When traveling by myself in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2001 — just seven years after the end of apartheid — I had a major aha moment while having tea in the lobby of the historic, old-world-luxury Mount Nelson Hotel.
Feeling somewhat awkward in my solo budget-travel state, I was in the midst of sipping Earl Grey when something clicked within me on the most profound of levels. It occurred to me that due to the mere fact my skin is white — with the bonus of having very blond hair at the time — I was essentially given free rein to go wherever I desired and do whatever I wanted, and no one would ever question me, look at me strangely, or think I didn’t belong.
Yes, I was in one of the most segregated countries on the planet, but it really struck me that this applied in a broader context: No matter where I go, simply because of the color of my skin — along with being tall and reasonably well-dressed, in addition to being educated and American — I enjoy a certain level of trust, respect (this was just before 9/11) and service, and almost always inherently avoid outright discrimination and bodily harm, even as a woman (which itself is topic for another discussion, since that is only a very recent phenomenon and may apply to fewer places, but I digress…).
Suddenly the phrase “carte blanche,” which literally translates as “white card,” came into my head and I immediately made the connection to the District Six Museum’s display of various ID cards for citizens under that classified system: White, Coloured, Black, and Indian. In the United States, and in a global sense, it is an invisible card I carry that gives me entree, ease and yes, a certain unearned privilege, to live a life free of so many stresses, layers of misperceptions, institutionalized prejudice, fear, bias and/or hatred that the majority of those of darker shades must endure and are too often endangered by.
I realize that in telling this story I may sound naive, but this came at a crucial point for me. At that time, I was not only quite aware of, but particularly passionate about the issue of racial inequality, in theory since childhood, but in practice for more than 10 years. I had many interpersonal experiences, observations and relationships informing a significant understanding of the complexities all that entails, and earlier that year I had started a nonprofit organization to dispel stereotypes and bigotry in order to bring women together, with the motto Recognizing Our Unity; Celebrating Our Diversity.
But being in a place where racism had so recently been explicitly acknowledged and addressed in such a direct manner brought this concept home to me in a way that until that point in my life, because I am White, had been onlysubtly perceptible, and even then, only because I was sensitive to the issue.
A couple of years later, while waiting in the cold for an MTA bus on First Avenue in the East Village, I experienced this overtness in reverse. Two Black women chose to ditch the delayed public transportation, and I watched in disbelief as two, three, five, six open taxis passed by as they tried to hail one. Disgusted, I asked if they needed help, and of course the next cab stopped for me, but when the driver realized the Black women, not me, were getting in, he drove away. Finally I asked where they were going; I was so appalled I decided I would just get in and share it with them. The irony was that they were going to 78th Street between First and Second, probably one of the Whitest blocks in the city. It was perhaps the closest I will come to knowing what it must feel like to deal with race on a daily basis, simply trying to accomplish the most mundane of tasks.
Fast-forward to February 2012. After giving a talk at the Science, Industry and Business Library, a young Black man came up to thank me for what I had shared, how it made him think differently about his life; he pointed out what he had written down so he could make positive change. He then said he had recently been released from federal prison and asked if I would be willing to work with someone like him. Well, this began a journey in which I learned more specifically about the consequences of race and the criminal justice system, the roots of mass incarceration and the many barriers to re-entry. It has since widened and deepened my understanding of the unhealed wounds, scars and repercussions of our country’s history of slavery.
In the aftermath of injustice after injustice against people of color, we are dealing with symptoms of a very sick system that is made up of people, and people are crying out for transformation and healing. It is not a Black problem; it is not a White problem. It is a human problem. No matter what card-carrying member of our race you proclaim (or are deemed) to be, we’re all in this man-made mess together — and we will only solve it one story, one interaction, one aha moment at a time.
(Today’s PGG essay originally published on www.kristinaleonardi.com on December 5, 2014)
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