—this is experiment #1.
  • At Cultivating Leadership, we’re starting a collective conversation about race.
  • We’re offering a new workshop (taught by Vernice Jones and Akasha) to help people learn to have these conversations and Lead Inclusively (I’ve signed up for this one).
  • At Growth Edge Coaching, we’re offering a scholarship to people of colour to join our courses. We’re intentionally diversifying the way we offer mentorship so that people of colour can find safe spaces to talk about these ideas. We are working to diversify the faculty. (If you might be interested in one of these scholarships, please contact Diana and she’ll help you figure out which program might be right for you.)

This is a small beginning to a huge problem. It feels too small. And each of us have to begin somewhere.

I want to live to see a world where a Black mother watches her beautiful Black 15-year-old son race through the streets of New York and feels only maternal joy. I want to live to see a world where we collectively look at the racism in our public health and housing and schooling—and we take significant and lasting steps to make it better. I want to live to see a world where each and every White person is running experiments to use our unearned privilege and power to recreate a more just world. Complexity tells us small moves can make a huge difference, particularly at times when a system is ready to tip. That hundreds of thousands of humans of every color have marched over the last weeks shows us this system is ready for fundamental change toward more justice, equity, and fairness for all of us. To create that change requires each of us to experiment our way into new possibilities. I so clearly don’t have answers here, but I have you and the rest of our community to think together about a huge variety of possible small moves. None of us can be silent anymore. Let’s learn together how to cure this cancer. What are you trying?

7 thoughts on “Confronting my White Privilege: Flashback in black and white”

  1. jason rabinowitz says:

    As ever, beautifully put Jen. A sense of wanting, needing to do something, but not knowing if or what is helpful. But a desire to understand more – and also sit in non-understanding.

  2. Lindsay says:

    Hi Jennifer, thank you for your beautiful post.

    I am trying to brave up and become prepared for tough conversations in a course called Doing My Part to Dismantle Racism with Dr. David Campt.

    We hope to attend a Juneteenth event Friday with our kids to Defend Black Lives.

    These are my faltering adult experiments, but the true test is growing alongside the kids…they’re learning, we’re unlearning! Grateful for all the resources that can help us parent with open eyes and hearts.

  3. Victor Cary says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    It is always a courageous act to make oneself publicly vulnerable. I deeply appreciate your reflection. I have been a long-time follower of your work and writings. I always learn something new or am reminded of something I already know. The one area I was curious about was the kind of self-awareness you had about the phenomena of oppression and all the forms it take personal, institutional and structural. I share this because as an African American your book Simple Habits in Complex Times was incredible valuable to me and my organization, the National Equity Project. We have been working for sometime on a transdisciplinary approach to equity leadership development that includes the intersection of equity, complexity and design (liberatory). And, you are correct about there being few people in your field especially when applying complexity science to tackling equity which are always complex problems. So, I just wanted to appreciate you and your colleagues for leaning in this historic moment and committing to bring your talents to the struggle. They are sorely needed.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hello Victor,
      Thank you for your comment and for the vitally important work you are doing in the world. I think complexity ideas have much to offer in the space of equity. I would love to hear more about your work and the ways you are using complexity ideas. And to see if we can support you in any way. If you’re interested, email me at Jennifer@cultivatingleadership.com.

  4. The story in NYC is powerful. I have felt compelled to get quiet, go inside and only listen to black scholars having heartfelt conversations. I’ve felt a need for deep reflection but not sure if thats a blind-spot (avoidance of the very real pain) or productive action. THANK YOU.

  5. Annesa says:

    I appreciate your acknowledgement of the inequalities that are embedded within our society. I am elated that you are engaging in deep self reflection, for that is the beginning of change. There is no one ‘right’ way to solve this issue of racism, so I am grateful for the experiments you are trying.

  6. joanna barsh says:

    Thanks Jennifer. I can feel your outpouring of grief, your love for justice and empathy, and the blinding insight you had in my home town. As a fellow practitioner, I think you may be too cautious here. We can never fully step into the shoes of another. I don’t even like that analogy. We can, as you do, open our minds/hearts/souls to feel the pain and suffering of another — and learn from them. You are doing just that. Thanks for all your help and for speaking up.

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