My Turn: For adopted daughter, family’s white privilege won’t always protect her
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Has the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream been realized in America? As with so many other questions, the answer depends on myriad factors, not the least of which is the race of the person listening to the speech. I am a white woman with a white husband. When we considered becoming parents, we knew that our white-skinned children would be judged by the content of their character since their race would confer a degree of white privilege, a largely invisible and unacknowledged patina of protection.
As Peggy McIntosh explains in her essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.” When we became a biracial family, we were forced to recognize the degree of privilege that our whiteness provides.
Our older daughter, Jenna, is white. Her skin color will provide a degree of privilege as she moves through life. She can opt to live anywhere in the United States without wondering whether her skin will attract undue attention from police officers, landlords or potential employers.
Our younger daughter, Jenita, is an international adoptee from Guatemala. Here in Concord, she is a fully-accepted member of her community. As Jenita moves through Concord, the white patina of her family covers her with an umbrella of protection. At an unconscious level she is seen as a white child blessed with exceptionally beautiful skin. This will remain the case as long as she is interacting with people who know her family.
Like her sister, Jenita might also opt to live elsewhere at some point in her life. As she moves into adulthood, she will do so as a person who fits the profile of an undocumented person. While Bill O’Brien and his ilk were unable to pass most of the proposed anti-immigrant legislation when he controlled the State House, that has not been the case in several other states.
In Arizona and Alabama, police officers can ask a person to produce evidence of citizenship. Jenna can travel to either state without packing her passport; Jenita would be well-advised to have hers on hand. The content of her character could well be obscured by the color of her skin, especially in sections of the United States where animosity toward immigrants runs the highest. The protection she now has as a member of a white family will not travel with her; instead, she will have to interact with her new community and their conception of what it means to be brown-skinned.
No matter our own skin color, let us never be fooled into feeling complacent. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, take a moment to think about what we carry in our “invisible knapsacks.” Acknowledging that in 2013, being white confers unspoken privilege is the first, necessary step to seeing the barriers that still confront those of us without those knapsacks.
(Cheryl Bourassa of Concord is the outreach and volunteer coordinator of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord and serves on the board of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition.)