I went to preschool in Bronxville, at Sarah Lawrence College’s Early Childhood Center. My two years there were the most incredible and formative to my education. Inside this building, we understood that all of us toddlers were equal, there for the same reason. Our only instructions were to work together and treat one another with kindness. The Early Childhood Center provided me with an almost idealistic world that I didn’t even realize was a utopia. Once I left this bubble and arrived at elementary school, I was shocked to learn that my classmates and people of color worldwide were treated differently because of their skin color. But unlike preschool, my time in elementary school gave me a social reality check.
Flash-forward to about ten years later, I began my freshman year of high school at a well-funded, predominantly white public school in Lower Manhattan. I suddenly became aware that I, as well as my white peers, were extremely privileged—socioeconomically, in resources, in having more people who looked like us in the school building—and in my eyes, no one could deny that. This had always been there, in every school I had attended in the city, but I was just starting to grow cognizant of how strange that was. The privilege often translated to ignorance from some students, and my black peers were discriminated against and targeted on the daily. Thankfully, within this group, there were white allies who stepped up and became part of changing the conversation. More importantly, many of my peers of color responded and created spaces of education, discourse, inclusivity, and community. I graduate in a few weeks and am aware that the work at my school is nowhere near done. Engaging in conversations, listening to my peers of color, and learning how to use my allyship to support my classmates and help lead classroom discussions with my white peers remind me that some significant steps toward a shift in behavior and action have been taken.
I sit here today disturbed, saddened, enraged, deflated, and heartbroken. More and more innocent black lives are being taken at the hands of white authority and everyday civilians alike, with great intent and no shame. The fact that such despicable white people intentionally discriminate against black civilians and murder them in cold blood turns a knot in my stomach. I spend perhaps countless hours on Twitter. After reading hundreds of tweets about what’s happening around the nation, the same question lingers in my head, one that has propped itself so comfortably in my brain: when will this ever end?
I can’t help but be perturbed by social media. One of my best friends sent our group chat a screenshot of a certain affluent and famous supermodel’s Instagram post. She wrote that she’s only just started to recognize her white privilege. I acknowledge this is common for people and that maybe my specific anger toward her is thanks to her high celebrity status. But in a culture so controlled and fueled by social media, everyone’s journey to seeing their privilege is public. So many white people on my Instagram and Twitter feeds have emerged to repost the same five threads over and over again, robotically. The more I see my fellow white people sharing the same graphics and links over and over again, the more I wonder: is posting all they’re doing? What change is this instant and constant resharing actually creating? What many of these people might be failing to understand is that there’s a difference between sharing and acting and that one is more impactful than the other. I, too, am a reposter, but I know that I have to do way more than that. Even in the comfort of one’s home, there is so much more we can do. A large part of the change in the future has to come from us and what we’re doing—reading the literature of black authors and poets, watching their films, listening to our black friends with open ears, taking to the streets, engaging in conversation.
Our society perpetuates a whitewashed culture by default. Us white people alter the stories and ideas of our black peers to make them more palatable to us. Or, we don’t even allow these stories to be shared, because we get so uncomfortable at the prospect of directly engaging with them. From my point of view, that uneasiness can ultimately foster growth if we let those conversations happen. We, as a people, have been shutting out these voices for so long. It isn’t acceptable anymore.
The call for white people to adequately mobilize their privilege right now rings loud. While acknowledging it is a vital first step, simply recognizing your privilege isn’t enough—it’s the bare minimum. Taking action is necessary. Another one of my best friends describes white privilege as “stepping up and stepping back,” which is easy to piece together and accomplish. “Stepping up” entails using your voice and privilege to call out what’s happening, spread awareness, and be present; “stepping back” requires using that same platform to give a voice to peers of color.
I know I and all white people will never understand what it’s like to be black in this country. What I do understand is that we can always continue to learn. We can learn how to expand our minds, learn how to stop pretending our white privilege isn’t real. So much learning lies ahead for all of us, but I challenge my white friends and peers to take a moment to see the broader effect of practicing white privilege as “stepping up and stepping back.” To stop removing themselves and feeling unaffected by racist events that shake their friends and communities. The silence and pusillanimity that white people perpetuate can be extremely deafening, but anger has a voice and so does privilege. Black lives have always mattered, so I implore you to use your privilege for good and enact deep-rooted change for our black peers today, tomorrow, and every day.
Here are some amazing and impactful educational resources.
By Colette Bernheim
Photo by Christopher Anderson via Magnum