White Privilege in the Black World

Living with the Fear of Unintentionally Offending or Overstepping because I Honestly Don’t Know How to Respond

Growing up, my mother was very bigoted.  If you were not white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and straight, you were somehow less in her eyes.  She had derogatory names and jokes poking fun at people based on their race, religion, color and sexual preference.  It honestly turned my stomach.  I always swore I would never be like that with my children.

Admittedly, I believe I have done a good job raising my own children.  I have taught my children to get to know people as individuals and to look for common links instead of identifying them by one trait.  My children spent a portion of their childhood not even realizing that there were different slang terms to describe same-sex couples.  They grew up knowing the men who lived in the apartment below us as just another couple in love.  Love was love.  I never treated them as anything different so my children grew up feeling the same way.

One of my favorite stories to share about teaching my children to be colorblind happened on my daughter’s first week of kindergarten.  She came home on her second day of school, excited to tell me that she made a new friend.  When I asked what her friend’s name was, she admitted she couldn’t remember but that “she was a really nice black girl”.  I honestly worried that, by not saying anything, I would be condoning her beginning to identify and segregate people without ever getting to know them.  I chose to use it as a teachable moment.  I asked her how she would feel if someone picked one thing about her and, instead of learning her name or something else that made her an individual, I only referred to her by that trait.  She stared back at me blankly, not quite understanding.  So I began calling her “brown-eyed girl”.  For the rest of the afternoon and evening, every time I spoke to her, it began with “Hey brown-eyed girl”.  I made a point of doing it often so that was all she kept hearing.  Finally, after dinner, she asked me to please stop calling her that.  She told me she had a name and what I was doing was not very nice.  I asked her how she thought her new friend might feel.  My daughter had her “a-ha!” moment.  From that point on, she always came home telling me about her friends by name, talking about their interests, hobbies, pets and everything that made them an individual.

That is how I’ve always aimed to live my life.  I have never treated anyone differently because of their race, religion, sexual preference, or any other factor that makes up just one facet of who they are as a person.  I have friends from all walks of life and adore each one for the individual person they are.  I am forever looking for common bonds instead of divisive factors because I believe it’s easier to show compassion and empathy to people when you can connect to them in some way.  I honestly credit my depression in a strange way for that. I know firsthand what it feels like to feel lost, alone and inconsequential, like you just don’t belong in this world.  I never want anyone else to feel that way so I am forever trying to reach out and pull people in, let them know they are not alone.

It is through my battles with depression that I found my voice and also where I found myself questioning for the first time how to respond and to react.  After writing my first book about my experiences with abuse and struggles with depression, I had begun blogging more about mental health issues.  It had become a passion for me.  I was on a mission, determined to keep writing, keep fighting the stigma that surrounded mental health issues and try to make a difference in some small way.  Surprisingly, my writing began taking off, being republished on larger sites and being shared by different advocacy groups and counseling centers.

Every week or so, I would do an internet search to see the reach of my writing and always find myself honored and humbled at the shares I stumbled upon and the encouragement I received. I usually linked all the shares back to my author page, and went out of my way to thank everyone for their support. However, I came upon one share that I hesitated to respond to and openly share.

One of my posts was shared on a group that had a mental health awareness campaign committed to building an online community of support for Black women with mental health concerns. I understand mental illness well – it has been the demon on my shoulder my entire life. Yet as I scrolled through their page, I admittedly felt out of place because they struggle with very real issues that, based on my skin color alone, I will honestly never fully understand.

In the end, I chose not to post on their page, not because I didn’t find the cause worthy or wholly support it, but because I didn’t want my presence there to distract from their mission in any way. I did not want even one person questioning why I was there or whether I had an agenda by thanking them for their share. Instead, I quietly sent the head of the group this message:

“I wanted to take a moment to thank you for sharing one of my blogs on your page (I write under my maiden name B. L. Acker out of respect for the privacy of my children). I normally post thank yous on the blog share itself but I didn’t want to distract from your campaign and possibly cause anyone to get sidetracked into a discussion of whether or not I should be on your page – your mission is too important to let anything derail it or distract from it in any way, even temporarily. mental illness is colorblind and the stigma is strong – everyone needs somewhere they can feel is a safe place without judgment where they can turn to discuss how they feel and are struggling.

I honestly cannot even fathom the struggles you face based on racism and being made to feel like you are somehow less important based solely on your ethnicity. I will not even pretend to relate because some things can never be understood unless you’ve walked that path yourself, but I do understand how hard it is to function when you’re battling your own mind every day.

I write about my struggles with mental illness not only to heal myself but in hope that it might help others know they are not alone. While I know any support for a cause is a good thing, I also respect that sometimes it’s better to quietly send support rather than do something that might distract from the movement itself.

What you are doing is a very powerful and noble thing because no one should have to suffer in silence and there are many segments of society that aren’t getting the support, education or advocacy they truly need. I sincerely thank you for sharing one of my blogs on your page – I am honored that you found my writing worth sharing. And please never forget that you a truly a blessing for reaching out to help those who are suffering and feeling alone, like no one understands how they feel or where they are coming from. The world truly needs more people like you. Stay strong.”

Part of me still questions whether I did the right thing by messaging quietly instead of posting because their cause is so great and they deserve everyone’s support, yet my mind keeps going back to that young woman who needs help, needs a safe place to go to talk about her struggles with others who can fully understand them. That group is about helping those young women, not about my linking yet another page back to my author page. In the end, I think I did the right thing but I’m honestly not 100% sure.

I have always considered myself to be colorblind yet I know the whole world does not see things the same way.  There is so much bigotry in this world on all sides because some people have been taught to hate and others have learned to hate in response to the wrongs committed by others.  I hate even having to question whether I had made the right choice or having to walk on eggshells, worried I might offend people by my sheer ignorance in not knowing how to respond.  I want to stand up and encourage unity and strength, but I’m afraid I won’t be heard above the deafening roar of all the battles others are fighting.

I’d love to be able to understand fully what other people are going through, but admittedly, I’ve only walked in my own shoes.  I can relate strongly to those struggling from mental illness, suffering from abuse and trauma because we have walked the same path.  There are so many others in this world, though, being persecuted and belittled every single day, people dying, because of their skin color or who they love or the faith they choose to practice.  Try as I might, I cannot fully understand or empathize because I have never lived it myself.  All I can say is that I am so sorry for the cruelty in this world and beg them to please stay strong and don’t let it beat them because I know far too well the road of depression.  I have been walking it my whole life and wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.  To those who have wandered onto my path because of everything you’ve endured, please know that you are not alone.  Never give up hope.  Other people care.  We might not always know the right words to say, but we genuinely and sincerely care.

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