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Reading Through My Privilege

On my eighth birthday, my mother gave me a butterfly party. My dress was pale pink polished cotton. The fabric was printed with the most beautiful winged creatures across the fitted bodice and full skirt. Mom created my cake using The Baker’s Cut-Up Cake Party Book. Colored shredded coconut and jelly beans made it the most yummy, lovely butterfly I’ve ever eaten. I remember the day as delicious and very, very special.

My mother was proud of the event. She always put her heart and soul into each excuse for a holiday and party. She spoke of that day for years afterward, but not so much my “butterfly birthday”. Instead, she referred to it as my United Nations birthday. Having recently moved from the Blackstone Valley of Massachusetts to the extremely liberal town of Berkeley, California, she was often pleasantly surprised how different, diverse and interesting our lives, and especially HER life, had become.

That university town across the bay from San Francisco was certainly the most diverse culture I have ever lived in – and it was a welcome change for my mother, the small-town girl who had broken away from a New England rural life.

That said, I was not a minority as a “white girl” in Berkeley. Many of my neighbors and peers were from all over the world – Indonesia, Belgian Congo, Pakistan, and Russia. Many others were from other heritages. My best friend’s parents were from Japan and I now suspect they were interned during World War II. The war against Japan had been won less than a decade before. Many other of my friends were first generation Hispanic, their parents having arrived from Mexico and Latin America. And many others were African Americans whose families had either lived in California for generations or had recently moved across the country from America’s southern states.

I grew up never realizing that I was white-privileged. My family was a liberal, welcoming household in what I considered a multicultural environment. Yet, that New England heritage and culture and upbringing and that middle-classed whiteness in California was the privilege that I’m just now beginning to understand.

As a young white woman, I never questioned my right to a college education. My white privilege includes a belief that everyone can overcome the barriers anyone faces. As a young wife, I took for granted that we could and would purchase a home in a safe neighborhood. My white privilege caused me to drive by the neighborhoods I was uncomfortable in. As a young mother, I entitled myself to sending my children to a good school system. My white privilege afforded me both the lifestyle and the expectation.

I am just beginning to understand this.

As a history major in college, that very own white privilege complicates my feelings behind the recent attempts to remove monuments to the Civil War.  Erase history, I thought? Why? The answer lies in my own poor attempts to confront my inherent privilege, my denied racism, and my simply ridiculous belief that life will become what I think as normal again. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia and the editorials, articles, and essays are opening raw wounds of antisemitism, racism and prejudice – wounds that I had denied existed in conservative AND liberal America.

I’ve made a commitment to myself to become more educated and aware and I’ve researched a list of books that I will begin with. I have yet to read any of them so I am relying on others’ recommendations and reviews. My hope is that I will become both enlightened and justice-minded through my reading.

Because the truth is so very hard to swallow, I’ll begin my journey with Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning – The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi explains and illustrates that racism is very alive and well in what we might have considered a post-racial America. We must begin to believe that there is a modern-day racism beyond the prejudices we know we all harbor. It’s “deeply entrenched in our nation’s history.”

In 2016, author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a letter to his son about his own survival and identity as a black man in America in Between the World and Me. I understand it is a “devastating and affecting read” and one I should have read a year ago when it was published.

Chokehold – Policing Black Me by Paul Butler was published just months ago. The 2016 award-winning documentary “13th” exemplified that incarceration of black men in the United States since the Civil War has been an extension of slavery. Criminal justice has been one-sided and the powerful story in Chokehold reveals the same.

There are a dozen more on my list that can help me with my own enlightenment. Tim Wise has written many books from the perspective of a white male and the benefits of white privilege that have shaped his life in so many ways — to the detriment of people of color. Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot stop is a plea to Americans, and especially white Americans, to become uncomfortable enough to address their own racial biases. This September, the newest book to explode the myths about our racism is Gene Dattel’s Reckoning With Race. Now is the time to reserve it for your own reading list.

The bias of white privilege is much broader of course and prejudice has a far reach into Latino, Asian, Middle-Eastern and Native American ethnicity and identity in our country. Yellow – Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank Wu (2002) explores the Asian-American experience and the stereotypes that have blocked racial progress.  When our grandson began university last year, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? was a required all-college read. In the book, Moustafa Bayoumi explains what it like to be a young Arab in American culture.  Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano presents the story of European and American influence on Latin America along with the issues of the Latino experience in the U.S. And included on my list is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ history of our own country’s displacement of the Native Americans in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.

After the recent marches and demonstrations in cities around the country – especially those that espouse antisemitism and Nazism, we must all read The Devil That Never Dies which exposes the “rise and threat” of global antisemitism by Daniel Johan Goldhagen. Old stories are being retold in a new horrific narrative. It’s time to start listening, reading and understanding in order to change those old stories into a new one of acceptance, assimilation, and equality.

A complete reading list is available at here. See the display of titles in our new book area on the first floor.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the August 24, 2017 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Sam Simas

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