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How I Used My White Privilege to Start a Conversation With My Grandma About Racism


By Veronica Lafky

Yesterday, I went to visit my grandparents, just like I do every time I make a trip home from school. That’s part of why I’ve been told I’m the favorite grandchild: I always visit when I’m home, I make an effort to call every week, and I do what’s expected of me to make sure I’m successful. I don’t stray from the path that their expectations have created for me.

So, there I was in their living room, making small talk and answering the multitude of questions surrounding my internship, my classes for the fall, and, of course, my (nonexistent) love life. After a while, my grandma surprised me by chiming in with a question about my opinion regarding the shootings of the past week. Normally, my family avoids discussing anything political given the fact that my parents and I have been “Feelin’ the Bern,” while my grandparents are more than ready to “Make America Great Again.”

At this point, I had watched the videos of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths. I had read about thefive police lives taken in Dallas. My heart ached for those who were grieving. I had a lot of questions. I felt helpless, thinking there was nothing that I could do to bring about change as a 20-year-old white female. I felt guilty for feeling so upset about the sort of horror that my privilege protects me from ever needing to worry about.

I had a choice: I could glaze over that aching in my chest to keep my grandparents content in their conservative white bubble, or I could pop that bubble and step off of that path that their favorite grandchild had seemed so attached to.

“Yeah, it’s all pretty heartbreaking...” I started to trail off, thinking I should stick with my first option.

“Well... don’t you think it’s their fault? I mean with all the trouble they cause?” Whoa. They?

“Grandma, can you explain who you’re referring to when you use the term ‘they’?”

“Well, the Blacks...” she kept talking, but it was hard for me to listen.

Here is this woman I have looked up to for the last twenty years, blissfully unaware of the racism dripping from every word coming out of her mouth.

Then it occurred to me that maybe there was a chance—albeit, a very small chance, but a chance nonetheless—that I could impact the perspective surrounding race and privilege that they’ve been holding for so many decades. Maybe this could be how I make a difference.

So, I changed my mind and went with option number two. I told her my heart had been breaking for everyone who was grieving after the events of the week. I told her about the day before when my dad had told me how grateful he was that I was born white because he never had to teach me how to “survive” the cops. I told her about how I’ve always wondered why black people are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate that white people are. I told her I was outraged that I had friends who tweeted their heartbreak over the shooting in Dallas, but had stayed silent rather than offering support or solidarity for Alton Sterling or Philando Castile. I told her about how Castile’s death being less than a mile from my workplace instilled a new kind of fear and heartache within me that I hadn’t felt before. I reminded her that this sort of terror was something that we as white females would never understand. I urged her to think about how her privilege may be clouding her thoughts, and I asked her about why she thought she could generalize an entire race of people without ever having the ability to see life through the eyes of any identity other than hers as a straight, white female. I told her about how I wanted justice for the men who lost their lives and systemic reform to combat racism and prevent tragedies like this from happening again. I told her about my desire to be in active solidarity with the Black community so that I could try to make some sort of a small difference in this world that seems to be falling apart more and more every day.

I wish I could tell you that everything I said magically changed the opinions she had held for the last forty years or that she, too, wanted to make a difference after hearing my perspective. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reality. I left their house more frustrated than I’ve ever been after nearly an hour of arguing in what seemed to be a circle.

Then tonight, I got a phone call from her. She sounded upset, and she said she felt like she needed to remind me how proud she was of me. She asked if the next time I was home, I would grab lunch with her—just the two of us, so we could talk. She told me she admired the passion I’d shown. She said that I had offered new perspectives that she hadn’t considered before and asked if I we could talk more about them. I told her we could and that I loved her before hanging up. Maybe I hadn’t changed her mind, but this was at least a step in the right direction.

Conversations surrounding race are incredibly difficult, and having them with the people you love can make them that much harder. They bring out new, powerful emotions that can make us feel uncomfortable. As Mellody Hobson points out in her TED Talk, that really is the point. Step out of your comfort zone, be brave, and have these conversations anyway. The problems threatening to divide our society are not going to be solved unless we do so. Challenge the beliefs of those around you, ask questions, and above all, be respectful. “Be color brave” and use your privilege to bring positive change to the world.

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