This is the blog post that I’ve been avoiding. It’s a topic that’s been hard for me to figure out how to handle because I’m always afraid that people close to me are going to have a hard time hearing me, and that breaks my heart. Race conversations are essential in our current world, but that doesn’t make them easy. There are a lot of topics that I’d love to tackle, but I’m not ready yet. Luckily, our brothers and sisters at Chicago Theological Seminary have made starting this conversation a little bit easier. They recently posted a video called “White Privilege Glasses” that I would like you to take a look at before you continue reading this.
How are you feeling? Happy? Sad? Angry? Relieved? Riled up? Me too. You may be wondering why on earth I would ever post such a thing, you may be glad that I did, but either way it’s a start.
If you’ve never seen photos of me, I often have very colorful hair. I like to change the color by wrapping yarn around my locked hair. (I personally don’t like to use the term dreadlock, but that’s another discussion altogether.) It’s a fun way to change my hairstyle without having to constantly dye it. Many people find my hair interesting and different. I like that, it often becomes a fun point of conversation when meeting new people. What I don’t like, is the fact that strangers often touch my hair without asking. This has happened to me several times a week since coming to Steamboat. It happens everywhere, at church, at work, on the bus, at the grocery store… People that I don’t know walk up to me, and pet my head like I’m a puppy. They run their fingers through it like I’m a living barbie doll, or an alien visiting from another planet. It doesn’t matter whether the yarn that I wear is neutral or neon, people touch it and then ask awkward follow up questions like, “Do you wash that?”
Why is it that strangers, 99.9% of whom are white, and most of whom are also women, feel that it’s appropriate to touch me without my permission? Why do they feel that they’re entitled to touch me? Neither of my roommates are ever touched in this way. Is it because their hair is more, “normal?” Did you know that into the 20th century, non-white people were exhibited in zoos alongside apes and other animals? (This was a common occurrence in Europe, but also in major US cities like New York and Cincinnati.) Do we carry over this “freak show” mentality? Why do people insist on referring to me as “exotic?” My entire traceable lineage is American. My great-great grandmother was Cherokee, and my great-great grandfather was born a slave. So what makes me “less” American than anyone else living here?
My hairstyle isn’t exactly unique, either. A quick google search of the phrase “yarn braids” yields hundreds of results of women of color with beautiful hair in every shade. So why am I such a strange entity? Most people are pleasant enough, but I don’t like having smiling strangers touch my hair any more than I would like to have them touch my butt. People seem to honestly believe that their curiosity makes it okay to invade my personal space. I am fairly certain that if I started walking around running my hands through people’s straight hair, I would get arrested.
Please don’t misinterpret this, I welcome curiosity, but not when it comes with entitlement. I see white privilege manifested in the fact that most of the white people I speak to about this have never had such an experience. They can’t relate to being touched by strangers in an unwanted way on a regular basis. They don’t worry about whether rejecting these unwanted advances will have a negative impact on their careers and social lives, and they’ve never googled, “How do I keep strangers from touching me?”
I would describe Steamboat as a “classically American” town. I love this place, I love the mountains, I love the people and I am really happy with my choice to live here. The fact that it is so American means that it has a lot of the social and political issues that most of America shares. This is what being a minority in America looks like. It means that in your home country, you are still “exotic” and “different.” Though those words are still often awkward and uncomfortable for me, I prefer them to some of the things that I’ve been called in the past…
If you’re still not really buying this whole “white privilege” thing, please allow me to share with you something that I wrote a few weeks ago about a bus ride on the way to work:
“Snowy mornings like this one can be a bit hectic here in Steamboat Springs. Weekend tourists and powder days mean that the first leg of my bus ride is packed with giddy people ready to make the most of their vacations. This was one such morning, but I managed to find myself a seat at the back of the bus near three older white people. I sat down and smiled. They grimaced. As I adjusted my bags, the man wrapped his arm around his wife, pulling her closer to him and further from me. They sat uncomfortably and discussed in southern drawls how the U Miami football team was full of “hoods” and “bad boys.” I tried to read my book, but couldn’t help but notice the sideways glances the man in the middle kept giving me. As soon as a seat opened up, the woman, seated closest to me, got up and moved away. The man turned so that his back was completely turned towards me. When they got off a few stops later, I saw him comforting her, as if she’d just endured something terrible. I didn’t even cry this time.”
(If you’d like to further engage race issues in recent American history, I invite you to watch the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which is available to stream for free here: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/videos/the-black-panthers-vanguard-of-the-revolution/ Regardless of your opinion of the subject, it’s an interesting and informative way to engage a difficult topic of our complicated shared history.)