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This column was submitted to LebTown. Read our submission policy here.
As a very curious person, and always thirsty of information, one of the things that I always find myself asking is the “why” of things. Many times, we are taught to learn, but not to question the things that we learn. As an outsider I believe I have a unique perspective on the current social status of the United States and more specifically, Lebanon County. Two questions that have come to me in the past couple of days are the following, what are white supremacy and white privilege, and why do they exist?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary white supremacy means “a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.” and white privilege, according to the Cambridge dictionary, means “the fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.” Looking at these two definitions the question that follows is, why do some people believe that based on the color of their skin they are better than everyone else? What is the basis of such belief? What scientific grounds do we have that support that idea?
Nowhere in history it has being found that white people are better than anyone else simply because of the color of their skin. Now, is someone who has white privilege necessarily a white supremacist? Definitely not; white privilege, just like being born with a specific skin color, is not something you acquire but instead something you are born with. People who are white and have white privilege are many times not aware of this privilege and therefore don’t think that they have a particular advantage.
The sad part of all of this is that the media has contributed to re-enforcing the stereotypes that people of color are more prone to violence, crime, etc. with the underlying thought transmitted to us being that the reason people of color do all of these things is because of their skin color. The belief that someone behaves a certain way because of their skin color is simply one of the most bizarre beliefs that someone could have. Why? Because your skin color does not define your behavior.
White supremacy is the main issue that must be addressed when talking about racism in America. What about Lebanon County? Is there such thing as a white supremacist ideology around this area? You can bet there is. I want to challenge the local officials, District Attorney Pier Hess Graf, State Reps. Russ Diamond and Frank Ryan, and State Sen. Dave Arnold to publicly state that anti-racism work is a priority of theirs in the Lebanon Community.
What about white privilege? Is it real in the Lebanon County? Here is a story of a member of the community whose name I will keep private as this person asked me not to share it. The story shows how white privilege is real in our community.
This story is about the first time I truly understood white privilege. I was always aware that it was a thing. I never denied it, but this was the first time I knew in my gut it was real even in sleepy little Lebanon…
I have several students from my first years teaching with whom I remain in close contact. We call and text periodically, meet up for lunch, even take our kids to the park together sometimes (they had theirs too early and I had mine too late). Late one night a former student called me in hysterics. He needed to process something that had happened, and he knew I’d pick up the phone and listen. He had taken his kids out to see a movie and, on the way, home had been pulled over for a burnt-out taillight. He remained calm as the officer questioned him. The officer got a good look at his kids and immediately became hostile. Only one of his three kids look like him, a fair-skinned Puerto Rican with dark hair. His other two kids favor their mother with platinum blonde hair. The interrogation began. Who were these kids? Where were they going? Then the officer stated he “thought he smelled pot.” He proceeded to make him step out of his car, pat him down, and man handle him in front of his kids. He had to call his brother to pick up the kids as he was taken in for further questioning. Ultimately, he was released later that night without being charged with anything, but he was angry and humiliated. We cried together over the phone. I was in shock. I was helpless. This happened in Lebanon right near the movie theater. This wasn’t something happening on the news in another place.
A few days later something happened that drove the whole thing home. I often go grocery shopping late at night after my kids are bed for convenience’s sake. On this particular night, I was driving home from Giant with a car full of groceries and was pulled over for a burnt-out taillight. My skin crawled as I thought about what had just happened to my former student a short time before. The officer asked for my license and registration. Truthfully, I didn’t even have my license. I had just switched purses and had left it at home. The officer smiled and let it slide. He was at the squad car longer than what made me comfortable for a routine stop and when he returned to my car, he politely told me something was wrong with my registration. All of the information was correct except one number on my license plate was wrong. My heart started pounding. I knew that’s usually an alarm bell that a car is stolen, and I knew I was NOT sitting in a stolen car – PennDOT had made a typo. I prepared for the worst, wondering who I’d call so late at night to bail me out. The officer sighed and put his hands on his hips. He said, “Look, I can see you have a car full of groceries and you are who you say you are. I believe that this isn’t a stolen car, just a misprint. Contact PennDOT, request a reprint and then when it comes in the mail, swing by the station to show me just so I can close out the paperwork. Oh, and get that taillight fixed too!” He handed me the slip I’d need to bring in when I had things in order and got in his car and drove away.
I sat on the side of the road for a long time shaking and crying. I should’ve been tossed in the squad car and taken in. At the very least, my car should’ve been impounded, and I should’ve had to call for a ride home. But I’m an unassuming white, soccer-mom-looking lady and I was completely free to go. That’s white privilege. And in that moment, I completely understood.
Amauary Abreu is an aspiring entrepreneur and social activist who lives in Lebanon.