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Column: Hold a hand, share a meal, grow your world

Burgetta Eplin Wheeler
Burgetta Eplin Wheeler ehyman@newsobserver.com

It’s all about who you know, you know. Not for the job or the promotion or the successes that are so often associated with that phrase.

But for the very essence of who you are.

That’s the epiphany I had recently while watching a video illustrating the privileges some of us enjoy. People in a horizontal line took steps forward or backward depending on how they answered questions such as whether they had a parent who worked nights and weekends to support their families or whether they had more than 50 books in their homes growing up.

All of the backward steps I would have taken made me think about why the concept of privilege, especially white privilege, might seem absurd to many of my childhood friends and family members and other Americans living in homogenous communities. How difficult it is to perceive white privilege when you’ve never heard the shameful history of redlining, don’t even know an African-American person and have been weighted down by poverty yourself.

It’s all about who you know.

How hard it is to recognize the reality of racism today when you’ve never had a black friend who was followed by clerks in stores or who cried over her child being called the N-word on the bus or who feared for her sons every single time they drove away from her.

How much easier it is to be hateful about unauthorized immigrants when you’ve never had a son who played football with an earnest boy whose hard-working, church-going and undocumented parents invited you out for a meal and held your hands while they said grace in Spanish.

How much more difficult it must have become to distrust Muslims in the wake of the heart-shredding deaths of the three generous and selfless students in Chapel Hill.

How much easier it is to condemn gays and lesbians when your daily path doesn’t include any and it wasn’t your gay coworker and friend by your side for a decade buying and delivering Christmas presents to Triangle families in need.

Those who complain about the high costs of Medicaid probably don’t have a friend with a son whose degenerative disease has left him unable to do nearly anything for himself other than maneuver his wheelchair’s joystick yet who will never be able to live as an independent adult because Medicaid rules say he’s not disabled enough to need more than 42 hours of help a week.

People who don’t think health care should be universally available probably don’t know a restaurant worker who had to have all of her teeth pulled because minimum wage doesn’t stretch to dental visits and dentures are so much cheaper than restorative work.

It’s no doubt easier to believe a child steeped in poverty should just make better choices than her parents did when you’ve never held a first-grader with dirty hair, pants two sizes too small, who can’t concentrate on reading because not only did she not have breakfast, she didn’t have dinner the night before.

It’s no doubt easier to believe a child steeped in poverty should just make better choices than her parents did when you’ve never held a first-grader with dirty hair, pants two sizes too small, who can’t concentrate on reading because not only did she not have breakfast, she didn’t have dinner the night before. It can be hard to understand how some kids don’t graduate when you haven’t shared a meal with a young man who never knows from week to week where he’ll be living and who shows up to football practice in 95-degree heat unfed.

How much easier it is to demonize Republican lawmakers when you’ve never sat in a meeting with a Senate leader genuinely outraged that more than 80 percent of North Carolina’s minority fourth-graders can’t read at grade level.

How more difficult it would be to be flippant about teacher assistants – called babysitters by the same lawmaker – if you actually knew one and had spent any time at all in an elementary school attending to the physical, emotional, nutritional and differentiated educational needs of 22 5-year-olds.

Knowing and praying for a couple who made the soul-searing decision to abort a baby with a disfiguring, painful and fatal disorder made me more compassionate about a decision I could never make myself.

To monitor and participate in social media these days is to invite despair, which roosts inside my chest and pecks relentlessly at my heart. So often I think: If you only knew a black teenager, had a white friend or welcomed a disabled person, a gay person, a poor person, a rich person, a Republican, a progressive into your world, how different it all might be.

How much easier it is to denigrate, demonize and dismiss hypothetical people.

It really is all about who you know.

Wheeler: 919-829-4825, bwheeler@newsobserver.com

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