White (Liberal) Privilege (Justifications)

(note - this is edited from a version created in May 2017)

Live Oak School, the San Francisco private K-8 school I attended for 7 years, was the place where the parents of my peers paid $23,000 a year for them to attend, was the perfect catalyst for it all to begin. My dad had an administrative job there that assisted our tuition and allowed us to attend. Nevertheless, the majority of families were more than capable of doing so, and our family subconsciously absorbed the culture that surrounds this kind of wealth. It was about 32 kids per class, and 92% of them were white. This was a tremendous juxtaposition beside the public school just a couple blocks down from us, composed of mostly black and latino students. It was also the place where we always heard about gunshots and a preconceived notion of reckless behavior, standing a stark contrast from the illusion of a protected little educational haven that our teachers projected on us. These kids were alienated - a part of a world we never knew, amongst our cell phones, MacBook computers, nice educational facilities, two to four story San Francisco residences, and Whole Foods meals. This was the way that we were conditioned to believe public school to be – believe it or not, the same mindset that would be embodied in grown adults who grew desensitized to the way black and latino individuals find their way into prison time and time again over minimal crimes that their white counterparts got free for, failing to grant them employment upon seeing even the most irrelevant criminal record, never giving them the chance to redeem themselves or realize the greater issue behind why they are disproportionately mass incarcerated in the first place. This would feed into the same kinds of people with the mindset that would question the victim's motives and compliancy when they were unjustly murdered by the police, the mindset that got defensive when white people were called out for preaching equality but not equity and not fighting for their justice because of it not affecting us.

This is because it is all what happens when the white liberal community refuses to actively acknowledge the presence and actuality of many people of color. It is as if they belong just enough to create the illusion of white liberals seeming like good, neutral people, but not enough to be seen as good enough to be reconciled and brought up with their world. All of these things do not blatantly present themselves as racist and yet they are. Going back to the situation at the school, us children of white liberal families were conditioned to believe from so young that these kids were other to us, a community that was foreign to our well-to-do white private school realm. You can bet this school never taught their students that, or anything about activism for change. The projection of these areas being more “violent”, more “hostile”, only communicated one thing - these were kids to feel sorry for, not to acknowledge as equals, not worthy of being a part of our world. But god no, we weren't racist. Right...?

I never saw the problem in the spoiled nature of the kids that went to Live Oak School, who were often times more reckless than any of the kids at the public school. These kids threw temper tantrums daily, crying over the luxuries of private education and arts funding or beating their parents with fists, yelling “I hate you”, for putting the wrong kind of cookie in their lunch. Students were relentlessly mean to students who did not perform well in school, often disproportionately affecting the few bilingual students, special-ed students, or students from weaker educational backgrounds than we had. The girls would always talk behind each other's backs and insult each other, and when it came to a student of color, race or background was almost always involved. The white girl would just be “annoying” or “not pretty”, but the one black girl in the class would be “ghetto”. We were not made aware of these differences by any of our teachers.

As we got older, we got were quick to utilize AAVE and listen to largely black music at our dances, but still held our distance when it came to engaging with black communities in education, public spaces, sports, or arts. I remember a particular instance in which the school, when attempting to educate privileged white kids about poverty, decided to have a “poverty fair”, as if something as serious as poverty and a place made for games and winning prizes were easily reconcilable and equally as effortless to dismiss. What kind of notion does this feed into white “liberal” kids viewing the public school students, who were a majority students of color and from lesser financial backgrounds? We developed all of these negative preconceived notions of these individuals before we even knew them personally.

The effect of this mindset carried on into my years when I started studying jazz and going to public arts high school in Oakland, where diversity was far more present. This was a huge contrast to my years where I was hardly exposed to any communities but white ones, even in liberal San Francisco, and it was present in the way I responded to the students of these communities I was suddenly reconciled with. I did not understand why everyone there had an issue with the statement “I don't see color”, and as I explained this to my parents, they agreed with me. Additionally, I became aware of the male dominated field of instrumental jazz music, which convinced my mom to give me books with “feminist” authors or powerful female figures to empower me to not put up with the male dismissiveness and exclusivity. I was not aware that these authors – Tina Fey, Lena Dunham, Kim Gordon, could not claim the title of a “feminist” if they only included the tribulations that affect white women. Fey's awkward joke in Bossypants (2011) about her being “practically Mexican” for a time when she felt alienated by her class was overlooked by white feminists - this evidently demonstrated that her book was not made with Latina women in mind. Lena Dunham's problematic inclusion of Donald Glover's as the boy fling of her Girls character Hannah Horvett, who she cannot date because his republican views contrast with her feminist ones while ironically making a point to say “I don't see color between us” as Hannah, was overlooked. Dunham's failure to address the use of people of color as accessory-like roles on her show, which can certainly include women, was overlooked by white feminists. The show was called Girls, but was virtually only about white girls. I did not notice that these books and TV shows were not shown in conjunction with female authors and activists like Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, or bell hooks. I eventually got confronted by a black peer when I was 14 regarding me ignorantly claiming that white people can experience discrimination, even if it is not as bad as segregation or slavery. I felt so attacked because I was so committed to being the “good liberal” teenager, when in reality, I was far from it and using it as an excuse to dismiss being accountable for my actions.

