Wait, what? I was confused. Celebrate being white? When for years, I have been learning about systemic racism and white privilege? When my white ancestors enslaved, oppressed, and committed genocide upon people of color for hundreds of years? When my “white brother and sisters” are protesting the removal of Confederate statues with violence and vitriol? Whiteness seems to only signify oppression and racism. Why on earth would I celebrate that?
As I let her words soak into my brain, maybe I understood her point just a little. For whatever God-only-knows reason, I was born with white and middle-class, with pale skin and blue eyes and parents who owned a home and had steady jobs. We weren’t rich and we weren’t highly educated. I grew up in Appalachia, the southeast corner of Ohio, and we struggled to pay bills just like every other family I knew. I was the first person in my immediate family to earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree. We were just regular, white people, trying to make a living. Why should I celebrate?
Maybe celebrating whiteness doesn’t mean celebrating racism. Maybe it means acknowledging in a positive way the gifts of privilege and the culture that shaped me. I grew up feeling safe and respected--at home, at school, at work. Teachers understood my family dynamics, because they were similar to their own. Police treated me kindly when they dealt with me, because I was not seen as a threat. Most of my friends shared some version of my Christian faith and celebrated similar holidays. I grew up feeling attractive and intelligent. I had strong role positive role models. People treated me as if they expected me to achieve. They listened when I spoke, if I spoke respectfully and intelligently. I learned that I had something valuable to contribute to a conversation. I grew up confident, self-assured, and eager to try new adventures. These are gifts. They are gifts that every child should have, but every child does NOT. But, maybe I can learn to acknowledge those gifts, even as I work to lay the privilege aside.
The gift of my whiteness taught me that if I work hard and treat others with respect, I can achieve success in life. That was a gift and it served me well. I know now that others have to work much harder than I did to get half as far. I know now that others had to learn to endure hatred and bigotry with nonviolence. I can celebrate the lessons I learned from my loving family and still acknowledge the patent inequity of society. Understanding privilege causes me to understand the embarrassment of riches that has created my life.
If I can celebrate what makes me who I am, and own my whiteness, with all the gifts that it brings, maybe I can celebrate others. Maybe when I acknowledge the gifts of privilege, I can work for an equitable society, where the gifts of respect, tolerance, and understanding are truly given to all.