Unlearning Long Divisions: Other People’s Eyes

Recently, I talked to two groups in St. Louis, Missouri about my prison students. At one of them, I was honored to follow and be connected in an introduction to Valerie Elverton-Dixon, who had talked to this same church shortly before. Her website Just Peace Theory says that she studies, and her website and Facebook pages are filled with her long and deep thoughts about war, peace, solving conflict, forgiveness, women’s issues, LGBT issues and reflections on parts of our history like the Civil Rights Movement. Not all of us have the time, the inclination, or the passion for the kind of study she does, and we badly need people who study, who think deeply and clearly about the world we live in.

Dr. Dixon is an African-American woman, and her perception of the world is different than mine, because her experiences as a black woman are so radically different. For instance, in her piece in her blog in Tikkun Daily about the movie “Selma,” she writes about the humiliation African-Americans had to endure as they were asked to recite the preamble to the Constitution or needing to know how many state judges there were and who they were, the poll taxes they needed to pay and needing a character reference from a registered voter in order to vote. If a landlord or employer objected to someone’s attempt to vote, a person could lose their job, their house or both. She reminds us of the erosion of voting rights today, about how much has changed and how much stays the same. She goes on to say,

“White voters did not have to face such impediments because of a grandfather clause in the law that exempted anyone who was a descendant of a person who had the right to vote before 1866 from poll tax and property requirements.”

I have always tried to vote in every election, but I sometimes take it for granted, forgetting just how difficult it still is for so many people. Our perceptions of the world are shaped by our own unique experiences. As a white person with a lifetime of privilege, I need to see and understand the life truths that black people know from their lives. There is much I do not understand. I picked up a double-sided sheet called: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack at the wonderful church where I spoke. I’ve seen this list before but need to be reminded of situations I take for granted every day. Peggy McIntosh compiled it in 1988. A few of the effects of white privilege she cites that hit home for me are:

  • If I want to move, I can be sure of renting or buying a home in an area I can afford and in an area I want to live.
  • I can go shopping alone without fearing I will be followed or harassed.
  • If I’m pulled over by the police or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being labeled “a credit to my race.”
  • I can be be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I can travel alone almost anywhere without expecting embarrassment or hostility in the people I have to deal with.
  • I can choose any public accommodation anywhere without the fear of being excluded or mistreated by the people who are serving those places.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without feeling like a cultural outsider.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue around, or if I say that race is not involved, I can be reasonably sure my race will lend more credibility than a person of color will have.
  • I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social. [1].

Though I live in a university town with lots of ethnic diversity, I still have to make an effort to understand a black person’s experience and often very different viewpoints. Reading people like Valerie Dixon helps enlarge my perspectives and understandings.

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