My family and I never thought ourselves to be racist. Of course we wanted all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and economic classes to receive equal treatment. Without hesitation, I stood by my parents as they cheered on Barack Obama's inauguration in 2008. Some of our closest family friends were black, asian, or gay. We never even thought about it. Maybe that was the problem. We wanted everyone to receive the same treatment, but failed to acknowledge the parts that did make us different. We claimed for dear life we did not hold the prejudice and the negative connotations against these people but we would avidly protect the white race at all costs, just like our history textbooks and private schools and smartphones ask us to do. It was this that imposed a separation between that world and us. And choosing to ignore those differences hardly made us different than our white American ancestors. In other words, what we did not understand was that when black lives matter began, that that was our cue to stand up and speak. It was the world we did not know and did not have to speak for because it did not directly affect us or follow us from the moment we went out the door and into the world, so we didn't fight for it. We would forget that it is as big as our incarceration systems and as unquestionably accepted as our beauty standards, and that it was hidden within the reason why I felt the need to defend the precious white elitist race our history has been so weary of jeopardizing from my black peer who confronted me at 14 in the first place. We were conditioned to hide behind the liberal label where we got a free pass on racism, and did not have to address modern day racism, microaggressions, and covert racism. I was forced to realize how wrong it was to decide to dedicate a future and a career to a black music art form without speaking up for police brutality and the people I essentially owe the backbone of my profits and career to. I had to realize that during the injustice of another, remaining silent and disengaged is taking the side of the oppressor, just like the way I was conditioned to disassociate from the world of the public school kids in my earlier years. I had learned to protect my whiteness at all costs, even if I wanted equality. I did not call for equity.

And now I scoff at the people who say “all lives matter” and my white girl friends who say they are aware of racial injustice and yet exclusively date white men. My blood boiled and my words poured out of my mouth in disgust when I saw the number of white people who decided their third party Jill Stein vote was more important than the jeopardization of the lives of people of color. I angrily confronted the white boy who, in an exchange of “jokey” bad name calling, threw out the n word with an -er ending at my black boyfriend. And while that last instance was particularly deplorable and inexcusable, it's important to remember that where I came from politically was not that far off, no matter how hard we pretended it was. There was a time when I had not learned, and I forget that not everyone has been taught, and even more so, that I do not deserve a trophy for having learned because there is still more injustice to be made aware of if it is not the world you are a part of. We do not need to assign competition over doing the right thing or treating people with the respect they deserve from not just me, but everyone, if we all have more work to do and accountability and reflection to take place. It is wrong to isolate us from being extremely terrible people if we are, in reality, still sharing an aspect of that terrible-ness.

My boyfriend (clarification – now ex) liked to joke about if we were to have kids. We did not ever take it seriously because as musicians, our careers are our priorities, and we are far too young to even conceptualize what it's like to have a family (and furthermore, to actually have one). But just to consider it hypothetically, that kid would be a living, breathing erasure of the imposed separation between his world and mine. This child would present a challenge to the things I was conditioned to believe, forcing myself to be reconciled with the world I was ultimately conditioned to dismiss. How do you then explain the dilemma of the worlds to this child and their identity? You will be forced to understand what makes them different. Similarly, one of my music mentors, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, states that my generation will feed way into an era of time that transcends the concepts of race and class. Even if racism prevails to the time that generation comes around, liberals, conservatives, everyone, will be forced to reconfigure their concepts of the worlds. For the sake of this child having confidence in their identity, I would want them to fully understand their background – that one side is not to be favored over the other, but the differences have to be recognized in order to understand why they can come together. For the future generations, we face a world wide challenge amongst all races. They will form their own world, or maybe all blend into one huge world. But it is our job to explain how they got there, and for the sake of their identity and respect - those who had to endure countless painful tribulations in order for us to get to this place of transcendence - why it matters.

Sasha Berliner1 Comment