This week I am presenting my racial autobiography to some colleagues at school who I have worked with on equity issues for the last seven years or so. I have presented it a few times, never to this group for some reason. In light of the happenings this weekend in Nepal, I have decided to change my focus from my racial identity to points of privilege, those times in my life when I have been most mindful of the privilege I have by virtue of my race.
The first time I remember awareness of my race is when I was in second grade. I was best buddies with a kid in my neighborhood, Nathan Lowe, who was mixed race. His mother was black and his father was white. He and I would play squirrels in the huge trees in our neighborhood in Missouri. We would spend the night at one another’s houses. We played violin together. We rode bikes around the neighborhood and even started a paper route together.
Then one day he asked me if his skin color bothered me. I had never thought about it before. I really didn’t comprehend what he meant at first, and he had to explain it. All of a sudden I began think about people in terms of color for the first time in my life. I noticed all of a sudden that my friend Ustin was much darker than Nathan, and Eddie was somewhere in between. Nathan had large curls in his hair, while Eddie had tight curls close to his head. Ustin wore her hair longer and always had the coolest colorful barrettes in her hair with those hair ties with the big balls that looked like marbles at the end. My friend Ally had blonde hair and she sunburned really easily at the lake in the summer. I never burned. My sister always burned and freckled like crazy. My brother never really burned either. Race was about skin tone for me at this point in my life.
It was my own privilege as a white girl that I never had to think about my skin color until this point.
Then in middle school, I noticed that at my inner city school most of the black and latino kids were in different classes than me. Middle school is when I first noticed the discrepancy of standards for my white friends and my friends of color. Diversity, in middle school, was equated to kids who struggle (kids of color) and kids who didn’t (white kids). I remember talking to my father about this because I didn’t feel it was right. “Why do they take lower classes? Why don’t they take foreign language?” It think I knew at some level that there was a grave injustice happening all around me, but I didn’t have the words or the racial understanding to put it into words.
Then I moved into the dark days of my own life, the time where I really couldn’t notice anything outside of myself because I was too focused on my own survival. I started to become aware again in college, but because of the death of three of my friends my freshman year, most of my realizations were more existential in nature.
Then…then I moved to Nepal. I lived in a tiny village in the Rukum district in the western part of the country. Never had I been so alone. Never had I been so cut off from anyone who was like me. Never had I thought about my birthright and what it meant to be a daughter of the world (a term my grandfather used), my responsibility to those who do not have the luck of my birthright.
To make a long story short, I felt anger over the fact that by the stroke of luck of being born in the United States, being born white, and being born a woman. I had the privilege of living in one of the most developed countries in the world. I did not have to worry about typhoid. I did not have to worry about clean drinking water. I did not have to worry about droughts knocking out my food supply for the next year. I could move around not only Nepal, but the world as I pleased. When a cholera epidemic hit my village one summer, I was able to leave to Kathmandu until things were stabilized. I was angry that the villagers encouraged me to leave when their own family members were falling ill.
It just wasn’t fair that I had certain privileges because of my birthright.
Assimilating back to the US was really difficult for me. I felt guilty for many of the luxuries we take for granted. And now, twenty years later, I still feel a certain amount of guilt. Some might call it white guilt…I’m not sure what I would call it. But what I will say is this, I know that for those of us who have been given much, much is expected. We must work and strive to make the world a better place.
The earthquakes this weekend have once again made me keenly aware of my privilege. The devastation is mind boggling. Everyone I know is safe, but those same feelings of privilege, of birthright, have flooded back to me. It is the question of my life: Why am I so lucky to live in a place with such privilege? Why am I so lucky to be a race that is afforded so much privilege?
And I don’t ask these questions to be arrogant. I ask because none of it really makes sense from a metaphysical perspective. Because of my privilege, I feel I owe so much: to the world, to my students, to my colleagues, and to my family.