This is the question my almost-10-year-old daughter asked on the last day of our bus trip through civil rights historical sites in the south.
It’s a more complicated question than it sounds. The answers are yes, no and maybe.
Yes, we are white. Even though we are darker than most white people and often get “mistaken” for Latino or other ethnicities, most people in the world take one quick look and see white and therefore we are white. Yes, we are white. Even though we are Jewish and haven’t always been considered white by certain racists, and often haven’t seen ourselves as white. Yes, we are white. Because we have white privilege whether we like it or not – no one will ever follow us around in a clothing store, expecting us to steal; it’s unlikely that anyone will ever assume we got our jobs because of affirmative action; we may never experience what it’s like to be treated as second class citizens or thought of us as inferior in any way based on the color of our skin.
There’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to be white. That feels tired of whiteness and it’s sense of smug superiority. When I recently participated in NPR’s Race Card Project where you write down six words about race, I wrote, “I am tired of white people.” I feel more at home in the company of people of color and identify so strongly with movements for racial equality, I am in some sense a race traitor. But I can’t just give up my white privilege. It’s not an old coat I can drop off at the thrift store or leave at the curb on trash day. The only thing I can do is work to end all vestiges of slavery, all remnants of white privilege, all aspects of our society and our culture that continue to stratify people based on race (and other so-called differences, whiteness being the norm.)
After visiting the sites where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born, preached, lived with his family, marched with his brothers and sisters, and ultimately was killed; after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge of Bloody Sunday and seeing Klan robes in several museums and hearing about fire hoses turned on children; after being in a Woolworth’s that didn’t serve blacks, and standing on the spot where a white racist bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, and seeing schools where black children had to fight to get a foot in the door; after driving down southern streets where buildings that were once slave holding pens still stand, after all this, I realize why my daughter has asked the question.
Given the history, who would really want to be white? Who would want to be identified with the group that colonized and captured, tortured and terrorized, demeaned and excluded African Americans? Not me.
That’s one takeaway from this trip.
But the other is equally powerful to me. Hundreds, if not thousands of whites – mostly northerners – travelled to the south to join the movement, put their bodies on the line because they knew America could be better (or at least as good as it was on paper). These young, idealist, justice-seekers and righteous clergy risked their lives registering African Americans to vote, integrating buses and terminals, marching for equality. Some sacrificed their lives for our nation’s security and our nation’s soul. For this, they deserve Purple Hearts, along with all of the other fallen activists who strived to make America be the land it says it is and is supposed to be.
The takeaway is that the civil rights movement was interracial. I’m not taking away the primacy and weight of African American leadership or sacrifice, but I’m saying that good whites joined, followed and sometimes led.
If a movement is to succeed in this country, it has to be diverse, it must attract allies who recognize that accepting a status quo of unfairness is precisely UnAmerican. This is a nation born of revolution. That’s the American spirit. It’s a revolution that didn’t end in the 18th, 19th or even 20th centuries. It’s alive still. We don’t have to look far to find it and join today’s movements for justice and equality.
Will you answer the call?
I hope you will consider taking this Civil Rights Educational Freedom Tour next year, especially if you have middle or high school children. There is no book or movie or video game or website that can replace the experience of being there, seeing with your own eyes, hearing with your own ears and meeting the people who lived through, fought and survived Jim Crow.
That Montgomery County Office of Human Rights sponsors this tour is nothing short of visionary. Sure, we can visit Glen Echo and U Street and stops on the Underground Railroad in Maryland. But a pilgrimage to the south has a more powerful impact. It will stir your soul and spark not only a renewed commitment to justice, but a renewed faith in the idea of America.
This trip plants a vibrant seed for all of us to continue the work closer to home, on the blocks where we live, in our own school districts and religious institutions, workplaces and public spaces. That’s the call.
Finally, I want to say what a privilege is was to take this trip with wonderful people from Montgomery County. We were a diverse group in every way. I am so grateful to have shared this experience with my mom, Barbara Drizin, who raised me to recognize that I am like no other person, like some other people, and like all other people.
Julie Drizin, Silver Spring