Presenters agree white privilege exists but can be used to help end racism
by Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers
“Is White Privlege Real or Imagined” was the title of a community forum Oct. 24 at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, but there was no doubt in the minds of the panelists or presenters about the issue at hand.
“Does white privilege really exist – is that a trick question?” asked panelist Janice Downing. Ask any person of color, she said, and they’ll tell you that, of course, people are treated differently based on their race.
“Absolutely it does. Full stop,” agreed panelist Paul Spies, a professor at Metropolitan State University.
Though the question was quickly answered, the conversation is far from over, according to the panelists. Not only does it exist, said presenter Jennifer Heimlich, but white people have a responsibility, and an opportunity, to do something about it.
First, a definition is necessary, said Heimlich, a social studies and AVID teacher at Hopkins Schools.
“As James Baldwin said, being white means never having to think about it,” she said.
White privilege, she went on, is the concept of white as a default or “neutral” race. Examples, she said, include white people not needing to worry about being perceived differently based on their race, or worry that their actions will reflect negatively on white people as a whole.
“We don’t always experience ourselves as having a race,” she said. “(White privilege) allows whites to not experience that discomfort (of racial difference) unless we want to.”
Her journey toward understanding race began while learning a particular style of drumming in Cuba.
“I was the crazy young white lady, and I thought, ‘What I am doing here?’” she said with a laugh. “But I realized that I was putting myself into situations where I was the only white person. White people usually don’t have to do that.”
Heimlich now teaches a diversity seminar at Hopkins schools and has for the past 10 years.
“It’s an amazing journey each and every time,” she said. “I learn as much as my students do, if not more.”
Heimlich said it’s often difficult to discuss race, making people feel vulnerable, awkward or defensive to discuss or even acknowledge racial issues.
“Talking about race is not easy, and you have to expect that and be willing to be uncomfortable,” Heimlich said, adding that she still experiences discomfort even after years of talking about and studying racial equity.
Spies embraced that discomfort, immediately identifying himself as “a racist.”
“I believe I have a psychosocial disease,” he said. “I’ve grown up in this society, which is a racist society … and in so many way, consciously and unconsciously, I’ve been socialized with racism.”
Like an addiction, Spies said, the first step toward fighting racism is admitted one’s own bias, whether or not the bias is intentional.
“It’s been a constant journey of unlearning and re-educating in a lot of ways. It’s been liberating,” he said.
Despite the discomfort, Heimlich and others emphasized the importance of avoiding guilt or defensiveness, which can be unproductive in finding solutions for racial equity.
“This is not to make white folks feel bad,” Heimlich said. “Instead of feeling guilt, we can start to recognize what we can do to be good allies.”
She added that people of color are often left to take on most of the burden discussing racial issues and finding solutions.
Golden Valley resident Downing, who is black, said much of her work in human resources involves diversity training. “It’s sometimes fun, and a lot of the time draining, but I feel it’s something I’m called to do,” she said.
Good allies, Heimlich said, can take on some of that work, talking to other white people and being proactive about equity.
“Privilege isn’t something you can get rid of, but you can recognize it and use it for good,” Heimlich said, adding that this includes recognizes how white privilege has an impact on systems of power, such as whites playing a disproportionate role in political, economic and cultural representation.
This includes position of authority such as law enforcement, recently a hot topic after video surfaced of an Edina officer allegedly targeting a black man for walking in the street because the sidewalk was closed.
Both Downing and Crosby had more stories than they could share about being targeted, treated in a condescending manner or otherwise profiled for their race. Crosby said he was once pulled out of a TSA pre-check line at the airport for no apparent reason, and forced, along with his young son, to go to the back of the much-busier line. For the sake of not causing a scene, Crosby said he stayed quiet but felt powerless and demeaned.
Spies, in contrast, said he’s had countless experiences of authorities listening to his thoughts and opinions. His son, he said, once ran a red light in front of a police officer, and didn’t receive even get a ticket, compared with black residents nationwide who report being stopped repeated for no apparent reason besides “DWB” — driving while black.
The event was a follow-up to similar forum in May, attended by more than 200 residents that prompted positive responses and ongoing discussion about race and justice.
The organization behind both forums, the Hopkins Race and Equity Initiative, is a partnership between Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Hopkins School District and the Hopkins Police Department to foster ongoing communication with residents.
“We feel the diversity in the community is one of our greatest strengths,” said Hopkins Mayor Molly Cummings, who welcomed the audience and the panelists to the presentation.
Though presenters and panelists alike viewed the large crowd, and the success of the previous event, as a positive sign, the event ended in a call to action for residents to continue educating themselves.
“We have to constantly examine how we learn things, what society is telling us and what society is not telling us,” Spies said.
Downing said one solution is to actively seek different social situations and groups and build bridges to stronger relationships.
“We are a community and we live together. We need to stop blaming and shaming,” Downing said.
If people don’t talk about the issue, or resort to “colorblindness” (failing to acknowledge racial inequality) Heimlich said society will continue to perpetuate racial injustice.
“We’re not the same. If we can’t get past that, we can’t get anywhere,” she said.