Shoveling Piles of White Stuff


Boston has been living a metaphor of the Black have to shovel piles and piles of white stuff.

It keeps coming and coming and coming. We've barely dug out from one storm and the next one hits, sending us back out with shovels, snowblowers, plows or just our own mitten-bedecked hands to try to make a way simply to get out of our homes.  

Here in Boston it has come so fast and furious (over 71 inches in just 17 days) that real, large-scale problems are developing. Roofs are collapsing under the weight. People are being injured and killed on roadways because the mounds of snow are too high for motorists to see and people have to walk in the roads. Two have been killed just by snowplows.  

Schools have been closed so much that kids (and their teachers) will have to be in school until June 30 and probably lose school vacations and holidays to boot.  Public transportation is down all day today in Boston--a city where many people don't have cars. And two more storms are on the horizon for just the next five days. We are weary, frustrated, anxious, often in physical pain, and some are dead.

As luck would have it, I have been living and shoveling through these storms while thinking about this year's social justice theme for the Massachusetts Bible Society, "Challenges of Racial Justice." And all of a sudden today it hit me. For the past 17 days and probably for a good bit more, all of Boston has been living a metaphor of the Black experience. Every minute of every day, you have to shovel piles and piles of white stuff.  

In Black America, it is always like snow-bombed Boston. You can't walk safely on the street; you can't easily get to healthcare, to work, or even to the store. And the work it takes just to engage the world without physical or emotional injury leaves you constantly frustrated and anxious. I feel you tensing up, white readers. White people often take umbrage at assertions like that, but that resistance to hearing the difficulty of others is part of the problem. When Black people universally say something is occurring and white people counter that it's not...

Suppose every single worker in every location of a multinational corporation reported oppressive working conditions and every single member of management claimed it was not so. Wouldn't we demand an investigation?  Wouldn't we suspect that the people with the power and privilege were trying to protect it at the expense of those who don't have the money or power to make their case? Such cases are in the courts every day. Sadly, often the power brokers win or get off with cheap fines. If you've ever been on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, you know darned well what is going on. Those with economic power, however, often don't see it or choose to turn their heads and avoid both the personal and corporate implications of the situation. Their status either blinds them to reality or gives them the privilege of not thinking about it.  

It is exactly the same with "white privilege." Normally we white people don't see the "white stuff" that is piled on the doorsteps of Black Americans. Our world is plowed for us, so we don't think about the fact that what is plowed out of our way is often dumped in the driveways of our Black neighbors. They complain again and again, as they have for decades--for centuries--now. And as we pull out of our warm garage into our nicely plowed driveway in our four-wheel drive vehicle, we interrupt their shoveling to make them acknowledge that we don't dump as much on them as we used to.

How do we have the conversations we need to have? How do we hear what we are resistant to acknowledge? How do we learn even to identify the privileges that come with being white in America?

When I described having to climb out my window after the blizzard to shovel out my door, a friend said, "Why don't you just go out the garage?" I explained that I don't have a garage. "Oh," she said. And then, "Oh my! I thought that buried car was just a scene from the street. I didn't know it was yours! Poor you!" That conversation is an example of how we wake up to our privilege and of how we should engage when someone says they are facing a problem that we just don't understand.  

My friend could have just kept her suggestion to herself and quietly believed that I was either too dumb or too much of a drama queen to find the simple solution. It was only in engaging my issue that she discovered a privilege she had that I did not and how much extra effort and anxiety that lack of privilege cost me. And she only engaged it in the first place because she cared enough about me to listen.

To my white friends, colleagues, and readers I say, "Care enough to listen." Black voices all around us are telling us how difficult it is in every sphere of life. It's harder to get an education, to get healthcare, to get justice. The statistics speak volumes. Will you care? You can ignore all that. That is part of white privilege, just as it is part of economic privilege. But I hope and pray we can be better than that.

Kind souls with strong backs across the northeast are helping to shovel out those who can't do it themselves. We're all in this snow emergency together. If we as white people can learn to see what our Black neighbors have to shovel, perhaps our better angels will take over and we'll be more willing to lend a hand.

Pick up those shovels, folks.  Fire up the snowblowers and get out the ladders and roof rakes. Piles of white stuff are making our city an inhospitable place. Listen to those who are telling you where the biggest mounds are, and start shoveling.



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