Learning About Privilege & Racism

Privilege. That’s the big word in much of the NVC trainers’ world. Some of us have taken online courses and joined in groups to learn how to become allies for people of color. Others also participate in conversations on how to deal with the distress of having privilege in the face of wanting everyone’s needs to matter equally.

The population of my town, Ashland, is white and economically and culturally, mostly middle class. Thanks to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and the university, some, not many, people of color, primarily African Americans, live and work here. Recently, an African American OSF actor, during her morning walk, was subject to a racial threatening invective delivered by a person known to the police and considered “mentally ill.” The actor posted her account on Facebook and it went viral.

This incident stimulated an active response from OSF and other community members.

I recently went to a Saturday morning community forum on racism organized by OSF and members of the Southern Oregon University Multicultural Association. It was the second of its kind. Both were attended by 300 people. That’s a lot for a community of 26,000.

Because I led prejudice reduction trainings at the university in the 90’s, I thought this would be old hat for me. Not so. Hearing the humility and acknowledgment of ignorance by community leaders I’ve respected for many years, touched me. This was just the beginning. As the morning progressed, the opportunity to reflect deeply and share in small groups inspired personal “Aha’s” that shook me up.

I feel vulnerable sharing with you one of the illuminations I experienced. I teach English to adults in a program for families in the nearby city of Medford. Since I’ve been doing this for four years, I’ve developed a warm and caring relationship with the staff, mostly Mexican, and the students, all Mexican. There are women in my class who are, in my opinion, qualified to do much more rewarding and well-paid work than say, sorting pears, which requires standing in one spot for eight hours deciding which pears will go to “Gerber” and which will become expensive Harry and David Christmas gifts. So I encourage them to strive harder to learn English, to attend community college, to follow their dreams, to “improve their lives.” While I don’t say anything, I feel disappointment when they tell me they’re pregnant with their third or fourth child.

During a reflection at the forum, I got it.

I’m trying to teach them to “Be like me!”

I write this out of my longing for understanding and compassion. As I embark on my fifth year of teaching ESL, I’m grateful for the kindness, acceptance and meaning I receive in serving this community of English learners. I am thankful for the opportunity to keep growing my capacity to be an ally to those who have much less privilege than I do, and to those who live in fear because the color of their skin makes them vulnerable to hatred and violence.


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