Monday, January 19, 2015

What's in Your Backpack?

I read this one first. It is entitled "Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean" by Joyce Miller. (12/18/14) It's a painful read. Today, on our national observance of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I went looking for this essay to reread it. At first I couldn't find it.

What I found was this: "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh. (1988)

Wait, what? This essay has been around since 1988? But I had never heard of it. It took the summer of Ferguson and beyond to knock this concept into my consciousness. In the past 27 years our invisible backpacks have been doing their jobs and the truth of this essay has made little headway.

Our society feels more segregated than ever to me. Our children may go to school in the same building but often are moved along very separate tracks. The law may prevent discrimination in housing but the invisible forces at work separate us from one another. It is possible that we will never be neighbors, never go to the same church, never even be friends on Facebook.

The invisible backpack makes us feel good about ourselves, while at the same time, prompts us to fear others who are not like us. "Other-ness" is anxiety provoking. We shrink from the people and situations that make us feel anxious, sometimes even assigning blame where none is merited. We simply assume that what we are is normal. It shapes all of our thoughts and actions.

I find this description of the evolution of the song "I Will Overcome" to "We Shall Overcome" particularly telling:

"The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say 'we,' " explains Johnson-Reagon. "In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say 'I,' because if you say 'we,' I have no idea who's gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, 'We're gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.' And you sit there on the bench and say, 'Hmm. I have no idea.' It is when I say, 'I'm gonna bring cake,' and somebody else says, 'I'll bring chicken,' that you actually know you're gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it's 'I,' because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I's."

And so we are 55 years from the turning point in the title of that song and 27 years from Peggy McIntosh's unflinching essay about how far we still must come in addressing race in this country. And we,


And I am just beginning to scratch the surface.




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