Privilege, Race, and Being Part of the Problem

When I was in high school, I became really convinced that affirmative action was unfair. I even wrote an op-ed about it for my school’s newspaper. I did no research and based most of my argument off of a Rush Limbaugh rant I’d heard that week in the car with my father. Suffice it to say, I had no idea what I was talking about and since it was South Dakota and it was high school, it got published anyway.

Later that same year, there was a large problem in my city with racism and hate crimes. Our city is home to a lot of refugees from conflicts in Africa and South Asia – particularly, at the time, the Sudan. A lot of white male students at the school saw an opportunity to beef up their reputation as masculine heavyweights by bullying the Sudanese students.

I remember sitting in the cafeteria during lunch one day when there suddenly there was a lot of yelling and a loud whistle. I turned around to see a large crowd of men – both black and white, being separated by the one of the gym teachers. A fight had broken out – right in front of the glass-walled principal’s office. Not exactly the smartest move. Shortly after this incident, one of the Sudanese students’ houses was vandalized with spray-painted swastikas and “GO BACK TO AFRICA.”

The entire school district then began a campaign to “erase racism” – or, as they cleverly called it in bumper stickers, “eracism.”

My debate partner at the time – a short statured, fiercely conservative, spiky haired sophomore – complained that how our school was the one that got the most bad publicity when it was really students from one of our rival schools that had done most of the vandalism. “It’s just because ‘Rough Rider Racism’ sounds better in the newspaper,” he whined. (Our mascot was the Roosevelt Rough Riders, named after Teddy Roosevelt’s band of “explorers” in the badlands of the Dakotas. Yes, there were a lot of jokes about the name).

It can’t have been easy for these Sudanese students to move to the US, to find themselves in South Dakota, and find that the only people who looked like them were other people similarly out of place. The outright aggression from their white male classmates cannot have helped to make the transition easier, and it’s entirely understandable that they would fight back – especially since the school’s response to the racist attacks had no tangible impact on the actual student body.

What never connected for me, though, was how my adherence to meritocracy contributed to an atmosphere of racial tension. It was no secret that I believed heavily in the idea – which translated to believing that black people tended to vote Democrats because that meant government handouts instead of actual work. I was open about this, as I was taught to take pride in my political views – after all, Christians need not fear persecution. Persecution, in this case, meant teasing about being Jesus-y and wearing my God Squad t-shirt in school.

I would have been shocked if you called me a racist. But ten years ago, I was pretty overtly racist. I would never call you the n-word, but I might tell you that your community is full of crime because they didn’t want to get off welfare.

I never saw the larger system; I never saw my own part in it. I was convinced that I got into college of my own merits, that I got the scholarship I did simply because I was smart, and that I earned everything I was awarded. I never bothered to stop and question why my friend group was all white people or why the only people of color at my college were athletes.

In the decade since high school, I’ve learned to ask those questions, to look around me and see the wider world with those who are racial minorities. The ease with which I move through the world, especially in South Dakota, is due in large part to the color of my skin. I had to realize these systemic forms of injustice before I could learn to walk away from the racism in which I’d been steeped (and I’ve still got a long way to go).

When one begins to develop a perspective of how the systems of oppression interconnect, we begin to see more and more our own roles in perpetuating that oppression in the areas where we have privilege. All too often, we don’t see our own privilege – it’s a major blind spot, a barrier to deeper analysis and growth, and a way for us to ignore our own complicity in the issues.

I could chalk up the racial tension in Sioux Falls to some overzealous white boys who were raised to see anything Other as a threat. But looking back, I see how my work contributed to the students of color in my school feeling of ostracized and unwelcome. I am part of the problem. Now I have to actively work to be part of the solution.