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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

How Privilege Masks Racism

07/21/16 01:00 PM | Tarah Johnson | Race


A few months ago, I wrote a post for this blog about the intersection of trauma, racism, and violence. Since then, my frustration, sadness, confusion, and anger has grown. With continued news of violence, especially against people of color (I use this term to be as inclusive as possible), I feel compelled to follow up.

I want to start with something I wrote in my last post: We can no longer rely on our privilege to shield us from the reality of racism in this country.

I’d like to discuss how my own privilege has shielded me from the reality of racism in America. I hope that by publicly identifying my own privilege, by acknowledging it, and calling myself out for the ways that I have both contributed to and tried to dismantle the social structures that support the inequality that we collectively experience, you will begin to think about, acknowledge, and even share the story of your own privilege.

I grew up in the upper-middle class suburbs of Boston. My extended family is multi-racial, multi-cultural, progressive, and (generally) liberal. I grew up with the mistaken idea that everyone’s family was like mine. Sure, there were differences of opinion, but at the end of the day, everyone respected and cared about each other. I look back at my childhood and can see that while I was exposed to a lot of different cultures and experiences, I was also quite sheltered.

My views on race were strongly shaped by my African immigrant father and my white American mother. For much of my childhood, I never thought of myself as black or African-American. I self-identified as either biracial or African. I listened to the stereotypes about African-Americans from my father, and while I didn't fully believe them, I never challenged them. How could I? My exposure to and understanding of African-American culture was basically limited to Black History Month (and the Cosby Show). The majority of the inspirational people I grew up admiring were Africans. Nelson Mandela, Steven Biko, Kofi Annan, and Desmond Tutu were all heroes in my house (I could write a whole book about my lack of exposure to women of color as inspirational figures). While I admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he was celebrated as an exceptional African-American who preached non-violence despite the daily violence he experienced. African-American men like Dr. King were not the kind of black men you meet on a daily basis.

My beliefs radically changed when I decided to go to Howard University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in Washington D.C. for my undergraduate degree. I became part of African-American history in a way I had previously never imagined. I was part of the African Diaspora where Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latino, African-Americans, and Africans all came together to debate and challenge what it means to be a person of color in America. It was by attending an HBCU, and Howard specifically, that I really began to see the institutional and implicit racism from which I had been sheltered. At Howard, I began to understand how much my privilege had shielded me from and contributed to the reality of racism in America.

Since graduating from Howard, I have sought to speak the truth about my experiences. I have tried to open my eyes beyond my privileged upbringing to connect with people who may or may not look like me; have open dialogues about race, class, and gender; and think of practical solutions to help overcome our common problems.

That’s my story. What’s yours?

Listen to a t3 podcast about the complexities of race and homelessness:

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Image by Tony Webster (CC by-SA 2.0).

Tarah Johnson

Written by Tarah Johnson

Tarah’s work is focused on substance use and mental health recovery. She received a bachelor’s degree in international business from Howard University and a master’s degree in Latin American history and anthropology from University of New Mexico.