(A White Mother of Black Children Reflects on Privilege)
But for many, I suspect, the question has remained distant, intellectual, or abstract. In my case, it has been intensely personal. I have discovered myself to be completely and utterly ambivalent about it.
Two realizations keep recycling through my brain and confusing me. The first came after watching a few seconds of the video of the murder of George Floyd (which was all I could take) and then thinking, with utter abhorrence, “In this scenario, I am not the neck. I am the knee.”
The second realization was that I have spent the last 20 years ferociously wielding my white privilege like a shield for the sole purpose of protecting my black daughters. But my ability to do that is now coming to an end. The older one has begun her new life in an apartment in Graz and the younger will be moving out and joining her in about six weeks. They will have to go on living without my shield.
I won’t be there to silence passers-by.
I won`t be there to make the train conductor think twice about asking for their tickets in a suddenly different tone.
I won’t be there to stop strangers from touching their hair.
I won’t be there when the neighbor downstairs tells them that they walk too loudly.
I won’t be there when the policeman asks them for their identification.
No, they are going to have to go through this world mostly on their own now. And what a world it is.
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My learning curve about racism here and in the United States has been a long one. I look back at some of the statements I made in lecture halls and can only shake my head. I remember discussing a “groundbreaking” article about how economic success in life has as much to do with luck as with talent or drive. I felt at the time that it was important to challenge the prevailing myths about self-reliance and “picking yourself up by the bootstraps” and dishwasher-to-millionaire American success stories. It didn`t occur to me at the time that access to “luck” had racial preconditions. That was about the time when we were planning to start a family.
Years later, when the anti-foreigner movement was underway here in Austria, I argued that “foreigner” was just code for non-white races. I said that, in contrast to Austrians, Americans had dealt directly with the topic of racism and were starting to come out of the other end of the tunnel. I thought. That was about the time when we were considering international/interracial adoption and wondering if it would be fair to the child.
From there, I had the revelation that the concept of “race” was merely a social construct and not a real thing. After all, if you go back far enough, we are all Africans. While raising my children, however, I discovered that race was only a construct for white people. For others experiencing the consequences of race-related belief systems, it is a real thing. And a danger.
And now, after George Floyd, I have finally realized that true equality means this: As long as the construct of race remains real for some of the people, it remains real for all of them.
I am the knee. I am the white woman calling the cops on a Central Park birdwatcher. I am the person who saw a suspect in twelve-year-old Tamir at the playground. I am a Karen.
This very morning, I discovered that new slang term (“the Karens”) in a New Yorker article. I told my husband about it and he found it a bit too amusing. He immediately googled for more information. Later, during breakfast, I asked my daughters if they had ever heard of the term. There was an uncomfortable silence and a meaningful look passed between them. Then the elder daughter answered.
“Yeah . . . we didn’t want to tell you about it. We were afraid it would upset you.”