I AM NOT FREE IF YOU ARE NOT FREE.
The first time that I recall being conscious of Juneteenth was two years ago today. Sitting in my office (a corner in our unused dining room), finishing up some work before packing our house to move, I saw something flash on my screen about “Juneteenth.”
What’s this, I thought?
I clicked through and read about a Juneteenth celebration in New Orleans. I was a bit ashamed I’d not heard of it before, wondering if it was a “new thing” and so I Googled–only to discover that in certain circles, you know, those of Black Americans, Juneteenth had been a thing for quite some time.
Huh. I thought. I felt an uncomfortable sensation in my chest, but I had things to do.
And so, in my privileged white skin, I went back to the business of packing and moving, loading my physical life into a container headed for Madagascar. And sorting my humans of Malagasy French American origin for a road-trip around the USA.
Two months later after our road-trip we landed in Madagascar.
Living in Madagascar is like getting out a giant Fuschia highlighter and marking my life daily with YOU ARE PRIVILEGED. I recall the first day I started to see the distinction between the poverty that I saw and my life as privilege vs pitty. Unfortunately, so many white foreigners who visit African nations experience “pitty” without ever recognizing their immense privilege. (The concept of pitty is a discussion for another day, but I’d argue that if you see your privilege, you lose the pitty and start to instead see that there is so much more we could accomplish if we recognized our privilege.)
The day I felt my privilege to the bone was an average day.
I’d just gone to buy fresh bread, and for some reason, I’d grabbed a Credit Card and Cash. I’d brought exact change and so when a young child came up to me to ask for money, I had none. All that was left in my pocket was a piece of hard plastic. I had access to $35,000 in credit, but not a penny for him. Privilege.
In Madagascar, you cannot use a Credit Card for 99.9% of your purchases. Most people (as in 90% of the population) do not have a credit card let alone a bank account. Walking down the street that morning, I realized that I was likely the only person I passed who had access to INSANE credit. Access to credit because I was (a) American and (b) deemed worthy of credit way beyond my actual means to pay it off.
At first, I was impressed by the privilege of credit and then shocked by the fact that my credit meant nothing here in Madagascar. This train of thought caused me to start considering other ways I might be privileged.
Sure, I come from a hardworking family. My relatives are the types that will fight over who gets to do something. And we are privileged because we’ve had access to education and freedom of movement. Even my great grandmother who travelled the Oregon trail on a wagon train, could speak three languages and play the piano. She and her family were free to move and settle when and where they wished. We know our family history back 400 odd years, our family identity is stable, and we’ve benefited not only from education but also land ownership and the freedom to travel. (Got an American passport? Privilege!)
Americans, and in particular White Americans, have so much privilege it’s hard to even describe. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t suffered or lost people or even farms. My grandfather’s family lost their potato farm in the great depression. My grandfather had to quit school and go to work at age 13. This tale is told in my family to demonstrate that if you are smart and work hard, you don’t necessarily need to go to school (but you probably should.)
15 years after the Great Depression in the USA, my husband’s grandfather was beheaded in the Malagasy uprising against the French in 1949. My father-in-law had to hide in a cave for 6-months with his mother and brother, hoping the French wouldn’t kill them too. When he grew up, he was a teacher by trade but didn’t get to go to university until his 30s, because under French rule it had been illegal.
One grandfather didn’t need an education — the other grandfather — was forbidden an education. Big distinction.
The Malagasy, similar to many American blacks, were prevented from accessing education until Independence, which was finally granted three years before the Civil Rights Declaration in the USA. My mother-in-law got around this rule because she is half-French, so she went to France to study, but when she finished, she came back, as she never felt welcome in France.
My mother-in-law was also a teacher by trade. She worked for many years at a French School in Madagascar. At this school, the French French (read White) teachers get paid a European salary. The Malagasy staff get paid Malagasy salaries (this was true 30 years ago and is STILL true today). My MIL, being Malagasy French, got the Malagasy wage, of which her pension is based on today, in 2020. If she’d been “white-er” she’d be getting a bigger pension.
My point here is not to create a battle of “who has” got it worse, but to highlight that white privilege is going strong in the USA and abroad. Black Americans, Black French, citizens of former colonies continue to feel the effects of racism, slavery, colonization TODAY.
If you as a White person do not see it or experience it that doesn’t make it NOT real, it means that YOUR privilege protects you from seeing it. Acknowledging your privilege is not an admission of guilt. It is an acknowledgement of your humanity and your willingness to take responsibility for your own life and your actions.
We all need to grieve the wrongs of the past. This act may hurt, as anyone who watched 10 Years A Slave likely experienced, coming to terms with our reality may result in full-on sobbing, grief, and pain. I recognize today, that the ability to ignore Juneteenth is a mark of my privilege as a White American. And the only one who can change that is me.
And so today, I am taking responsibility for my part, by inviting you, to acknowledge the pain and suffering that slavery, racism, colonialism have caused around the world and the pains and inequities that continue to persist. We can do this and be grateful for all we do have.
And then, I invite you to take responsibility for building a different future, because we can. If you are American, like me, let’s commit to celebrating Juneteenth, not just this year, but every year.
Let us celebrate Juneteenth, because I am not free if you are not free.