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"