The Dinner Table: The Classroom On Privilege and Racism for White Families Across America

Last night MTV premiered Jose Antonio Vargas' show, "White People" exploring white people and white privilege across America. The dinner table was an ongoing theme, a Washington family speaking with their son about his white privilege workshop for the first time, an Italian family in Brooklyn, friends sharing spaghetti meeting their friends black friends for the first time. Writer Andrew Bigelow weighs in on why it is at the dinner table where the conversations of learning and discomfort must happen with families like his across America.

Last Thanksgiving, we had almost 30 people over at my parents house. About 10 of us are sitting at the table after dinner. The Mike Brown case enters the conversation. News had broke out a few days prior that officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Mike Brown. My aunt then decided to state her opinion on the matter.

My aunt stated that what had happened was awful and I thought she genuinely felt no one should have died. She continued to say something like:

"But he shouldn't have stole from the liquor store."

At this point, the room is silent. My oldest brother, James, speaks up. He says something along the lines of, "but that doesn't mean he deserved to die." The argument begins. Throughout the conversation, my aunt used the same rhetoric one can hear on CNN or even Fox News. She gave reasons like:

"But he shouldn't have been a bully to the store clerk."

"But he shouldn't have attacked the police officer."

"But he was so big."

"But he was a criminal."

"Where was his family to guide him down the right path."

At this point, my aunt's white privilege and unconscious racism surfaces. Everyone at the table has the choice to let it go or confront it. We confronted it. Specifically my brother James and myself. Voices were raised, the energy in the house was really uncomfortable and it eventually became a battle for my aunt to prove that she was in the right; for my aunt to be right and satisfy her ego is for her not to have to deal with the implications of her comments. Everyone at the dinner table agreed with my brother James and myself which further ignited the need to be right for my aunt.

The significance of this story is the ultimatum at dinner tables across the country, white communities will be faced with the decision to let the racist comments by their loved ones slide or confront them. It is there at the dinner table, that us, white communities, need to hold ourselves accountable to our privilege, our racial bias, and the implications of our comments. It is our responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for what we do, what we say and how we think. No one elses.

Going back to the dinner table on Thanksgiving, it was our responsibility to hold our aunt accountable for what she was saying. We didn't speak up for our ego or to isolate her. We spoke up because we love her. I spoke up because I don't want my aunt nor my family to be on the wrong side of history -- an uncomfortable fact that continues to repeat itself in white communities.

In confronting my aunt's statements, we kept reiterating what was underneath those statements. When she emphasized young Mike Brown stealing from the store, what she was really doing was looking for a justification for his death. All of her reasoning was trying to explain why this unarmed 17-year-old was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer. It was her white fragility that was unable to speak nor accept that racism, specifically institutionalized racism, was the reason or even part of the reason why Mike Brown was murdered. For my aunt to accept this truth, is for us to have a larger conversation about the system we live in that perpetuates racism and how all of us at the table participate in it -- a hard conversation to have with any white person and still an uncomfortable topic in my family.

Furthermore, her reasoning reflected the news outlets that she watches and some of her "facts" were just not true. By coming up with every reason why Mike Brown was killed besides racism amongst police is to not acknowledge how that lived experience exists. This is her privilege: she was unable to accept nor acknowledge that racism amongst police is a lived experience by communities of color, most likely because she has never experienced it.

Few from the white community will proclaim to be racist or even identify as such, but our world view can be tainted by never understanding or accepting that racism (especially institutionalized racism) does exists and is experienced by others. Even harder is getting white people to accept or even acknowledge that we benefit from the system that perpetuates racism. To say this, especially to my loved ones, is to hurt their feelings because this somehow translates to them as me saying they are a bad person -- an assumption that is not the case.

But I understand. Being white, I have had my own long and hard process of wrestling with the topic of race in America as it relates to me and my loved ones. I have been defensive, I have had my feelings hurt, I have been uncomfortable and frustrated. I have been blinded by my own privilege. And in no way am I saying that I have “figured it out” or I am the “white guy that gets it” because it is far from the truth. This is a never ending learning experience. It is humbling to say “Racism exists in America. Being white, I benefit from this. I do not know what it is to experience racism in America and I never will. I can only listen and attempt to understand to my best ability.”

At one point, every white person in America will be faced with their white privilege and will be forced to address it. It is a constant process. For myself, I am blessed to deal with it in my early 20's. For my aunt, it was her mid 60's. There is no right or wrong in this, only what we do after we become aware of it.

After dinner, the table was uncomfortable to say the least. The air was filled with tension. There was a sense that my aunt felt we all teamed up on her. Conversation continued in another direction shortly after silence. My aunt and her family got ready to leave. My brother diffuses it by telling my aunt that he loves her. We all hug and say goodbyes. They leave. Soon after, I remember my brother turning to me and asking if he was in the wrong. I said, "No, the conversation needed to be had." We reassured each other that what had happened was needed and it was all of our responsibilities to speak up. Lives are being taken and people are being murdered so how much of a burden is it really to confront our aunt's privilege. In fact, it was the least we could do. The tension at the table, the frustration of our aunt and ourselves is nothing compared to what the victims’ families must be going through.

To be honest, I don’t see my aunt much before or after this night. I think I have seen her once or twice since and we haven’t spoken about this conversation. I don’t really know the impact it had on her. Maybe it didn’t affect her at all and she doesn’t think twice of it or maybe it impacted the way she looks at the world and her own privilege. I pray the latter. I truly believe that us not shying away from these conversations for the past several years has had deep impact on our immediate family and has encouraged all of us to be intentional and accountable. For myself, what was most important that night is that we stepped up in the moment and had the conversation. We didn’t shy away from it in fear of ruining the family gathering or hurting our aunt’s feelings or anyone else’s for that matter. What was important is that we weren’t silent.

Case after case, people of color are being murdered at the hands of the police. Protests break out, media reports, social media trends, action is taken and white households will talk about it. It is inside these homes, at the dinner table, that history is repeated or made. In order to break the cycle of white silence and white consent, white communities need to hold themselves accountable and stand in solidarity against the systemic racism of this country with those it affects.

This is a tall order, especially given the fragility of the white perspective to never want to face their own prejudices or admit their wrong in terms of race in America. I encourage the white community to hold themselves accountable and to be open to understanding.

The discomfort at the dinner table is nothing compared to the fear of police because of your complexion. Let's remember that before we choose to be silent.

Check out the trailer for Jose Antonio Vargas' show "White People"

About Andrew Bigelow

Andrew Bigelow is a Hip Hop artist as well as a writer and organizer with SiliconValley De-Bug. Follow him on social media as @HeIsAndrewBigs

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Thank you for this. It's hard to contradict family members but the dinner table is an important place for rascism to end. Yes, let's stop enabling ignorance. My peeps may not agree with me but they sure know not to bad mouth people of color or start on middle eastern policy or bad mouth other relatives around me.

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