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  • Jan Flynn

My Invisible Shield

White privilege was invisible to me. Until it wasn’t.

This is a question the Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at U.C. Berkeley, Savala Trepcynski, posed to a large, racially diverse group of law students, as she wrote about in a story published in Timein early June. She’s asked this before of students at her talks, and what she’s seen is this: students of color have no problem answering that question. From white students, she hears silence.

For much of my life, I would have been just as flummoxed by that question. I was born in the mid-20th Century, into a white family, in a white neighborhood in a white town, in what looked to me like a white country, not that I paid attention to race as a child. Being white, there was no reason to.

That changed as I went to school and became somewhat more aware, but it remained true that my whiteness — and the invisible bubble of privilege and protection it afforded me — was mostly invisible to me. Like my skeleton, it supported me without my having to think about it much.

Then came the 1960s

I was a preteen girl when our black-and-white console television flickered through images of Black people being teargassed and beaten with billy clubs by white policemen, for no offense other than marching peacefully across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to insist on their right to vote. It was the first time I’d witnessed racial violence. It gave me nightmares.

My mother helped comfort me with the insulating thought: that was only happening in the South, in the land of segregation and Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan raids. Those white people were backward and hateful. Not like us, living as we did in the enlightened environment of the San Francisco Peninsula. We knew better than to behave like that.

Besides, there were almost no Black people (or, as the adults in my life would have said at the time, Negroes) who lived anywhere near us. So the problem was moot. Eventually, rather soon, in fact, I went back to happily obsessing over the Beatles.

By the ‘70s, I discovered racism was at home in my house

Fully launched on my teenage years during the Vietnam War, the era of the Generation Gap and a general, if disorganized, awakening social consciousness, it became clear that my father was a card-carrying bigot. He was a three-dimensional Archie Bunker, bewildered and threatened by a changing world, trapped by his own cultural limitations and having no better resources to address it than through his rage.

The day I tried to go to the prom with a Black boy, I learned that Dad’s racism was only the louder, more easily discounted face of a belief system that held my otherwise sweet, gentle mother every bit as desperately in its grip.

In the early ‘80s I became a mother

Like many a first-time mom, I was overcome by the vastness of the experience, the oceanic sense that flooded me at the sight and smell and touch of my baby, and that spilled over to enfold all of humankind. It was a shock to me, this all-encompassing, piercing love. This is what my mother felt, I reflected, as I’m sure other new mothers also realize. And then: this must be what all mothers feel.

This was a revelation. It wasn’t only my baby that was a miracle, a precious and irreplaceable being whose potential was an unfolding gift to be nurtured. It was all babies, all mothers’ children. I’m sorry that the word has been so tattered through misuse, but it’s the only one I have at my disposal to describe this realization: it was awesome, equal parts inspiring and frightening.

One day while at the park with my toddler son, I watched as he and another tiny boy explored the sandbox together. I looked up to try to catch the eye of his mother, a Black woman, seated on the opposite bench; I wanted to beam at her, to celebrate our sudden connection. But at that moment a trio of white men approached, heading toward a nearby table, perhaps on their lunch break. The other mother’s face tensed as she bundled up her son and whisked him back into his stroller and out of the park.

I wanted to call out to her. No, wait, I wanted to say. Those men won’t bother you. This is a nice town. And if they did I’d put a stop to it. Of course, I said none of those things. Who did I think I was, her white guardian? And what did I know anyway? Maybe she just had to be somewhere.

But I looked at those men — who really did appear inoffensive — and I looked at my little boy, and my blood chilled. There was an entire litany of lightning-quick assumptions that would attach to her son, utterly different ones than would attach to mine, expectations and biases that would follow both boys into their futures. The difference was, one boy would be uplifted by those assumptions, while the other one would be forced to struggle against their weight.

And that was the first time I truly knew I was white.

In the late ’90s, my son found out he was white

It took that long because, as piercing as my early motherhood awakening to white privilege had been, I didn’t do much about it. I had no idea how. And there is no more telling hallmark of such privilege than the ability to neglect it. The world didn’t force me to confront the fact of my position in a remorseless social hierarchy constructed of a thousand false beliefs about race, including the belief in race itself. Unlike a Black or Brown person, I could go through nearly all my days without thinking about what group I was assigned to from birth, or what the consequences of that assignment were for me and my children.

When my oldest son, the former miracle baby and playground-toddler, stayed out one night far past his curfew in his junior year of high school, he found me waiting up for him. It didn’t take me long to get past his bluster and paper-thin reassurances to get the real story out of him. He and his football buddies had been driving around shooting at street signs with a paintball gun. A resident had called the police. After a search of their car turned up nothing in the way of alcohol or drugs or even cigarettes, and after a stern talking-to, the cops let the young miscreants go home.

What do you call a surge of relief mixed with outrage? It landed on me with such force that it took me some moments to catch my breath, time in which my son, as he watched my eyes and nostrils dilate, began to understand that maybe he hadn’t escaped the evening unscathed after all.

I don’t remember everything I said to him; I may have been too angry to make full sense. But I’m sure I got it across to him that were it not for sheer, unearned and wholly undeserved luck — the luck of being a white boy in a car with other white boys, members of a Catholic high school’s well-regarded football team, in a quiet, upscale suburb where crime was almost nonexistent — we would not be having this conversation in our living room.

And that, I said, was not a reason for relief. It was a reason for shame. If you were Black or Latino, or if you’d strayed across some imaginary line into another neighborhood, I said, you’d be calling home from jail.

Still, I didn’t get it

Again, for white people like me who consider themselves people of goodwill, who think of themselves as fair-minded, who really don’t want to think of themselves as racists or participants in a system built to benefit them at the expense of others, race is a subject we would like to avoid much of the time.

Savala Trepcynski observes that white American’s ability to approach and avoid confronting issues of race as it suits us “is a significant part of America’s problem with race.” But it’s getting harder to ignore the reality of my whiteness as the social structure in which I dwell erupts in pain over and over again.

I know I am white now, and I know about my whiteness. What to do with that knowledge is my problem to struggle with, not something for people of color to explain to me or mediate for me. But one thing I understand now is this:

If my son had not been shielded by his whiteness the night he was caught playing pranks with a paintball gun, I wouldn’t have gotten a phone call from jail.

I’d have had to drive to the morgue.

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