Valley Forum: The price of privilege

In her recent letter to the editor (“Judge Others by Their Actions,” Aug. 4) June England expressed bafflement at Maurice Parker’s description of his experience of discrimination in Sonoma (“Sonoma Is Not Hallelujah,” July 3). I understand her disbelief that a community in which she has lived for 50 years is being characterized as racist. I understand, but I am not surprised. Because Ms. England’s personal experience is not everyone’s.

Ms. England, being a longtime Sonoman, may recall an incident some years back where a black man was detained by the Sonoma police for riding a bicycle at dusk without a headlight. Riding a bicycle. Rather than tolerate his treatment, this gentleman bought a full-page ad in the Index-Tribune with his photo and an account of his experience. The title asked the question, “Would you arrest this man?”

That was my introduction to some of the experiences of African-Americans in Sonoma.

Micro-aggressions, heaped upon a person day after day, year after year, over a lifetime wear a person down. Even if you have a university education and have served as an ambassador for the United States, like Mr. Parker, you are constantly given the message you are “less than” other people.

This death by 1,000 cuts kills, but oh so slowly.

“Did I not get that job/apartment/home loan because I didn’t qualify or because I am black?”

“Is that store clerk just rude to everyone or only to me because of my skin color?”

Recently a professional, middle class woman related in an interview on a Bay Area radio station that she feels the need to be wary of everyone she encounters once she leaves the sanctuary of her home and family. “Being a black woman at my age,” she said, “is exhausting.”

Some incidents are subtle, easy to dismiss by other people as misinterpretations. Except when they are not subtle: being stopped from entering an upscale Sonoma shop, being snubbed by a waiter at a restaurant, or being killed - on camera - by a policeman kneeling on your neck with his hands in his pockets.

And God help you if you arrive home jet-lagged after an international flight in the early morning hours and can’t find your house keys. If you are black, you may find the police have been called on you and you better not be “unruly” trying to explain that you are trying to get into your own house.

Have you ever been locked out of your house or apartment and had to climb in through a window? Have you ever driven with a broken tail light? Have you ever locked your keys in your car and had to break in? Have you ever gone to the store in your sweats? Have you ever gone jogging in an unfamiliar neighborhood? Have you ever been pulled over for exceeding the speed limit? If you have dark skin these transgressions may not just be unpleasant, they can be fatal. Things can turn deadly very quickly if you don’t keep your wits about you and stay calm in the presence of police.

And what if, on that day, you had received one too many of those 1,000 cuts?

Yes, the Cleo Lanes and the Maya Angelous and the Barak Obamas of the world – the black men and women exceptional in their field – may be treated (mostly) with respect. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule. In the United States, even in Sonoma, the ease with which you move through the world is directly related to the color of your skin.

If you really are serious about understanding the many subtle - and not subtle – ways we white folk are complicit and have benefitted from racism in our society, read Resmaa Menakem’s “My Grandmother’s Hands.” Read Ta-Nehisi Coats’ “Between The World and Me.”

We don’t need to apologize for being white. We do need to acknowledge the inconvenient truth of our privilege of having light skin in a country that invented the incorrect notion of race in the 1600s and profited immensely from that notion.

Our privilege is all around us, in the very air we breathe and, as such, is as difficult to see as the air - unless you truly listen to others who are not so privileged.

It hurts. It is profoundly dismaying to confront this reality. But to understand that the United States was founded by fallible people is not to detract from the love we have for our country.

Our commitment to make this country a better, more just and equitable one is, in fact, the epitome of patriotism.

Ellen LaBruce is a longtime Sonoma Valley resident.

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