Racial learning & unlearning

Educating myself about white privilege
by Jay Howell

I am a life-long learner. And what I am learning now is one of the hardest lessons that I have ever encountered. I am a seventy-two-year-old retired white man who is coming face to face with the reality of my own white privilege.  

What I am learning to do is to shut up, listen intently, unlearn what I thought I knew, and be open to educating myself about white privilege.

And of course, who better to learn from than my three children who are all in their thirties.  My daughter married an African man from Sierra Leone. They live in Seattle with their two beautiful young boys. My oldest son and his biracial wife also live in Seattle where they are reveling in their first born, a beautiful baby girl. My youngest son lives in L.A., a producer and promoter of rap and hip-hop world music.  

In February of this year, my daughter wrote a beautiful and impassioned letter to me, her mother and her two brothers requesting that we begin to meet biweekly on Zoom to discuss racism, white privilege and the impact of these issues on her family and children. We considered inviting my children’s spouses but thought it best to initially start our conversations within our nuclear white family. We have been meeting every two weeks since then. One of the questions we formulated early on in our meetings was, “What are the best ways for me to recognize and stop perpetuating white privilege?”  

As you can imagine, the May 25 murder of George Floyd sharpened and intensified our family conversations. We were all deeply shocked and outraged by this public execution that happened right before our eyes. A few days later, my youngest son was injured, hit with police rubber bullets during a peaceful rally in L.A. 

I am learning that I have perpetuated the system of white privilege and white supremacy throughout my life—with little awareness of having done so. Reading Waking Up White by Debby Irving was a great start to correcting this. Debby, like me, came from an upper middle-class white family. And like me, never felt that she was a racist, was one of the “good white people.” That said, neither one of us had been able to see the damage American society has done to and continues to inflict upon black people.

Worse yet, I am woefully ignorant of the truth of the history of blacks in America. I did not know, for example, that the GI Bill effectively excluded returning black veterans. Many of my life choices—my education, escaping the draft, my career, where I raised my family—were all rooted in and shaped by my unconscious white privilege. As Jim Hightower once said of George Bush Sr., “…he was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.” 

It turns out I was born on second base.

My unlearning and learning continue. Through a comprehensive and painstaking personal examination of racism in America, I am immersing myself in articles, books, YouTube videos, conversations with friends. Per Emmanuel Acho’s suggestion in his video, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, my goal now is to educate myself first.    

Some suggested resources: