Considering My Own Racism: The time I opposed an MLK holiday

Since I started this blog series over a year ago, I’ve been much more aware of my thoughts and actions regarding race. And with that awareness more memories are popping up.

When I was reading Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, one of her experiences reminded me of a time when I spoke from a racist perspective — or at least an unaware one.

I was in my late 20s and assigned to the calendar committee for our school system. Our job was to come up with the school calendar for the upcoming year.

One of our considerations was for the first time to add a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on the same day as the federal holiday in January.

I was opposed to adding another school holiday as my goal back then was to push through the school year with few breaks, especially one-day ones. I wanted to have a nice, long summer break.

My opposition was also based on this logic: We had no holidays honoring people, so why add one? At that time, our only breaks were Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas (okay, so that was honoring a person), and spring break.

But there was another feeling at work, an ingrained one. I was wondering why we needed to honor a black person if we didn’t honor anyone else. I didn’t voice this thought openly from the perspective of race, but it was there.

And there was a little part of me that wondered why “they” (meaning black people) needed a holiday in honor of a black person. I saw it as a they vs. we issue. “We” (meaning white people) didn’t have school holidays honoring us. So why did they need one to honor one of them?

The only black person on our committee of about 15 people responded to my objection.

She said that it would make a big difference for our black students to see one of their heroes, someone like them, honored with a holiday.

Photo from my visit to the MLK, Jr. National Historic site in Atlanta a few years ago.

Well, that was all it took to shift my perspective—at least somewhat. I hadn’t considered it from the perspective of a black person or from the perspective of our black students.

I’m glad she spoke up.

Our committee chose to have the federal MLK, Jr. holiday as a school system holiday, too. It has been a school holiday in my county system ever since.

But I have to admit that, in my mind, I kept defending my opposition. I was bothered that we had no holidays honoring women (and there still are none—that’s another issue for another blog post). I was bothered that things as they had “always” been were being changed for a specific group of people. I didn’t think of myself as racist, though.

But guess what? My reactions were indeed racist because I couldn’t see why “we” needed to change for one small group of black people in our county.

“We” being white people and the default white position.

I realize now that back then I seldom thought of anything from a black perspective.

You see, that’s because our “world” in the United States was framed in an almost totally white perspective through my lifetime at that point. And for many years before.

And mostly is today as well.

Still.

In this past year, I’ve become more and more aware of that dominant white position.

I’ve learned to try to consider how I’d feel in different situations if I were black (or any person of color). And that consideration is opening up a whole new world for me.

I think of what my daily life as a white older woman is like— how it’s different from that of a black person or another person of color. I think now of how I don’t worry if I come across a traffic stop. As a white person, I know they’ll just wave me through after a quick look at my driver’s license. I have no concern that my race will evoke a nitpicking look in my car or at my license.

I think of how I don’t have to put up with being followed in stores because I might shoplift. How I don’t worry that if I wear a hoodie (and I often wear one in cold weather) people will think I’m a thug.

I think of how I have an easy time getting a loan from a bank. How I don’t have to worry about having neighbors who hate me because of the color of my skin. How I don’t have to accept the backhanded compliment (spoken with surprise) that I am “articulate.” How I have never been the only person of my race in a large group of people. (Can you believe that?! A very few times in my life I’ve been one of two or three or four white people in a group of black people or other people of color, but I’ve never been the only white person).

All of these examples are of my white privilege, but I didn’t want to start with that term because too many white people take offense. If you’re interested in learning more about “white privilege” (especially what it is not. It doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard for what you have), this is a very good article from Teaching Tolerance.

I do have to hear other white people tell me I’m not racist—people who can’t see that sometimes my initial thoughts (in too many situations) are racist, ones are ingrained from growing up in the South in a racist time in history. My actions may not be racist, but my initial thoughts too often still are. I have to be very aware of that so that racist actions don’t sneak in.

I’ve also been doing some reading on race in the United States. The book I’ve most recently finished and which has really hit home for me was Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race. The author’s stories did wake me up to historical facts I didn’t know as well as made me consider many of my assumptions. It’s helping me learn to frame my world in a different, less-racist, less default-white way.

Writing this blog series is what prompted me get started on this journey of looking closely at my attitudes and actions regarding race. I still have a long way to go. But I can honestly say that I’ve learned a lot during this past year. My perspectives are changing.

I will keep learning. I have several books about race on my nightstand. I’ll keep looking at my thoughts, especially my knee-jerk ones.

And I’ll keep writing about what I’m learning, sharing this journey with those of you who are interesting it taking it, too.

The Behold Monument in front of the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. Patrick Morelli, sculptor. I took this photo in the summer of 2016.

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