Friday, April 20, 2012

pondering privilege at the polling place

Early voting, also known as "one stop voting", has begun in NC.  But in Charlotte, the only polling place currently open is in uptown.  Libraries around the area will open up for early voting on April 30, so I'm sure more will participate then. But of course most will wait until election day (May 8) when there will no doubt be lines out the door.

This morning, however, there was no line.  It was comical, actually, as I walked in from the parking lot alone -  I was literally descended upon by campaigners.  They were very nice and I took all their little fliers and handouts because, frankly, I'm clueless on a lot of the local elections.  Once inside, I sat and read over each one.  Most weren't helpful - people are so vague on their information in an attempt to please everyone while offending none.  A couple actually did convince me to vote for them.

But that's not what I'm here to write about today...

I'm here to write about white privilege.  Some say it doesn't exist.  Even before today, I would have said of course it does, but I confess it's not something I've spent a lot of time pondering.

I'm pondering it now.

It's interesting, how the morning played out.  While driving the boys to school, Mike Collins was talking with the director of a play running in Charlotte right now called Clybourne Park.  The first act takes place in the 50's or 60's, when racism was overt.  The second act takes place 50 years later - "today" - and, as Mike put it, "Nothing had changed!"  I listened and wondered... really?  Nothing?  They clarified, of course, that many things have changed - but the relationships and perceptions between the characters in Act 2 reflected the exact same issues that were present in Act 1.

After dropping the boys off, I drove over to the polling place in the city and, as I noted above, made my way inside.  After checking in and receiving my form, I stood alongside a gentleman while we both waited for a free machine.  A minute or two passed before one of the volunteers gestured me over.

I spoke up and said, "Oh, he was here before me", nodding his way.  At which point he shook his head, chuckled under his breath and said, "It's okay ma'am, I'm used to it."

Used to what?  I was confused.  Then it hit me.  I hadn't taken notice that the gentleman - the one waiting longer than I had been - was black.  There we stood, both dressed casually - both wearing ball caps, in fact.  He was black and maybe 10 years older than I am.  The volunteer and I were both white - he an elderly gentleman, me a 39 year old woman.

This gentleman was insinuating that he'd been overlooked because he's black and I'm white.

Really?  Surely not?  I mean, come on - people make honest mistakes.

Before the volunteer could decide which of us he was taking, someone called him aside to ask a question about a machine, so the gentleman and I stood there awkwardly for a moment.  I simply smiled then looked down, sure that anything I might say would be the wrong thing.

Then another volunteer came toward us - also white and elderly.  And I'll be damned if he didn't do the exact same thing!  "This way, ma'am" he gestured toward me.  "No!" I said, more adamantly this time, my eyes as big as saucers,  "He was here before me!"

Even though there was no actual line, the way we were standing should have led anyone to assume he was, indeed, there before me.  Besides, he'd been standing there a while by the time I'd joined him, and it wasn't a very big space.  I was aghast.

The gentleman himself was chuckling louder now, shaking his head.  He told me it was okay, to go on. "I'm used to it", he said again.

"No", I retorted, "You were here first!"

By this point the volunteers were looking nervous, realizing they had caused a little bit of a scene.  One tried to explain it away as a misunderstanding as he walked the gentleman to the machine, but he interrupted, saying (louder this time), "You don't have to tell me about it, I already know. I'll be glad when the racism is finally ended for good!"

I stood there behind my own machine, thinking ... wow.  These volunteers, neither one of them, meant to ignore the man.  But they didn't mean not to, either.  Parents know what I'm referring to, here - kids say something was an accident, as if that's the end of the discussion.  But we respond by explaining that when you pay attention, when you're thoughtful and intentional, accidents are less likely to happen.

Accidents, while not intentional, are often rooted in poor thinking and poor habits.  The poor thinking and poor habits of this morning could also be referred to as white privilege.  ("When you don't know, give the white woman the benefit of the doubt").

