Race: a work-in-progress
Race, as a concept, is hardly a work-in-progress in the construction sense of the phrase. On the contrary: the concept of race is in what you might call a state of rapid DE-construction. Debunking, Demythification, De-pseudo-science-ification. What I’m working on is copping to how little I understand, how little I have ever understood, about white privilege and the way it has shaped my life.
If you missed the Pacific Science Center’s recent exhibition called RACE: Are We So Different?, make sure to visit the exhibition’s provocative website. A project of the American Anthropological Association, RACE: Are We So Different? has traveled, or will travel, to more than 30 venues in the United States. That adds up to a lot of conversations about a subject none of us are very good at talking about.
If, like me, you’re white and over 50, or even 40, you probably didn’t grow up talking about white privilege. It was just there, so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives as to be invisible. To us.
If you are not white, you might have had “aha!” moments of a very different kind as you walked through the show. Maybe you nodded your head in recognition, anger, sadness. Maybe you looked around at all the white visitors and thought: at least they’re learning a little about my reality.
Here’s my easy example of how white privilege works: so easy it embarrasses me. When I travel, I’m always on a budget, but I have perfected the art of strolling into a five-star hotel anywhere in the world and finding and using the bathroom. I have actually taught this travel “trick” to my children. You just walk in, look confident and keep going until you see the discreetly placed sign. Would this work if I was not white? Not everywhere, it wouldn’t. And at some level I’ve always known this. But I still do it.
I thought of the 5-star bathroom stunt when I read an anecdote at the RACE exhibition. It was written by a non-white woman married to a white man, who learned one day that the corner store in their neighborhood always took his checks, even though it wouldn’t take hers.
I thought of it as I read about the history of racism, the shameful, long-discredited yet persistently believed “science” of racial categorization, the naked fear behind all of it; the policies this “science” supported, from apartheid in South Africa to real estate red-lining in our own city. On the “here in Seattle” wall was a quote from the original Broadmoor neighborhood covenant, explicity forbidding African American, Asian, Jewish and Southern European residents, unless they were employees, from living in this gated community that borders the Washington Park Arboretum. But it wasn’t just enclaves like Broadmoor (where my grandparents lived for more than 30 years and my father and stepmother for ten) that had these kinds of rules. Queen Anne, Greenwood, Capitol Hill and many other Seattle neighborhoods used racially restrictive covenants to keep out non-white residents.
The neighborhood I now live in is about as different from Broadmoor as it can be. Many of my neighbors come from east Africa. And yet the divide persists. Most white families in our neighborhood own their homes. Most non-white families do not.
The list of benefits of being white in America is long. So many are so ingrained, so obvious, we can’t even see them. What the RACE exhibit asks us to do—some of us for the first time in our lives—is to question, rather than accept, what is obvious about race in America.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.