White and privileged

Julie Gammack, guest columnist

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A woman I’ve known for decades called last week and said, “I need to process something. It’s not easy to talk about.”

Now, there’s a conversation starter.

She was referring to discomfort she was feeling to the Black Lives Matter movement. She, too, is white and old enough to have experienced gender discrimination. Born in 1941, she grew up thinking she didn’t need to have a career, but rather ‘marry well.’ So, what about the injustice she felt by society all these years?

I gulped, took a deep breath, and began a conversation that needs to occur among those of us who are white and privileged.

As I used to say when I hosted the morning drive program on WHO Radio: “Let’s talk.”

One of my quarantine projects has been submitting columns for my former employer, The Des Moines Register. As an aging white woman, I had decided my thoughts on the Black Lives Matter issue were irrelevant. I am so gratified by the outpouring of support from young people, and especially those in predominantly white, rural areas. So, I mistakenly thought those who marched for Civil Rights in the 1960s and 70s could retire and pass the baton. This self-talk is an example of my white privilege: Not so fast.

Maybe it’s worth sharing some thoughts with other white Iowans who are struggling with their discomfort. Last time I checked, Maine is the whitest state in the country; Iowa is 4th, just behind New Hampshire and West Virginia. So we need to talk to each other. Our black friends and acquaintances are exhausted, trying to help us understand. I’m no expert in race relations, but chances are you aren’t either.

Let’s keep talking.

I was born in 1950 and grew up in Iowa. There were no black children in my neighborhood or my elementary school, where I learned to read from the ‘Dick and Jane’ early reader series. The books’ characters were white, and part of a family that included a mother, father, dog (Spot) and cat (Puff).

Our television diet included shows called ‘Father Knows Best’ and the ‘Mickey Mouse Club,’ in which casts were all white. The few roles given to anyone of color in the 1950s added to a narrative that they were ‘not like us.’ One Black child in the show ‘Spanky and Our Gang’ was named ‘Buckwheat,’ now a pejorative word.

These formative years undoubtedly influenced my subconscious.

Young people today are not only digital natives, but to some degree, diversity natives, at least when it comes to the portrayal of people of color in leadership positions. Children born in 2008 grew up with Barack Obama as president. They are 12-years-old today and will be our future leaders. Youngsters stepping into collaborative leadership within the Black Lives Matter movement grew up with a loving, black family in the White House while reading the Harry Potter series, and falling in love with wizards battling corruption, prejudice, and madness.

Theirs is a different subconscious world-view and worth contrasting to the past.

When I asked a therapist friend how she works with challenging clients, she said, “At some point in the process, everything makes sense. By unwrapping a life of experience, we can understand how thoughts, feelings, and patterns develop.”

We need to understand that most Iowans grew up only with people who look like they do.

As a baby-boomer, I was coming of age at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. I volunteered at a free clinic in a poor neighborhood in Des Moines, where instead of being thanked for my time, a member of the Black Panther Party glared at me. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t like me. After all, I was wearing a T-shirt I had made at a stand in Lake Okoboji with the words, “Victory Over Slums.”

I didn’t get the irony.

I marched and argued about poverty with my parents’ friends while having dinner at the Wakonda Golf and Country Club. The only person of color in the clubhouse was the woman who kept the locker rooms maintained. I wondered how I would be different if I were Black and had to learn to read from stories about white Dick and white Jane. Or contrast my life to white Betty in ‘Father Knows Best.’

Once, when a police officer pulled me over for speeding and approached my car, pen in hand about to write a ticket, I smiled and said, “I’ll have fries with that.”

He tried not to laugh. Do I even need to type the words saying I would have gotten a different reaction had I been black?

It wasn’t until later that I got a whiff of what it is like to be a minority in a majority world. We can read books about prejudice, but it doesn’t have the same impact as witnessing it.

At my coaxing, a black minister and I went for a bike ride on the trail up to Big Creek about 25 years ago. I was ahead of him. When I rounded the curve, a group of kids had set up a lemonade stand. I stopped, bought a glass of lemonade, waiting for my bike partner. As he rounded the corner, I saw something in the children’s eyes I’d not seen before.


My black companion stopped, had a glass of lemonade, and we went on. The kids had been animated in conversation with me but subdued in his presence.

At the concession stand in Big Creek, he went into the restroom. I asked the clerk who waited on me the cost of a boat rental, and she answered.

My friend came to the counter. It wasn’t obvious we were traveling together, and he asked the same question word-for-word, to which the clerk responded that the manager had to approve the boat rentals.

It was as if I put on a pair of glasses that allowed me to see for the first time what it must feel like every day to be a person whose skin color was different than the majority of Iowans. It shed light on why he wasn’t comfortable going to certain parts of town, including the bike trail.

In 1996, I attended the funeral of former Des Mones activist Kalonji Saadiq, only 46, in Kansas City. His little daughter talked about the last hour of his life as they waited for an ambulance to come when her daddy first showed signs of a heart attack. Had he not been living in a housing project, but in a neighborhood like mine, I am confident he would be alive today. Medical care is a privilege.

On January 20, 2009, I sat on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps along with an ethnic stew of happy huggers to see the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Racism is over, I thought.

Those thoughts have been replaced with a feeling of hopelessness in recent years after video upon video of police violence against black people didn’t result in any more convictions than that of blatant Wall Street corruption that led to the Great Recession.

Racism is still real and ever present.

We regularly walk into a crowded room and notice physical differences of others: age, weight, and especially ethnicity. And if they are different from our own, we judge. Make assumptions. Then we gravitate to those we think are like us. Emphasis on the word ‘think.’ Likely, you have much in common with people you think are different because of their skin tone. It isn’t until we engage in conversation, ask-and-answer questions when we learn the differences and commonalities among us all.

There is hope that the collective witnessing of the knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until his death has created a new awareness.

We cannot unsee this real and symbolic injustice.

My friend’s call to examine her feelings about race relations ended up being a productive conversation.

Her feelings of injustice do not negate or elevate those of others. A tweet posted the other day summed it up: Save-the-Whales doesn’t mean f–k all the other fish.

The call also caused me to understand we need to have conversations like this and not leave it to the kids to fix.

Society is at a pivot point.

Immature humans have a tendency to put down others when feeling scared and insecure. Covid-19 causes rising death tolls and massive anxiety. Bullying and rage can be the product of insecurity.

In the fertile ground of raw emotion, seeds of understanding are sprouting. We must also watch for weeds of hate and eradicate them before they kill the fledgling crop.

Actions begin in conversation. Let’s keep talking. And acting.

Julie Gammack is a former Des Moines Register columnist who retired this year as a professional development coach with Vistage International. She and her husband, Richard W. Gilbert, divide their time between Chicago, Punta Gorda, Florida, and Des Moines. She can be contacted at jegammack@gmail.com.