If you had asked high school me to discuss racial privilege, I would’ve offered nothing more than a blank stare and a wild guess.
Please don’t misunderstand me: It’s not that I didn’t care about the Civil Rights movement or the plight of black Americans. I just knew nothing about these topics. My exposure to this vital piece of the American experience was nil, nada, nonexistent.
I grew up in Iowa, which, for those unfamiliar with the great Midwestern boxy state, is known for about a bazillion things other than its diversity.
I knew exactly one person of color, a vibrant chatterbox I consider my friend still. However, her experiences as a black child in America were nontraditional as well. She was born to a white mother and was raised by her two white adoptive parents.
Not once in my public education was I told that black citizens weren’t truly able to vote until the last half of the 20th century. Not once was I told that black professionals might not get a job because of their choice of hair style. Not once was I told that black individuals were disproportionally stopped for traffic violations or jailed at higher rates.
If you had asked 18-year-old me what constituted America’s black history, I would’ve said African-Americans had been slaves but that Lincoln and the brave boys in blue freed them. I would’ve said Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. I would’ve most certainly said George Washington Carver could work miracles with a peanut. And I would’ve said I was absolutely not even the teensiest bit racist.
Then I moved to Atlanta. Well, OK, several years passed and then I moved to Atlanta.
In my late 20s, as a new resident of the peach state, I toured several historical places. When I toured the capitol building, I recoiled when the guide pointed to a wall-sized picture of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, and told the multi-racial school class also on the tour that he was a brave man who fought for the freedom of Georgians just like them. Um. OK. When I toured a plantation, I cringed when the guide referred to the slaves not by that term but as “property.” Um. OK. When I visited a historic home, I had to pick up my jaw when the ticket stand cashier referred to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” Um. OK.
Superiority surged through me. In each of these situations, I knew I would never be so crass as to commit one of these racist sins.
But then, I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, and something fundamentally shifted inside of me. I realized — as I stood in the place where this great man was born, preached and was buried — that my knowledge was limited. Call it a lack of exposure, if you want to be so generous. But really, it was an abundance of privilege. As a white middle-class Midwesterner, I never once had to worry about race. So, as I stood in this museum, looking at the exhibits about how women just like me — with the exception of the color of their skin — suffered, I was amazed.
This was the start of my true education. That was five years ago.
Since then, my friend group has expanded, a natural result of moving to a new area and meeting new people. Many are people of color.
In my interactions with them, I’ve learned how they see the world. My friends have complained about how prospective employees have commented on their hair. My friends have told me about being on dates with a white person and having strangers approach them with commentary on their inter-racial relationships. My friends have shared how they felt when they were pulled over for broken tail lights. They’ve expressed sorrow at the shootings of unarmed black men. They’ve given me a glimpse into their world.
And I’m better for it.
Obviously, exposure to this community and one African-American Studies college course hardly makes me an expert. Neither does it allow me to speak on the subject with the authority that comes from living that life.
But it gave me a reason to return to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site this past Monday, on the great man’s birthday, and view the exhibits through a different lens.
When I toured his birth home, I still marveled at how the community has changed from the segregated world of the 1950s. However, I also noticed how it hasn’t changed. Many properties in the largely black neighborhood still face systematic poverty or gentrification.
When I stepped into Ebenezer Baptist Church and heard the recordings of King’s sermons, I still stood in awe of his phenomenal speaking abilities. However, this time I noticed how his message of inequality still remains true today.
When I walked into the museum and watched the introductory video that gave context to King’s life, I still remained impressed by his signature nonviolent approach. But this time, I considered that approach and contemplated its proper role in the protests taking place today.
When I stood by his grave and thought about his assassination, I still mourned the loss of a great man taken too soon. When I looked at the exhibits chronicling his education, writings and family life, I still felt a sense of inadequacy when comparing my insanely meager contributions to the human plight to his massive effect on change.
But this time I didn’t blithely think he had reached his famed promised land. I didn’t think his work was done. And I left wondering what role I can have in being an ally.
Bekah Sandy is a freelance travel writer for The Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.