Amidst the chaos of quarantine and demands of homeschooling, I am slowly moving forward with a new short film project about white culture. The film will be a personal story, but the project is intended for white people to talk about what it is that makes us white. I believe this is a first step to dismantling the white supremacy ingrained in our culture. We can certainly be proud of who we are, and value our families, without unintentionally carrying forward a belief system that privileges some humans over others.
As part of that work, I've been doing some of my own reflecting on the stories that we, as white people, tell ourselves. I am going to tell you a true story about myself. It is not something I am proud of. I believe understanding the stories we tell ourselves can help us figure out how we see ourselves, as well as who we want to be. This story serves that purpose.
In early February my mother-in-law told me about a video her friend sent her from Italy, about a horrible virus. She is Dominican born, and now lives in the U.S. She did not finish elementary school. Her primary sources of news is what people send her in WhatsApp messages. I am a white U.S. citizen and I have two post-graduate degrees. I read mainstream news sources on a daily basis. So there is already an unspoken assumption that I might have more information to share with her about this new virus.
Back to my story. She has just told me there is a disease called the coronavirus with obvious concern. I respond quickly disregarding the what she had heard. (It is embarrassing, but I really did this!) "Don't worry about that. It's not that different from the flu," I tell her. "Areas with fewer resources will be hit hard, and that will be devastating. But we have good healthcare and we will be fine." To really make my point, I ended our conversation with this advice. "In any case, I heard on the news they are already developing a vaccine. We will be able to get it easily at the doctor's office or the pharmacy. I feel bad for people who won't have access to the vaccine." (This is true. I had heard about a vaccine on NPR that morning. Clearly I didn't pay attention to the timeline!)
If I were telling this story in a live format, I would take a deep breath. Perhaps I would let you all take a moment to allow it to sink in.
As you may have already surmised, I am a white economically privileged straight person and I have always had the system on my side. So I assumed my family and I would be fine, while tragedy would unfold elsewhere. I assumed I was untouchable. I assumed our government would protect us, which comes from having always had a government that was on my side. I assumed the healthcare system would support us, because we have good insurance and always have. And I assumed tragic stories of loss and hardship would unfold around me, but I would not be part of them.
Let that sink in. I completely believed others would suffer, and we would be untouched.
I am certainly not alone in having underestimated the impact of this virus. Most of us did, and our leaders certainly led us astray. Still, we can learn a lot about the story I was telling myself. I believed I was outside the system. I was actively assuming my privilege will somehow carry me through. As a mother of two children of color, and a person who believes myself to be anti-racist, that is horrifying to admit. Why? Because that means that I depend on my privilege. Who am I without privilege?
I value myself immensely, as well as all of my white ancestors, so please don't read this thinking I need to be told to love myself. The point in telling this story is to start to understand how whiteness works.
If you are reading this and you are white, this is a moment to reflect on how often you are wrong and the people of color in your life are right. This is an ongoing theme in my life. What is it that a white lens misses so profoundly?
When the virus hit in March, I apologized to my mother-in-law for having miscalculated. I'm not sure an apology was warranted. After all, she was simply telling me about a conversation with a friend, and I gave my opinion. But I was embarrassed at having been so wrong. She just smiled and nodded as if she knew all along.