The racially-based disturbances taking place throughout the country have forced many of us to examine our own consciences in regard to white privilege.
For me, the recent events in Louisville, Kentucky made me think back on how I started to become aware of my own white privilege.
In the summer of 1956, I was a 19-year old army recruit doing basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky. After five weeks of torturous training we were given a 48- hour weekend pass. On Saturday the entire unit rushed off to the nearest city for R&R. That city was Louisville, which was about 40 miles south of the base.
I hooked up with a buddy and took the bus into town. Another soldier in our company, who we hardly knew, came up to us and asked if he could hang with us in town.
He was a quiet guy, almost shy. We weren’t sure he’d be the best company for the boisterous weekend we had planned. However, if boot camp teaches you anything, it is that your survival depends on everyone in the squad working as a team. He was a member of our squad, so we invited him to join us.
Sixty-four years later, I remember his name, but not the name of my buddy. Both my buddy and I were white, Sails was black. But since our entire company was from Brooklyn, though it wasn’t common, few thought it odd for whites and blacks to hang together.
Louisville didn’t share those feelings. We entered the first bar and I ordered three beers. Nothing happened. I ordered again. Nothing happened. At first, I thought it might be that I looked 19 in a state where the drinking age was 21, not 18 as it was in New York. We left to try another spot. Same result. After the third or fourth bar, the reality became clear, it wasn’t our age. It was that two white guys were ordering a drink for a black guy.
It is hard to express the feelings of rage and disappointment that swept over me. Here I was in a military uniform, being refused service in a public establishment. The three of us had just volunteered years of our lives to serve our country and we were being made to feel invisible because of the racist attitudes of that community.
We went outside and found a cab driver who was black, who tried to be honest with us. He said he wasn’t even sure he could find a spot in what he called “the colored section“ of town that would welcome an integrated group, even if they were three soldiers in uniform.
But he did. We found refuge in a little chicken shack where we ate civilian food and drank beer that had more than a 3.2 alcohol content. We drank and ate a lot. But none of us knew how to discuss what had just happened. Finally, the chicken shack closed. My buddy and I went to a white only hotel; Sails went to a black only hotel.
We promised to meet in the morning, but it didn’t happen. Back at the post, Sails explained he slept past the time we were to meet. Since we too slept way past noon, we all agreed to believe what we didn’t believe. The truth was all of us wanted to forget and bury the night before.
I don’t mean to imply that this experience, in any way, equaled the experience of growing up black in the United States. At the time this happened, I had been on earth for something like 166,000 hours. I was made to feel the indignities of being invisible for maybe 12 of those hours. Sails would feel it, in various degrees, for his entire life.
The best I can say about the experience was it made me realize how being born white made my life different and better. I did not become an activist, but I was a true supporter of equal rights, because I tasted a tiny, tiny bit of inequality.
But there is more to the story of my journey to understanding my white privilege and how one must be ever vigilant for it not to encroach on your life.
Jump ahead 11 years. I was now 30, recently married, with a newly born child. I got a great job offer which meant moving from New York to Connecticut. We shopped for our first home in Newtown, Ct. (yes, that Newtown) and found our perfect house. It was an affordable three-bedroom ranch, on a large piece of property, on a street with light traffic. Actually, the house was such a value, we wondered why.
Driving with the realtor we saw three black children on the porch of the house next door. The realtor hemmed and hawed and said yes, a black family had recently bought the house.
I’m ashamed to say, despite my wife and my shared feelings on equal rights, that evening we had a long discussion on whether to buy the house. The concern was mostly about property value and the potential loss of resale value to our home. Remember, this was 1967 before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed and blockbusting was prevalent.
It was just over a decade that I had walked in a black man’s shoes and shared his humiliation. Now here I was making an economic decision as to whether or not I would live next to a black family.
I am, however, happy to say that the discussion ended by the two of us looking each other in the eye and saying that acting on our beliefs was more important than being part of the problem. The next day, we bought the house.
The two events taught me how fragile principles can be. Individual deeds makes us feel good and we believe we are marching in solidarity with the oppressed. But it’s not equality.
Equality demands consistent respect to those who are without power and it must be offered without conditions.
I know. I often fail in my attempts to walk in the shoes of others. Such moments remind me that no matter however enlightened I might feel, I must think deeper and try harder
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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