Thursday, April 4, 2013

More than just 'white privilege'

Janell Ross, writing in Wednesday's Huffington Post in an article titled "Black Unemployment Driven By White America's Favors For Friends," tried to insist that the jobless rate for African-Americans is double that of the population at large is because of so-called white privilege -- that white America simply takes its opportunities for granted and is inconsiderate of "people of color." She quoted as a source a recent book, "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism" by Nancy DiTomaso, a professor of organization management at Rutgers University who said that most white people admitted that they had little contact with blacks.

I understand that concern, but it's not necessarily the fault of whites. What's really needed is not so much a program to get more African-Americans in the pipeline but a way for black and white to have closer personal relationships -- attend the same churches, live in the same neighborhoods or otherwise associate with the same people.

Trouble is, that kind of "intimacy" was discouraged when I was growing up. And if my experience is any indication, it comes mostly from the black side.

Come again?

I came of age in the 1970s, a time when integration was at least a reasonable possibility. I attended largely white private schools and found myself in an almost-all-white conservative Presbyterian church, so white folks have virtually always been a part of my life. But for reasons I'll never understand this side of heaven, other black kids hassled me, one girl (yes, a girl) abusing me on a consistent basis at one of those schools. I thus decided to build my significant friendships with whites, leading to more scorn from my fellow African-Americans. At that point I didn't care.

As a 10th-grader at a prestigious Catholic prep school, I won two parts in the spring musical and was invited to two graduation parties. I was on the newspaper staff of both the major universities that I attended; at the second university I decided to go through fraternity rush and was extended a bid on the first night from the first house I visited. (I eventually accepted that bid and am a brother today.) In my early 20s I joined a socially prominent Presbyterian congregation; by the time I left 14 years later I had become a deacon and would likely be an elder today had I stayed.

In all of these places there were very few, if any, other blacks. Why was I so accepted, especially when I was often told that it wouldn't happen? I'm not sure I can answer that question so easily; that said, I was not trying to make a statement.

I was simply trying to find a home.

It thus could be that the high unemployment rate for blacks that Ross and DiTomaso refer to is connected to their inability or unwillingness to take risks, leave comfort zones and actually mix with people who don't "look like them"; if you do you risk being labeled "sellout," "honky-lover," "Oreo cookie." Teens who focus on their studies at the expense of a social life are even now often accused of "acting white."

I've worked at the same newspaper for over 16 years, and I got that job indirectly because I used to attend a integrated church with a now-deceased member of the editorial board -- a very fair-minded white man. In 1993 he was my instructor for one of my college classes; I did so well that he put my name in down there.

Maybe instead of complaining about "white privilege," we should be asking ourselves: "Are we connected to the right people, and will they vouch for us?" After all, we all feel most comfortable with those we already know. Perhaps we need to broaden our own horizons and cross some lines -- uncomfortable at first, of course, but well worth the effort down the road.

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