One thing about privilege: it’s easy to forget.
That’s actually one of the characteristics that make privilege what it actually is – the ability to forget that our experiences are different (and often easier) than those of others, the ability to shield ourselves from reality so effectively that we actually forget that privilege exists.
Over the weekend I was doing some research and reading in an attempt to become a better ally and activist for the Black Lives Matter movement, and it reminded me of an experience I had as a teen. An experience that was eye-opening at the time, and again as I reminisced, but an experience that I also was ultimately able to forget prior to this reminder. This is personal and vulnerable, but it’s too important not to share it with you all.
When I was 16 I began a 5-year relationship with a black man. Early on in our relationship, I was invited to join him at his family reunion. It was a huge event held in a park that had to include at least 100 family members. I was nervous and shy as any young woman would be meeting her boyfriends’ extended family for the first time, but I had not anticipated the exact level of discomfort I would experience that day.
For the first time in my young life, I was the only white person at a gathering. There was a sea of beautiful black faces, but I stood out. Everyone was nice to my face, but there were some whispers and giggles about my then boyfriend’s white girlfriend along with some light-hearted teasing about how I had never tried collard greens or black-eyed peas. I remember running over to my boyfriend’s mom to start helping her put out the food. She saw the look of discomfort on my face and she said something to me that I thought I would never forget…“Honey the feeling you are experiencing right now is what I feel every single day of my life.”
Honey, the feeling you are experiencing right now is what I feel every single day of my life….the other thing is, Melanie, I will never get a break from it. After you leave here, you will get a break from it.
She was a real estate agent in the same mostly-white neighborhood that she lived in, so she was no stranger to stares, stereotypes, or racist comments masked as jokes. But this was my first time out of my comfortable bubble. This single afternoon was my only experience anywhere close to this in my little 16 years of life, and during a time where I wasn’t truly aware of my own white privilege, or the continued struggle of black people in our country. She continued on to say, “the other thing is Melanie, I never get a break from it. After you leave here, you will get a break from it.”
I knew what she was telling me was a big deal, but truthfully, I am not sure how much of this actually sank in at the time. After all, I was able to forget. But as I look back on this memory now, I am really starting to “get it”, and understand the full magnitude of my white privilege.
I now know what she meant was that I could return to my white privilege and forget about this experience. I could breathe again. In most circumstances, I had the convenience of forgetting how I felt that day; and the convenience of forgetting that is how our Black and Brown brothers and sisters are treated EVERY day.
Sure, there were reminders, but they were subtle and occasional. For example, when I took my first social work job at the Veteran’s Hospital, I worked with many Black staff and patients. Early in my time there, when I’d feel the discomfort return, I would think back to my then-boyfriend’s mom and her words that day. But outside of specific situations, my privilege allowed me to forget.
Additionally, after going out on my own professionally, having children, and moving to the suburbs, I am sad to admit that I continued to forget. I forgot about the discomfort. I lost sight of how my Black and Brown friends feel this discomfort, and much, much worse – every single day and without any breaks.
My privilege allowed me to go home that day. leaving the discomfort behind. And my privilege allowed me to forget that people of color don’t have that luxury.
I am now making a public affirmation that I will no longer allow myself to forget. I am committed to continuing to feel uncomfortable, to educate and remind myself of my privilege and the struggles of people of color, and to fight for what is right so that my Black friends don’t have to walk around with anxiety or in fear of the white situations they find themselves in.
I encourage you to make the same commitment. It can be hard to realize or admit our shortcomings but remember: change and growth are seldom easy. I hope that this resonated with you and that we can all learn to work together with inclusion and equality at the forefront of everything we do.
If you are struggling to unpack your emotions around the current state of race relations in our country, or want to know more about how you can grow into becoming a better ally, I invite you to message me or schedule a time to chat. You can always count on a confidential, safe space to feel, learn, and develop your emotional intelligence to make you the best possible version of yourself!
Mind Your Strength,
Melanie Shmois, MSSA, LISW-S, is a licensed social worker, holding a Master’s Degree (MSSA) from Case Western Reserve University and a B.A. in Sociology with a minor in Spanish. After spending 2 decades helping others achieve their mental and personal goals, Melanie worked with Master Coach Instructor, Brooke Castillo, and became a certified Life and Weight Coach through the Life Coach School.