by Loren Niemi

Story Summary

Loren learned what White privilege means when he was willing to look at how it worked every day - in a traffic stop, at the store and in community meetings. Once Loren saw it, how could he not question, “This is what we live with?"

Discussion Questions

  1. When have you experienced a difference in how you are treated in everyday situations based on assumptions about the color of your skin? Are you given the "benefit of a doubt" or permission to act a particular way or not because you are a certain color?
  2. That first question can extend to differences based on gender, religion, class or ability. What power do we give or deny others based on our assumptions of appearance or cultural beliefs? Why do we make those assumptions? Where or how did we learn them?
  3. Once you recognize your privilege, what can you do to extend it to those without? Listen? Recognize others’ experiences? Become an ally? Educate your peers? Work to change the systemic (legal and cultural) supports for privilege? What do you believe would make a difference? What are you willing to do?

Resources

  • Everyday Racism: A Book for All Americans by Annie Barnes
  • Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage by Daria Roithmayr
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • A Good Time for the Truth - Race in Minnesota, Shin, Sun Yung editor. Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, MN 2016

Themes

  • African American/Africans
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript
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Hi, Loren Niemi here.

In 2000, I was living in Chicago and working with David, a community organizer, on a project on the south side to bring a community together to talk about their history. David is African American and I’m obviously White and, this particular night, we were at a meeting. And while we’re there, I got a migraine headache and I said, “David, you’ve gotta drive me to someplace to get some medicine.”

And I gave him the keys to my Jaguar and we started off. We got a couple of blocks when we got stopped by a policeman. A squad car pulls us over and I said, “What’s going on?”

And David said, “I think we’re being stopped while driving while black.”

The cop came to the window with his hand on the gun and asked for license and registration. David said, “I am taking my wallet out of my pocket with my left hand, Officer.”

And he very carefully and slowly did that and handed it to the policeman, and I said, “I am reaching for the registration in the glove compartment.”

And I very carefully did the same thing and handed it over. And the cop was quite confused. He says, “Whose car is this?”

And David said, “It’s his.”

And he says, “Well, why are you driving?”

And I said, “I’m, I’m ill and he’s, he’s taking care of me.”

Cops says, “What’s going on? Is this a drug deal?”

“No, Officer. We’re working with the neighborhood group.”

With that he turned and went back to his squad car to run a check and came back with that look on his face that said he found nothing and let us go.

A little while later, David and I had to do a project in Georgia and his wife wanted to come with him. I didn’t care, not an issue for me except that his wife was White, and David said, “You know as Faulkner says, ‘The past is not the past. It’s not dead.'”

So, we decided or rather he decided that when we were in Georgia, his wife and I would be seen as the couple and he would be seen as the partner. I understood this because with my friend, Deedee, in Washington whenever we went out together, she being Black, and myself being White, always produced this look. Always produced this kind of sense of, “Who are these people?”

And, when I held her daughter, Tage, in a grocery store, or in a department store there would be whispers and, sometimes, the whispers would turn into actual comments. I could walk away from that at any point. Deedee couldn’t.

When David and his wife and I were in Georgia, we were the couple and the friend, and we did our work with a minimum of confusion or a minimum of distraction.

A couple of years later, I was working with my public policy partner, James, and we were working with a group of people on the north side of Minneapolis. I was the only white guy in the room which was not unusual for those kinds of projects. When one of the people who was participating went into this long, long digression about the White man is the devil. Other people in the room looked at Mr. Davis and they began to get uncomfortable. Finally, one of the African American women there said, “Enough of that. Enough of that old school stuff.”

James said, “Let’s take a break to collect our cool.”

And, during the break, Mr. Davis came up to me and he said, “I didn’t mean you.”

I said, “That’s really disappointing, because if you’re gonna talk about the White man as the devil, I’m the devil. I have to be. If you make an exception for me, you need to make an exception for everyone. And that is, in fact, the fact that it was the way it was.”

A little while later, James and I were in a church in a suburban setting, mostly a white congregation. We were talking again about the same issues. About housing equity and I said, “James, at some point you know we’re gonna talk about white privilege and, when it happens, I need to say a few things.”

And he did. He did get to white privilege. And, then, no sooner had he said that, when I stopped the group. I said, “You’ve heard my partner, James, talk about white privilege and because he’s black, you are discounting it. So I’m going to tell you the same thing from a white perspective.”

“I have white privilege. I never asked for it, but it’s there. It’s there because of history. It’s there because of school. It’s there because of churches. There because of all those things that we never asked any questions about or even paid attention to. But the reality is that when James and I go someplace, I’m granted a pass by virtue of being White that he does not get by virtue of being Black.”

“I have, when I drive a car and the police never stop to say, ‘Is this the right car? Is this the right man driving it?’ But it would. I’ve been with people who are questioned. When I’m at a drugstore or when I’m in a department store, I’m not followed because I’m White, but I’ve been with people who are. It is not something that we choose. But once we are aware of it, we have to do something. You have to make a choice about how you want to respond whether you want to turn away or whether you want to face it.”

During the breakup a woman came up to me and she said, “When you started in on that I expected blame. But you didn’t do that. You talked about experiences you had that I’ve never had. It was kind of surprising to me that I had never thought about those things.”

I said, “Yeah, you know that’s kind of the way it works. We don’t know and, because we don’t know, we don’t think about consequences. But if we think about consequences the question becomes, ‘What can we do?’ How can we say to others I’m not going to let my advantage, my privilege, keep you from opportunity? I’m not going to let my privilege stop me from saying you and I, we have something to share. We have something to learn from each other.”