Larry Efird: Writing helps clear whitewashed truths
Of all the redeeming benefits of writing that I’ve discovered as a teacher, perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is that through writing, you may discover a whitewashed truth that has been hidden by a coat or two of misunderstanding.
Sometimes, the truth is in front of us, but we just can’t see it. The process of writing may become a cleansing agent, stripping away the paint of bias and distortion.
Throughout history, men and women have written memoirs and journals for different reasons, but one thing unites them all. Because someone recorded their experiences, we have a tangible record of that person’s life as well as the world in which he or she lived.
With that in mind, I wrote a memoir myself. I began by writing about happy childhood memories so my grandchildren, as well as my students, would know what a cotton mill town was like since those spectral communities are quickly vanishing from our state. I also wanted them to know about the 1960s and how pivotal that decade was in our nation’s history in everything from rocket ships to race relations. Though unpublished, my students have read parts of it in class. I love getting their feedback because it helps me see my narrative more objectively since my point of view would be somewhat limited.
Not until the events of 2020 did I come to realize how my own childhood clearly depicts white privilege, as evidenced in my reflections, although I would have been greatly offended by that term until recently. Even as a child who was mostly oblivious to the larger world around me, I did realize my opportunities were better than a Black child’s in 1963 who would have been my same age. Our neighborhoods and our schools were anything but equal.
By the time I got to junior high in 1967, however, our schools were fully integrated. To be honest, integration wasn’t that traumatic for me or my friends because we all cheered for the same team on Friday nights in the football stadium. That’s when we became united as “Green and White,” our school colors, and not divided by “Black and White,” the random skin colors we had been assigned at birth.
Much has been said about white privilege during the tumultuous era of COVID-19 and the latent racial tensions that have violently re-erupted like a once dormant volcano, harking back to the painful memories of the 1960s. There are numerous reasons for these problems, and the debates have been equally heated all the way from noisy Houses of State in big cities to unassuming bungalows on quiet cul-de-sacs all across America.
I am thankful to have seen the world make great strides in these areas since I was a boy, but I know that many white individuals still “don’t see the problem.” Maybe that’s because it’s not “their problem.” I had to fight my own internal battles with default racist thinking due to my insulations within the white establishment during my youth. Most white people I know would recoil from thinking they have racist leanings and would not overtly wish harm or evil against another human being. But they fail to understand they are harming others by not seeing the truth.
In essence, white privilege can be narrowed down to limited opportunities vs. unlimited ones. It has little to do with how hard or how effortlessly one has had to work during his or her life. As one of my students adeptly commented, “White privilege doesn’t diminish what a white person has accomplished through hard work. It just means white people have historically had more opportunities to succeed than other races.”
Racism is a cancer of the soul. And just like cancer, it can kill if not treated. Acknowledging white privilege and systemic racism in America is the warning sign of this type of cancer. Simply ignoring the problem because it creates vulnerability and threatens one’s most intimate beliefs will not make it go away. Choosing to see how white privilege spreads the cancer cells of racism is the first step in finding a cure.
Many of us in that once upon a time mill town described in my memoir found wonderful lives we could catch and hold onto. We just didn’t realize that for some people, no one was throwing them the ball.
Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.