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White Privilege

No doubt you’ve heard and used the phrase ‘paradigm shift’, right?

Here’s how Oxford’s online dictionary defines it:

par·a·digm shift

/ˈperəˌdīm SHift/


a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions

I know what that means conceptually and I’ll bet you do too. We’ve had the experience, and it’s living the shift that makes a difference. When a paradigm shift occurs, we suddenly understand something experientially, deep in our bones, not just theoretically.

For example, once upon a time, I was traveling to Bend, Oregon, and I found myself seated next to a pretty normal-looking, maybe even a little conservative-looking, teenage boy. He was wearing a flannel and cords and had a ‘normal’ haircut. I got talking to him about the music he was listening to and we swapped musical recommendations. It came up in conversation that he was coming home for the weekend from Salt Lake City where he attended a ski academy, so I asked him what he thought of Salt Lake City. He said he thought it was alright, but that when he first started, it was a big adjustment because it was so conservative. I raised my eyebrows in question, while I took in his appearance. In response, he chuckled and told me that when he first started, he had a foot-long mohawk. I was not expecting that!

I realized right away that I probably never would have enjoyed the time I spent with him if he’d been sitting next to me with his foot-long mohawk. I would have deprived myself of that experience because I thought a haircut meant something. What exactly I don’t even know, but I am definitively, not the mohawk type. Since then, because of that fleeting acquaintance, I’ve enjoyed the company of folks with full facial tattoos, dreads, and all manner of personal appearance that don’t coincide with mine. Having that paradigm shift at that moment was so much more potent than my previous concept of being open minded. I’d always considered myself to be pretty open-minded, but maybe not as open-hearted as I thought?

Recently, I had the same experience about white privilege. I know about white privilege, and I know that I live it. But, ya know, sometimes it’s like trying to tell a fish about water - what water?

Here’s the scenario: we're all sitting around our dinner table, me, my sweetheart, our daughter, our son, and his girlfriend. I love to tell stories and I was telling one that I’ve told many times. It involved me trying to find my way to an unfamiliar airport, and my phone was dying, along with my GPS just as I was about 10 minutes away. And, of course I was running late. In my desperation, I pulled into the triangle median just before the freeway exit. I was staring at my phone, willing it back to life, when there was a knock on my driver’s side window. It startled me so much I screamed and nearly levitated - it was a state patrolman. He laughed and when I got my story out he told me in a very calming way that he would escort me to the airport. He did, and I made the flight with seconds to spare! I was so grateful! It’s a funny story with lots of good facial expressions and we all had a good laugh.

But, for me, I experienced a huge paradigm shift when I told that story this time. When I looked around the table, I took in all the smiling faces, including our son’s girlfriend, and my laughter froze. His girlfriend is a person of color and at that moment, I realized that for nearly 30% of our population, this might have been a dangerously different story. That knock at the window would have had a chilling effect, and there would have been a question about license and registration, and perhaps a request to get out of the vehicle, and probably a missed flight. I understood all of that in a flash, in a way I just didn’t have access to before.

Everyone reading this knows that I am ongoingly working on my antiracist education. I’m a white woman in my 60’s who grew up not thinking that All in the Family was funny - parody is too subtle a humor for my liberal self. Even so, I understand now that my white privilege has always been fully engaged. I have learned so much since the day my daughter stated, two years ago, that black people in this county live in a police state. I should have had this paradigm shift over 20 years ago in NYC when my Puerto Rican employee was pulled over, in a cab(!) on his way to work. But I didn’t. Back then, I had no understanding of white privilege and the insidious role that it plays in racism. As they say in AA, the first thing is to admit you have a problem.

I will never tell that story again without the new ending. I hope that when I tell it in the future, someone in my audience will have the same deep insight that I did.

Come to Costa Rica to hang out with women who are open to new ways of thinking about themselves and their world.

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