Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., invited Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Ph.D., to come and speak. Jeffries, associate professor of history at the Ohio State University, titled his address “1619: An American Journey. 400 Years of Triumph and Tragedy.“ As a person of color, Jeffries had earned the right to speak of the myriad challenges and injustices endured by the descendants of enslaved people in our country. I heard him speak on Dec. 5. He spoke in a warm, authentic, knowledgeable manner, worthy of courageous predecessors who dared to speak truth to those unwilling or unable to hear how the African American experience in the United States differs from the majority white population’s experience.
He related as only a historian can, referencing the Middle Passage, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate and how it was built by the labor of those enslaved -- adults and children alike -- and addressing current events and the discrepancies of judgments in our legal system. He related as a professor whose very profession necessitates continual learning and the ability to positively encounter and influence others whose understandings of history are rather shallow by comparison.
Upon returning home to Dayton on the seventh, I read the Viewpoint “The Myth Of White Privilege” on the editorial page. I was particularly struck by the author’s statement, “I am white, and I confess that I have enjoyed many privileges. But none of them had anything to do with my race.” It occurred to me that so often in life “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Until and unless we, as Anglo-Americans, allow ourselves to be open to exploring the life experiences of our African American countrymen and women, we truly don’t know what we don’t know.
Race is an uncomfortable issue to explore. It’s difficult to find places of safety where we can speak openly and honestly about our experiences and the views we hold as a result of them. Many say, “I’m not a racist,” yet are unaware of the many systemic racial injustices inflicted on people of color. Starting with the writing of our Constitution when those of African descent were judged to be just three-fifths of a person, to the struggle for civil rights and voting rights, to redlining, to today’s discriminatory massive incarceration of African Americans, our country was conceived and continues to be one of “white privilege.”
As a white woman, I travel with little concern for my safety. I expect to be treated in a respectful manner. I endure no slurs or name-calling. I am viewed without suspicion and perceived to be safe. Suffragettes a century ago fought for my right to vote, a right African Americans waited many more decades to see and often now find their rights suppressed. I used to take all of these situations for granted before understanding that, to large measure, all of these benefits are the result of the color of my skin.
There certainly is a myth out there, and it is that “white privilege” does not exist.
The Rev. Denita Connor lives in Dayton.