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Column: Coming to grips with my privilege

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 7/11/2020 10:30:11 PM
Modified: 7/11/2020 10:30:09 PM

George Floyd’s killing jarred me. In the aftermath, I spent hours reading books and articles, participated in two online forums exploring race in our culture, filled some gaps in my knowledge of U.S. history, and examined my own attitudes toward race by looking at my upbringing,

Ultimately, I came to the unsettling conclusion that the benefits I received because I am white gave me an unearned and unfair advantage over people of color at every turn. I also concluded that the history I learned in school omitted some crucial details.

Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, I attended schools in different parts of the country. After moving three times during the early years of my schooling, I attended Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Okla., for grades four through six. Located on a tree-lined street in an older part of the city, the Lee School offered daily art, music, physical education and science in a lab designed for our age group.

The school had a well-stocked library and an auditorium large enough to accommodate the entire student body. In fifth grade I was taught Oklahoma history. We learned about the Native Americans who “settled the state” after following the Trail of Tears; about the Land Rush of 1889 that opened the state to white settlers eager to start their own farms or open their own businesses; and about Oklahoma’s cattle- and oil-based economy.

We didn’t learn about how in 1921 a white mob destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, a section of town roughly 30 blocks away from our school, and killed more than 200 Black residents.

Nor did we learn how the Native Americans who “migrated” to Oklahoma lost almost all of their reservation land over the next century to the white settlers in the Land Rush or the oil companies whenever their territory was located above an oil field.

We did, however, learn about the heroism of our school’s namesake, Confederate war icon Gen. Robert E. Lee, each year in a school assembly. (Footnote: The school is now called Council Rock Elementary School, named for the site of a treaty with Native Americans.)

I spent my junior and senior years of high school in West Chester, Pa., during the height of the civil rights movement. A small college town outside of Wilmington, Del., West Chester’s schools and public swimming areas did not fully integrate until the mid-1950s. The Black residents of West Chester almost all lived in the same neighborhood and almost all worked in what we now euphemistically call “essential jobs.” Roughly 10% of the 600 students who graduated with me in 1965 were Black, yet only one of them was enrolled in the college preparatory classes I took. I recall seeing just three Black teachers.

When it came to history, we covered the traditional topics: explorers, the Revolutionary War, the work of the Founding Fathers, and a long sequence of names and dates. We did learn that the Civil War resulted in the freeing of enslaved people in the South, but the two times I took American history we skipped Reconstruction and went right to World War I.

As I examined my upbringing in Tulsa and West Chester, I see that I clearly benefited from being white. Had I been Black in Tulsa, I would not have attended Lee School, whose attendance zone was drawn so that it served only white neighborhoods.

Had I been Black in Tulsa, I would not have been able to play ball with my friends in the leafy city parks reserved for whites, or been able to earn money delivering newspapers in my all-white neighborhood.

Had I been Black in West Chester, it is unlikely that homeowners in my all-white suburban subdivision would have answered the door when I was fundraising for school clubs, baseball leagues or Boy Scouts. I doubt even more that they would have become lawn-mowing customers in my high school years, customers whose support helped me to earn enough money to pay for my first year in college.

Finally, based on what I observed, had I been Black in West Chester, it is unlikely that I would have been assigned to the college prep classes I took.

As I’ve reflected on what I was taught — or not taught — it is clear to me that we need to do a better job teaching about race.

Children need to be made aware that the racism that exists today is systemic. Racism is built into our system by our Constitution, which allowed slavery to continue; by early state laws that denied free Black men the opportunity to vote; by Jim Crow laws passed after the Civil War; by court decisions in the late 1800s that supported laws creating “separate but equal” public services and schools; by bankers, insurers, real estate agents and even federal agencies that redlined specific neighborhoods and towns across the country where Blacks would be prevented from buying homes; by the GI Bill, which made it extraordinarily difficult for Black veterans to obtain mortgages or attend college, particularly in the South.

Children need to be made aware that racism is not limited to bad deeds by malicious individuals. Racism is baked into our system, a system that repeatedly and relentlessly reinforces the message that Black lives don’t matter.

The 8 minute, 46 second video of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer, seen by millions of people around the world, made the point that Black lives don’t matter in a way that words cannot. As a result, the rationale for the Black Lives Matter movement has never been clearer. If our country hopes to expunge the stain of systemic racism, the coming months are critical.

In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, author Robin DiAngelo suggests that only those of us who are white can change the system because we alone benefit from it as it exists now and we exert the most control over it. She suggest that if white people “understand racism as a system into which we were born and socialized,” we can begin to identify the ways we reinforce the system — and the ways we might be able to change it.

I fear that, should we white people fail to do so, should this teachable moment pass, then George Floyd will be just another name on the long and growing list of innocent Black people who have died at the hands of our racist system, forgotten until the next one.

Wayne Gersen lives in Etna.

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