"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Examining My White Privileged Heart in the Aftermath of Charlottesville

Indignant? Horrified? Dismayed? 

I can’t find the exact right word, or combination of words, to adequately describe my feelings about what happened in Charlottesville and in the days since. I can’t fathom the depths of bigotry that motivate the hateful rhetoric and symbolism of the white nationalist movement.

How do we even begin to heal the vast chasm that divides these extremists from the rest of us?

The fact that there is an “us” and a “them” is abhorrent, but I will clearly stand with my sisters and brothers and declare myself on the side of People of Color, Jews, the LGBTQ community, and anyone else targeted by the vile (anagram of evil) fringe that bangs its drums to the rhythm of fanatical narrow mindedness.

Is it a paradox to be intolerant of white supremacists while calling for them to be tolerant of others? Are we allowed to hate them and the people who refuse to harshly condemn them? Can we claim that we are on the righteous side of the abyss and are therefore justified in our indignation? Jesus would tell us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. I am not sufficiently spiritually evolved to be so charitable, all the while needing to believe in my core that love will somehow be the answer.

I also know that I have to frequently examine my own heart as it relates to stereotypes. I am guilty of having put people in boxes. Certainly this week, I have lumped the white supremacists—them—together. There is something oddly comforting in insisting I have nothing in common with that torch-carrying mob. (Thanks for ruining Tiki torches for me, by the way.)

I was raised in a predominantly white, conservative Midwest suburb by progressive, liberal parents who taught me that all people were equal and worthy regardless of race, color, creed, gender, etc. I’d convinced myself that I was color blind, and was horrified by racist comments, attitudes and stereotypes. Of course, with only a couple of black students in my high school graduating class of 450, my experience in putting my convictions into practice was limited.

As an adult, I learned an important lesson on the risks of pigeonholing individuals based on physical characteristics. I call it “The Time I Put My Privileged White Foot in My Mouth.”

I had just met an executive of my husband’s company. Over pre-dinner cocktails, we chatted about education. He’d attended a Jesuit university; my father had two degrees from another Jesuit institution, and my son was enrolled at Loyola in Chicago at the time. At some point, I sized up this affable, 6-foot, 5-inch African-American man and began to ask him The Question:

“Did you play ----?”  

Before I even got the word basketball out of my mouth, he responded, “No. I played the trumpet.”

He was gracious. I was mortified. Thankfully, my daughter played the trumpet, so I hid my shame by nattering on about jazz. It taught me an important lesson about making assumptions, even well meaning ones. I asked myself if I’d have asked the same question of a tall white man—or woman for that matter. I thought I would have. I hoped I would have, but the truth is, I wasn’t sure. At the very least, it was rude of me to assume anything based solely on his height and the color of his skin. Worse, I may have seriously offended him by making such a thoughtless judgment.

I’ve never forgotten the humiliation I felt at having typecast that gentleman, reducing him to a cliché. It was an important lesson in discerning how an offhand or glib comment—one that may seem harmless on the surface—could be perceived as bigoted and thoughtless, perhaps even hurtful, on the receiving end. 

At my high school reunion recently, I found myself in the midst of a discussion about our school’s mascot, the Scout, which used to be illustrated as a blue and gold, longhaired, feathered brave in a loincloth. The logo has since been amended to eliminate the brave, and has been replaced by a spear over our school’s monogram. (A step in the right direction.)

“I don’t understand why they changed it,” a classmate said to me. “We didn’t mean anything offensive by it.”

“Yeah, but what if it was offensive to Native Americans?” I asked.

The exchange was another chance for me to think about what it’s like for the shoe to be on the other foot. And the truth is, I will never really know. I don’t know what it is like to be Native American, African American, Mexican, gay, Muslim or Jewish. But I can seek out opportunities to understand, to have the hard conversations, to stand in solidarity instead of on the sidelines.

I need those opportunities so I don’t get complacent about how marginalization, well-meaning assumption, and cultural appropriation take place in our world every single day.

When it comes to race, it doesn’t matter how good or pure our intentions are if the end result is hurtful or repugnant to an entire group of people.

On the other hand, if my beliefs are objectionable to grand wizards and Nazi flag-carrying, Confederate sympathizers, I guess I’ll just have to live with that.


  1. Well written and honest, thank you, Mary. I'm Jewish and, growing up, I didn't understand how many people are anti-semitic, anti-anything that is not caucasian, and Christian (Protestant gets more points than Catholics - sorry, Mary). I am now acutely aware of comments like "I have a neighbor who is Jewish (Muslim, gay, etc.); "Do you know (insert Jewish name here)? I thought you all knew each other." I bristle at comments like those I mentioned and I try to kindly point out the bigotry, if at all possible. I have no point to make here other than I've experienced anti-semiticism and it hurts. There is only one race, the human race.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments and for sharing your experience. I'm so sorry that you have been on the receiving end of hurtful comments. It breaks my heart that people can be so thoughtless. It shames me to admit that there are times when I could've used better judgment in these matters. You are so right... we are all part of the human race. And by the way, I am not Catholic. 😇

  2. Mary: I think (hope) many Americans are asking these questions today. Notice I didn't say white Americans. Everyone has prejudices and this is a good time to have a dig around to see how deep they lie. I think certainly some of my Asian-American friends need to drill down on their own attitudes: are they true bearers of the non-racial flag or just comfortable in enjoying their "almost white" privilege? Great article, as usual Mary.

    1. Eileen, thank you so much. I appreciate the point of view that you share… Since we are all human beings, I guess we are still works in progress. I know I still have lots of room for improvement! 😍

    2. Thank you, Mary. Well said. I miss seeing you, but at least I get to read your well thought out wisdom. xo

    3. Thank you so much, Nancy! I sure miss seeing you, too! <3

    4. http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/266197/civil-war-here-daniel-greenfield#.WNvr4kf4z9l.facebook

  3. Mary, as always I enjoy your writing style and peeking into your heart. You are gold. Beautiful article and yes, we all need to examine how we perceive others. It is incumbent upon everyone to ask ourselves difficult questions, we must elevate this conversation if we have any hope of moving forward. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much, Julia! Much appreciate your very kind thoughts!

  4. I appreciate your honesty and introspection regarding Charlottesville based on your own experiences.

  5. Great article, Mary. As always.


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