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Born into White Privilege


I was conditioned to be a racist, I grew up in a completely white upper class society, privileged in Bedford NY. My family - there were five of us children - lived in the cottage on my paternal Grandmother’s estate. My parents had many prejudices. Black was one of them.

The only contact I had with the black community then was with the household help. I remember Jesse, a large, forgiving cook who accepted us all with great forbearance. And Estelle, a housemaid, who waited on table and cleaned the house.

At the age of 13 I went to boarding school in southern Virginia. All the help at the school were black. They were lovely as I recall and, again, I thought not much about it. I did notice but it just continued the constant in my life, colored people were there to serve.

As the light dwindled one early evening of my Sophomore year, we saw a car filled with white clothed men drive around the circle in front of the main dormitory building.They were wearing hoods and planted a burning cross in front of the building. I remember no sound but my roommate and I knew something unusual had happened.

At breakfast the following morning the staff was hushed and frightened. The fear was palpable. Later the rector read us a message that had been pinned to his front door the previous night. The message: we, the students, were getting too familiar with the black help and it was to stop. Courtesy of the Klu Klux Klan.

Details are forgotten but not the communal sense of fear we felt. Unidentified for me but very real for the staff members.

At that point I became aware. This did not feel right or just. Nor did the segregated restrooms in public places or other such symbols of division. But, I told my young self, I was in the south. That was not the case in the north.

How textured and insidious racism is! How many layers, how many excuses, who and where to place the blame.

Take the incident of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park. There was no murder, no arrests but it represents the system in microcosm. Amy had it figured out; how to use whiteness against blackness. No matter his position, the police would assume he was dangerous and guilty. Her false accusation would land on sympathetic ears. She was the victim, he the victimizer. Her assumptions were not unrealistic.

In this instance however her calculations proved wrong for Christian Cooper had the good sense to videotape the incident. Amy is now the one vilified as the embodiment of racism and white privilege. She lost both her dog and her high-level finance job.

Where do we go from here? The police murders of black men have brought people into the streets. Some governments are listening and changing protocol with their police departments. The Congress is considering federal legislation.

This is a far greater problem than just the police. COVID-19 has hit the black community with a vengeance. It has laid bare the inequities and injustice of our racial issues. The problem lies throughout society. Access to health care, access to education, access to broadband, access to wealth, access to equality within the justice system. Equality in all aspects of American life.

It has been a long trip from the little girl who absorbed all those racist notions and the woman I am today. My reality then was that black people were just there to serve us. There were no seperate toilets, no overt signs of discrimination where I lived. Unconscious, unspoken, unacknowledged, it was just the way it was. There was no change needed and, seemingly, no problem.

I have come of age and would like to think I am anti-racist. My mind and heart are open, to learn, to explore, to listen, to become consciously aware. Going forward I must figure out where best to serve, how best to take action.