Feb. 1 marked the monthlong celebration of Black History Month.
This month is dedicated to learning about black history, adversity, celebrating the culture, and understanding the significant contributions this population has made to our country.
As I pondered how to write about this subject, I fully understood that I am not competent to speak with authority in regard to this issue, nor do I have the context on which to speak on it and give it the justice it deserves.
I do, however, have the power to examine my own privilege and become more aware of how my privilege has served me, a middle-class white heteronormative female, in my lifetime, and to see that others do not enjoy that same privilege.
What is privilege? At a minimum, privilege is rights, advantages, or immunities that occur for only a particular person or group of people. In the big picture, what privilege means to me is that I may enjoy certain benefits in life (that I may not always be aware of) that others do not enjoy. Specifically, racial privilege—what benefits have I enjoyed that others (people of color) may not enjoy?
I remember learning about privilege when I took my graduate-level cultural competency course. I remember feeling very uncomfortable, learning about the adversity others have faced that I myself have not encountered. My professor asked the class, “Raise your hand if you can go into any store in Western Oklahoma and find the products you need to care for your skin and hair.” All but two people raised their hands. They were both African American women. One volunteered that she could not find cosmetics to match her skin tone and hair care products that would work for her in mainstream stores. She reported she had to go to specialty stores or order her products online. I realized I had never had that problem.
Another student, an Indian immigrant, in the same class expanded this idea, stating she could not find the food she liked to eat, or had traditionally consumed with her family, at most grocery and department stores, but had to seek out that food at stores specializing in those types of food.
In another class, a black male student said he always kept his hands out of his pockets and made a point to purchase something in every store he entered so that he would not be accused of stealing.
This really hit me. I didn’t understand how I could have enjoyed those things all this time and not realize others were unable to. These examples are just small reminders of the privilege whites enjoy, often unaware that they are privileges.
My goal this Black History Month is to support at least one black-owned business, to read literature about black history written by black authors, and to assess my privilege, using questions similar to these:
• What behaviors do I enjoy that a person of color may not? (For example, while shopping, moving within my community, events, expressing emotions, etc.)
• When I enter a room, am I most likely going to be surrounded by people who look and talk like me? How would it feel to not blend with my co-workers or community?
• What assumptions and biases do I have about people of color that are not true? Are these assumptions and biases harmful?
I urge my readers to research Black History Month and to examine their own privilege. If you feel uncomfortable while doing so, that means you are touching on an area in which you can grow as a human and become a better neighbor, friend, or co-worker.
Sarah Mears-Ivy brings 13 years of experience in the field of human sciences and advocacy.