June 5, 2020
“White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions–maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
Peggy McIntosh is an American feminist, anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Scientist of the Wellesley Centers for Women.
STUFF I KNOW – My Privilege
by Mary, Anam Cara 2013
This is about a time in my life that I don’t talk about but maybe it’s time.
In 1968 I became a guest of the Washington State criminal justice system. It was a year of racial unrest all around the country. This was my initiation into being the minority. It had taken a few months to process through the system to finally walk through the gates of prison. I was a skinny white kid who just wanted to be left alone. I was also a kid who’d been taking care of herself on the streets and knew how to look like absolutely nothing fazed her while shaking with fear.
I was escorted to my assigned “dorm,”, briefly introduced to the matron, and then walked the gauntlet of girls sizing me up. “Hey you white girl, you, yeah you, girl you soul or psychedelic?” (Psychedelic meant hippie; Soul meant black.) While this is being yelled, I remember wondering; what the hell are you talking about?
I made it to my cell, a small cubbyhole of a space with a bed, dresser, desk combo and enough space to almost spread my arms, enough length to pace about 10 small paces and a window to remind of where I couldn’t freely go anymore. I was told that as long as I followed rules the door would remain unlocked during the day. Groovy. I didn’t want any trouble. I’ve never wanted any trouble. I have always managed to walk into it however.
I got my ass beat regularly that first month every time I came out of my cell. All because of that stupid question–“Are you soul or psychedelic?”–that I wouldn’t answer because I didn’t know what in the hell they were talking about. The black girls said things like “James Brown is my Daddy and Aretha is my Mama.” Music was the dividing line. Music was a life line. Music defined all of us during those years. The white girls who didn’t want to get beat up chimed in with them. Then there was me. This strange hippie girl who got the Blues. Janis was my soul sister. Aretha was the Goddess. I was neither soul or psychedelic and I wasn’t about to claim to be either. So, I took my beatings until they either got bored or decided I wasn’t worth the effort. I continue to refuse to be defined by anyone else’s standards although many have tried.
What stands out most to me about that time is even as the minority among the girls and treated as such in the beginning, I could see how I was treated differently by staff. I could push rules further before being punished. There was also a hierarchy among the races, white, black, Hispanic, mixed; it was the mixed-race person that was looked down the most. Somehow, I fit in with all of them simply by being myself. I used to joke around about being so Irish I’d at least turn blue in the winter for some color.
During the holidays, between 68 and 69, the staff was trying to bring us together and determined that we would put on a talent show for the entire institution. I took part as one of a handful of white girls dancing to Motown on stage with about 3 dozen black girls. We did it together as a team with one goal; to put on the very best act any of them had ever seen. And we did it. I want to believe we all learned something about ourselves in that act. We really are better together in our differences.
I’ve never forgotten, no matter how good or difficult my life has been over the years, if I was any other color, I would never have survived my life. I’ve experienced the prejudice of having been locked up. I was tagged bad, period. I was refused entry into Battle Ground High School because I was on parole. My dad threatened legal action, I was admitted. When I walked down the hallway the other kids moved to the other side. Kids weren’t allowed to have anything to do with me.
That level of shunning affects a person at their very core. I’ve never completely covered the scars or erased the story of not quite being good enough. I am very grateful for my life and make no apology for it. I recognize my privilege and renew my pledge to work for a better world for those without my privilege. In my attempts to understand some of the many different opinions that have become more blatant, since 2016 I find myself in the position of having to take a hard stand on racism. I’ve turned the other cheek more times over the last 3 years than most of you can imagine when I’ve read horrid comments from “friends” about certain NFL players, Democrats, liberals, etc. I simply can no longer do this. I can no longer turn the other cheek when racist comments are made or implied.
While I have no intentions of calling anyone out, please don’t be offended when you discover you are no longer seeing my posts on your Facebook page. I haven’t stopped loving you, I’ve just realized I can’t teach you anything new either. And I can’t help but ask myself, would you still say you love me if I weren’t white?
P.S. The day I walked away a free person I swore an oath that somehow, someday I would make a difference for someone else. Little did I know I would one day become one of the MH/Addictions counselors at Washington Corrections Center for Women. While working there I was able to gain an understanding of just how much had changed within the criminal justice system while a great deal more remains to do. By using a combination of various forms of art, talk therapy and behavioral changes, I was able to help some of the women to make lasting change. An opportunity to develop and administer a specialty treatment group for women with a focus on trauma and addiction brought me to Vancouver in 2000. Over the years I’ve been blessed to participate in Anam Cara and other spiritual based groups and in turn have been able to pass the teachings on to women whom otherwise would never have had the opportunity to experience the Sisterhood of Anam Cara that we share.