Those volunteers experienced the situation as an innocent misunderstanding.  No doubt, they perceived the man to be overreacting.  He, on the other hand,  experienced a validation of stereotypes, a confirmation of years' worth of suspicion rooted in a culmination of similarly derogatory experiences.

He was "used to it", he'd said twice.  But not over it.  Not remotely.

Me?  I experienced it as an eye opener.  Because, from my point of view, the first time was overlook-able.  I would not have assumed race had played a factor. I mean, maybe the volunteer really didn't know which one of us got there first, or maybe he was just distracted because I'm not bad to look at (wink).  But the second time,  I couldn't ignore it.  He was black.  I was white.  And I was being privileged.

I shutter to think how often this happens to me, and I don't notice.
How many times do I fail to speak up?
To say "No"?
"No ... he was here before me" 

 "No ... YOU were here first"


M and Em's Blog said...

Love your posts, I love the way you share your experiences so that we can relate and feel as though we are part of the story.

Ponder this though... What do you think would have happened if you were a white man? Is it possible the volunteers were simply treating you differently because you were a woman not a "white" woman? Maybe it wasn't about race at all. I find that some people jump to that conclusion without giving it a second thought. There is an assumption made by the black man, which makes me think he is actually part of the problem.

Perhaps it "WAS" race and if it was, then your frustration is warranted, if not... Which I find the likely scenario - this man needs to get over it.

I honestly find that the elderly generation treat women differently. An elderly man will almost knock me over to hold the door for me.

Afterall I did have an elderly man help me with my car today when young people wouldn't (even people I knew)!

Michelle McConnell said...

most folks don't comment here, but instead they comment to the link on facebook. an interesting question was posed there, was it because I'm a woman? "ladies first"? I'm open to hear others' points of view on that. ultimately you can't see a motive so there's no way to know without engaging in conversation. but as long as everyone involved is defensive, that's darn near impossible to achieve...

Megandy said...

As a social worker whose work it is to work to fight social injustice to vulnerable and oppressed populations, I am familiar with the term "white privilege". It is a term that not many white folk can understand. Some women can, when they experience oppression due to their female organs, and then realize that others are oppressed because of things they can't help. Some gay and lesbian people can realize white privilege, because of all the privileges denied them due to their sexual orientation. But regardless of who you are, white privilege HAPPENS. And it happens at a disgusting rate.

Sure, we can explain away the scenario at the voting place as the older gentleman trying to offer a "ladies first" mentality. But regardless of the motives of the gentleman, white privilege still exists.

I commend you on your insightful and evocative thoughts that you present in this blog. It's obvious that you are a person who desires social justice, because you SEE things like this. You PAY ATTENTION to them. No, you couldn't do anything to stop the gentleman from asking you first, but you at least RECOGNIZED it. That is a huge step beyond most white people. It's certainly not a stopping point, where you (or the proverbial you - I don't see you doing what I'm getting ready to say) say to yourself "Oh, look at what a good citizen I was! I'm done being socially conscious and aware!" What I'm saying about what happened today is certainly not a congratulatory pat on the back. But it is a "go get 'em, girl" encouragement, that you are so very much on the right track!

Anonymous said...

perhaps, the reason that the same things that happened in the first act of the play still happen in the second is the subtle cues are there from youth. For example. A vivid memory from childhood still remains. My mother tightened her grip on her purse and put herself between me an a large group of people as we would walk in crowds. We had been walking through the amusement park passed other large groups of people but skin color caused a reaction in her behavior. By being aware of this I try very hard to make sure that I do not pass such behavior to my children. Because I remember my parents behaviors sometimes more clearly than their words.

The Moose - Frontline said...

Obviously I wasn't there so anything I say would be just my thoughts. As I neared the end of your comment I began to think "what if they hadn't been paying attention and when they looked up they simply gave the 'lady' the first option. That's actually happened 2x recently with me in lines of different sorts (fast food lines where nobody really picks a line haha.)

Our church is currently in the process of talking through race issues and addressing these type of things. I'm saddened that regardless of the intention of those workers that this man has experienced such things that he is "used" to it. wow. good post Michelle!