When I was growing up in Grand Rapids in the 1950s, my mother had a “cleaning lady” named Gladys, a soft-spoken colored woman who helped with housework. I liked Gladys, especially when she made my lunch and cut the sandwiches diagonally.
I hadn’t learned about slavery in America yet and might not have connected that knowledge to Gladys. But I noticed that when my mother drove her home at the end of the day, Gladys sat in the back seat. And somehow I knew that was wrong, without knowing how I knew.
All the terrible realities of segregation and discrimination were yet to reveal themselves to me as I grew up, left home and entered the larger world. Too many of those realities are still obscure because I’ve lived a life of white privilege.
Coming to terms with white privilege is a relatively new challenge for white people and long overdue. A recent workshop in Traverse City was called “Doing Our Own Work” because it called upon white people to educate themselves about racism and create change in their own spheres of influence.
Gladys and my mother sometimes worked together in the kitchen. “We talked about the colored situation,” my mother said once, “and Gladys agreed that things are fine the way they are.”
When I remember this, it breaks my heart — and it should.