The Clash of White Privilege and Black History
by BRUCE SEAMAN
This opinion piece was published in the Ocala Star Banner on Sunday, February 19, 2017 with the title, Privileged to Choose Our History.
At the February 7 Marion County Commission meeting, Commissioner Kathy Bryant delivered a stinging rebuke to Robert Viacancich, a white pastor (pictured above left), when he insisted that white people enjoy privilege in our society. Bryant said she never experienced white privilege growing up very poor, and therefore white privilege was a bogus claim.
As is customary for us, white people, when confronted with a narrative that doesn’t match our own experience, like the black experience, we deny the validity of that different narrative while insisting ours is correct and authentic.
One favorite tactic is to deny that race matters by focusing on one aspect to disprove the claim. That’s how we get embarrassing statements about having black friends, hiring black workers, liking black sports figures or entertainers, and even studying black history. We believe this shows how race doesn’t matter to us. It really shows that we don’t understand how race matters to black (and other) people. We do this by denying their narrative, their experience, including their different experience of history.
Commissioner Bryant wouldn’t admit that race matters and bristled at the pastor’s insistence. She chose to focus on her own economic struggle and achievement as revealing the irrelevance of race as a factor and white privilege as contrived.
Black people have risen from grinding poverty to professional and financial success greater than Commissioner Bryant. The difference is that highly successful black people
Upon entering a retail store, are scrutinized by store personnel and security;
White privilege is only recognized when you thoughtfully consider the black person’s experience, not your own. Looking in a mirror doesn’t expand your point of view or your appreciation of the life of another.
Black people who become doctors, lawyers, teachers, first responders, military officers, business scions, scientists, or even County Commissioners are still black people and have to navigate a different, challenging terrain from white people.
Rev. Viacancich was correct. He has the wisdom to realize that one narrative – the white narrative – doesn’t fit all. In fact, many different narratives beg to be heard in our society that don’t fit the majority-defined norm. These narratives come from black people, women, Native peoples, gay people, Muslims, the homeless, veterans, the handicapped, and many more. Our ability to hear these stories, to recognize and reckon with their often painful history, makes us a wiser, more just, more compassionate, more positive, and more forward looking community and society. Our willingness to silence, reject, deny, and marginalize those narratives enables us to remain narrow-minded, self-absorbed, judgmental, dismissive, and, worst of all, indifferent.
Those narratives are often ugly, tragic, and regrettable. History is like that; it isn’t always what we like to hear. Suppression and rejection doesn’t remove it or change it. However, acceptance and recognition can move and change us.
Bridges Project and Liberation Ocala African American Council will return next year to the County Commission with language for a Black History Month proclamation. We hope that our actual local black history will not be rejected as “divisive” as characterized by Commission Chair Carl Zalak. It is history, just as historical as white history. It’s our history as a community, like it or not. Can we finally accept our history, learn from it, and yield the insistence that one narrative – the white majority narrative – defines all?
There is one more white privilege: you get to choose your version of history over others.
Bruce Seaman, President
Bridges Project of Ocala-Marion County