My name is Catalina and I am a product of white privilege. It would be very easy to say that I had no idea I was except that it makes no difference – guilty as charged. Given my background and the fact that I left the country for the very first time when I was 15 (only two years after communism fell in Romania – a BIG deal), one would have expected a more open outlook on life. I look back, I listen to justifications of why black lives matter within the all lives matter truth and it is daily an eye opener for me. I am not sure, in the grand scheme of things, how much people marching in the streets are accomplishing. Unfortunately we are all in the middle of a worldwide leadership crisis like never before – a pandemic, within a pandemic, within a pandemic. It’s like the universe, the fairies, the source, however we may call the powers that be decided to throw this virus party while the world was already quite ill with a different kind of flu – change or die, we can’t put up with the same kind of human beings, they seem to say.
Over the past weeks I have been scared to turn on the news but I have watched the people I admire, love and read on report from amidst protests, from cities of struggle and downright war, allowing their voices to be silenced in order for black lives to sound louder. And of course, I was touched, people are people are people but I couldn’t get it – why do only black lives have to matter? Don’t all lives matter? And last night I read this. I have known the beautiful family who created and raised the inside out beautiful author of this article for a few years and admired them for their joy and smarts. To hear her explanations based on personal examples about why it is black lives that must matter now more than ever and how that gets so lost among all lives matter, sent shivers down my spine and opened my eyes to the privilege that I had no idea I was a product of. Ok, maybe I knew a little but come on … it wasn’t like I was mean or anything … to black people, you understand. And it got me thinking about whether anyone realises just how embedded this is in us, the white privilege folk, just how entrenched in our genes and retinas and touch rejection of difference is and how we seize to even realise when we manifest it.
I must have been about 11 or 12 when I saw a black person, “in real life”, for the very first time. One of my neighbours, in the block of flats I lived in with my parents and brothers, had three daughters and one son. All blue eyed, blonde and fair, beautiful and smart and “good girls”. (not the boy, I am pretty sure he grew up to be however he wanted to be – but that is a story for another pandemic). And one day, their oldest, Dana, came home with her boyfriend who was … black. It was like the heart of my neighbourhood skipped a beat, like all of sudden, the problems of the world, of our country and most of all of our neighbourhood had been cancelled, outdone. People stopped talking when Dana and her boyfriend passed by, we, the kids playing in the street, didn’t even hide our stares. And the only conclusion people around me were able to draw was that it must be for sure that he “messed with her mind” because why else would this beautiful girl want to be with him (I will spare you the exact adjectives … ). Her father pretty much stopped showing his face around and her mom became quieter and quieter … I am pretty sure they figured they would have been better of driving to a jail to see her once a month than this – something someone told me about opinion related to gays (you guessed it, another subject, for another pandemic … ).
When I was 17 I left Romania for the US to attend grade 12 in Seattle. I carried everything I owned with me (it fit on one suitcase), including my white privilege. Years down the line, I remember almost all my friends as that period of my life impacted me greatly. I had no black friends and I doubt I spoke to any black students. Stay away from what is different, what is different is dangerous – this was the message I received at home. And not just from parents, who were merely repeating what their parents had told them and so on, from everyone. After all, I knew no other black person except for that one poor fellow who shook my neighbourhood to the core.
In my first months in the US I met Lisa. My sponsor (I was an exchange student with nobody wanting to be the exchange student back to Romania so I needed a sponsor) had a son (white) and he was married to Lisa. She was nice to me and took me places, I was a teenager from a third world country and she felt generous – and she was. My host family, white, Christian, elderly couple, were so surprised at Lisa coming to pick me up one day – “she sounded white on the phone”, they said, and I could feel their worry at my leaving to have a meal with Lisa that evening. Again, I did not bat an eye, “they must know what they are talking about”, after all, this matched the messages I received at home … .
The Prince of Bel Air was one of my favourite sitcoms during my year in the States and the first time I started to hear jokes and hints about prejudice and the fact that the colour of your skin did decide, in many incidences, the way people interact with you or their reaction upon meeting you. But the way it was portrayed, full of puns and in a rich family that had a black butler … muddled things for me more than got me thinking about anything else other than Will Smith is funny, too bad he is black. I mean … he’s different .. .
When all you have ever heard are messages of different is dangerous, these black people are exaggerating, it is now about black privilege, when you learn absolutely nothing in school about racism (Gone with the Wind doesn’t count – I guess more so today), when the narrative is already scripted on your brain, it is very easy to ignore blunt signs that reality may actually be different.
This is not an excuse, this is just saying that we, white privilege folk need to be educated in the same way that children in preschool start exploring the alphabet. Sure, I read books, of course The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, The Secret Life of Bees, Americanah and in general everything Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie writes are a start, they are one, small stepping stone. When I read this article yesterday I realized that the start of undoing white privilege and making black lives truly matter is looking at our black fellow humans with eyes of curiosity, is posing hard questions with a mind geared towards understanding, open-hearted and ready that some things may sting. Because this may all feel new to us and we may feel like such better people for it when taking one small step. But what we are uncovering in the black human in front of us, showing us what racism feels like for her, is one layer, upon another layer and another layer of years of oppression and subjugation, and subhuman treatment, for the same reason I learned so well when I was very young: different is dangerous.
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash