© Allysson McDonald and Paul K. Davis 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 18, 2009

The N Word in Fremont: A Cautionary Tale

Paul: Last Tuesday (January 13) I was walking along the right-hand side of Fremont Blvd, from the Hub toward the train station, at something like 7 PM. In the neighborhood of Holy Spirit Church, in the Centerville district, a car passed me from behind, fairly fast, and I hear four words shouted. I don't know what the first three words were, since my attention was only grabbed by the fourth word, but that word was "niggah", shouted fairly loudly and harshly. I looked around, and I appeared to be the only target of the shouting. I realized I was wearing a hooded jacket with the hood pulled up to keep the back of my neck warm, which fits one of the stereotypes for young Black men.

I have just finished a year-long series of classes at my church in which we learned about many subtle forms of racism. The news is that blatant racism is also alive and well, and that if a White man wishes to find out what others are subjected to in our culture, he doesn't have far to go and doesn't need much of a disguise.


Allysson: Paul and I are both "graduates" of the year-long Building the World We Dream Of class. One thing I learned in the class is - I'm white! You probably already noticed! I used to think that being white didn't matter very much to me. I am Canadian. I am an immigrant. Those are my realities too. But I've realized that, more than all of that, I am white. I've always joked about being an undercover immigrant, but I came to an epiphany about it in the class.

I've known that being white made a difference for a long time. Twenty years ago this month, right after I immigrated to the US, I registered for some classes at Irvine Valley College. As an immigrant I had to show that I was legally in the country. Later, as the cashier went through my paper work, she exclaimed that I should have lied about my status so that I wouldn't have to pay foreign student fees. It occurred to me that she probably wouldn't be saying that to someone standing in front of her who was brown.

That's white privilege.

Paul has a different kind of story to tell.

Paul: A friend of mine, who is darker skinned and has other features showing her derivation from India, is a librarian. When she applied, in America, to a graduate program in library science she was asked to take a test of her proficiency in English. She asked why, since she had spoken English all her life, and had been in America for some years speaking English. The person across the counter said that the school required the test of all applicants not born in an English speaking country. My friend then asked whether the school official had read her application. "What do you mean?" was the response. "Check where I was born," my friend said - "Cheshire is in England, which is an English speaking country." "Oh!" was the response.

Allysson: Occasionally I've heard people say negative things about immigration, not knowing I was Canadian. When I chimed in that they were talking about me, they made the disclaimer that these things didn't apply to "people like me".

That's white privilege.

I had Canadian friends working illegally in the US some years ago. No one wanted to deport them.

That's white privilege.

Twenty years after moving here I finally really "get" that because of these attitudes, from the perspective of other immigrants who are people of color, my immigration status isn't very relevant. While I always thought I shared common ground with other immigrants, I finally realize that a person of color might not see it that way. Walking down the street, applying for a job, speaking up at a school or civic meeting, being selected president of an organization: what they see is a white woman, a privileged woman, not an immigrant. They know that their experience is different. I understand that now, too.

Last spring my son Greg entered a Lions Club essay contest, the topic for which was "the immigration problem". Greg, the undercover child of immigrants, stated something like "there is no immigration problem in America, instead there is a race problem - we seek to bar those who do not share our skin color from sharing in the wealth of America." I was very proud of him. But when I mentioned this to a Pakistani-American friend, and she confirmed that her daughters, who recently graduated from the same high school in Milpitas, would not have dared to say anything like that.

It's hard to remember sometimes when I speak to others who don't look like me that they do not experience this country the way I do. I used to try to be "color-blind". But people of color don't have the privilege of being "color-blind". They deal with other people's prejudices all the time. It's always an open question - will I be treated differently because of the way I look?

Whites have the privilege of choosing whether or not to be "color conscious" - we can choose to be aware of our privileges and our prejudices and deal with them. People of color don't have that choice, being conscious of color is an every day reality. When whites tell them they are too sensitive, or that they may have misunderstood some comment, or that they are accusing others unfairly, we deny their experience of the world. We let them know that only that part of them that is willing to deny white privilege is welcome. We are unwelcoming. We cause pain. We hurt friends.

What is the doctrine of this church? Love. What is its first principle? To affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Anti-racism work is important for all of us. This work is the work of the church. It is spiritual, and it is critical if we are who we say we are. I am hopeful that we can embody our principles. I have hope that we can become more aware of how race affects all of us. I am hopeful that those of us who experience privilege can stop being color blind and stop hurting our friends and neighbors. And I am hopeful that we can support those who wonder if they will be accepted and understood. I am hopeful that we will choose awareness and compassion over privilege. I am hoping those of us who experience privilege can be more color conscious.

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