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Confronting Our Privilege

In honor of Juneteenth today, I'm sharing an Op/Ed I wrote for The Bradenton Times. This piece was originally published in February, 2021.


One of the reasons I love the blues is because it’s deep. It’s soulful music that talks about pain, sadness, life, and love in a way that helps the listener and the musician connect around these themes and begin to heal the wounds that are being expressed. The blues comes from a place and time that is uniquely American. That place and time are difficult to reconcile because they're dark.

The blues is the music of black people. Slaves. People who were beaten, oppressed, raped, and murdered simply because they were black. But somehow, these people, in all their grief, found a way to take their cultural pain and turn it into something beautiful. The blues is actually a song of victory–a song of overcoming struggles that no man should have to face. Often, in blues lyrics, we hear the singer cry out for salvation, for grace, for help É and it is granted, if only by the grace he gives himself in the sharing of his troubles with his audience, thereby lessening his own emotional burden.

The blues is also political. There are countless songs that fit in the genre about uprising, taking back one’s own power, and essentially "sticking it to the man,“ who, in times past, was the plantation master. When we listen with an ear that understands the history of this music, what we feel and learn can also be summed up in that one word: difficult.

Difficult. It’s a word that has been used to describe me for as far back as I can recall. I’ve also been called loud, tenacious, problematic, persistent É and many other things that I can’t mention here because this article wouldn’t be printed.

Difficult is also a word that can be used to describe the situation we find ourselves in right now in regard to racial equality. It’s a difficult thing for us white folks to look at ourselves and realize that although we may not have been actively racist and doing harm to BIPOC, we have been perpetuating the problem by simply not seeing and recognizing it. Sticking our collective heads in the sand and pretending like racism doesn’t exist. Well, I’m here to tell you the difficult truth: racism is very alive in this nation and within the power structures that have created it.

It’s been through my studying and learning about blues and soul music’s roots along with many personal experiences that I have found a way to begin speaking out for racial equality and equity. So, here I am, using the voice and platform I have to continue to be difficult. In recent years, I have turned the lens upon myself and my own actions enough to know that the process of unlearning behaviors and challenging societal norms, especially in regards to race and racial equality, is a difficult process.

The progress is slow. The inherent biases continue to raise their ugly heads as if I’m playing a game of Whack-A-Mole. As soon as I’ve put one down, another pops up to show me more work I need to do. I encourage you to read the following stories with an open heart and mind. These are true, real-life incidents that happened to a real person, me. I have been given express permission by my bandmates to use their names in relaying these stories.

One of the terms that I have found gets misconstrued in discussions about racial equality is white privilege. I hear a lot of white folks say, I had to work my behind off to get everything that I have! I was never given a handout! My family was poor and I certainly never had any kind of privilege! For years, I was of the same mind. I didn’t truly understand what white privilege was É until it smacked me in the face while I was on tour with a mostly Black band. This story is about that moment. I will never forget it because it changed my life and was one of the most humbling things I have ever experienced.

My drummer, Maurice Dukes, and I have been working together now for about five years. We’ve spent many hours on the road together and we’ve developed a friendship that is truly a brother-sister kind of thing. One afternoon, while we were on our way to a gig, somewhere in Alabama, Mo (as I affectionately call him) needed some new T-shirts. He asked if we had time to stop at a Walmart to pick some up. He assured me (because I’m the queen of keeping on schedule!) that it would only take a few minutes to run in, grab the pack of tees, and get out.

I hesitantly agreed, as one unscheduled stop on the way to a gig can throw off the entire day. Mo wandered in the store and, according to my watch, was gone too long. I got out of the van to go hurry him along. I found him in the T-shirt section looking through several packages. I asked why he was taking so long and he told me it was because they didn’t have his brand, so he had to figure out if the brand they did have would fit. I said, "Man! Just open the pack up and hold one up to yourself!“

He had a pack in his hands and looked at me like I had five heads but didn’t say or do anything. Out of frustration I grabbed the package from his hands and said again, "Here. Like this. Let’s just open this up É.“ Which I did. He stared at me while I tore the package open, pulled a single shirt out to hold up to his shoulders for sizing É and I watched his eyes turn red and well up with tears. Mo looked me straight in the eyes and said "You know I can’t do that.“ I didn’t understand. "Huh?“ I replied. "I can’t do that, Lauren. I’M BLACK.“

I froze. It had never in my life occurred to me that a good, honest person couldn’t do something like open a package of t-shirts to check the size. Mo continued, "If I did that, they’d have security over here asking me questions in about 60 seconds.“ It was in that moment that I learned the meaning of white privilege. Because I am white, I have never had to consider the effect of the color of my skin on my behavior. I have never had to worry that an honest action I may take would end up in my getting questioned by store security, or worse, the police. I have never ever had to think about the effects of racism on my life.

That is white privilege. It’s not that you’ve never had to work for what you have. It’s not that you’ve never struggled. It IS that in your work, your struggles, or your day-to-day activities you have been privileged enough to never have to concern yourself with the way your race would affect the life you live. It is the absence of the effects of racism on your entire existence. This still puts tears in my eyes when I think about it. To know that a man I could trust with my life would be thought of in any way other than who he is É a loving, kind, fun, trustworthy, honest guy, based solely on his skin color, is truly heartbreaking to me.

I had another encounter with racism in Maine. My bass player, Manny Yanes, is Cuban. Granted, he is white, but you can’t not see his Latino blood. He wears it proudly, as he should! Manny and I had fun together on the road. We both love thrift shops and always managed to find a few funky places to peek into on our days off. I also used to speak Spanish very well, and so when Manny joined the band I asked him to speak Spanish to me as often as he wanted to help me regain some knowledge of the language.

One day, while we were in a consignment store, he and I were conversing in Spanish. Well, I’ll be honest, he was conversing. I was stringing a few words together to make a few clunky remarks. I noticed after a while, that not a single person who worked in the store had said hello to us. Not a single person on staff had offered to help us. When I found an item I liked and was interested in buying, I carried it around for a while and watched a clerk walk right past us to help someone else. When I tried to flag down an employee to ask (in English) what the price was for the item I had been holding, I was ignored.

The only difference between Manny and I and the rest of the shoppers in the store was that we were speaking Spanish. That was the only conclusion I could come to in regards to the way we had been treated. We weren’t welcome. It was made apparent. Our money was no good in that store because we were presumed to be of a different race/ethnicity/heritage. This is one way that covert racism exists today. Just because we aren’t using the "N-word“ or burning crosses, or donning pointy white hoods, doesn’t mean we aren’t participating in racist acts.

I have many, many more stories like the two above. I could list countless times that I’ve been hanging out with one, two, or three black men (my bandmates) and have been given "the stare.“ My band had to explain to me why we were being stared at. I was a white woman in the lobby of a hotel with three black men, with whom I am obviously close. So white folks stare because they can’t comprehend what I’m doing with those guys.

I’ve seen white women cross the street to avoid walking next to my bandmates. I’ve heard the whispers. I’ve seen club owners’ eyeballs pop out of their heads when I get out of the van with several black men. That, in and of itself, is strange to me since we’re on the "blues circuit“ and blues comes from black culture. Why would I not work with a black band who understands the music on a level that I know I never will? I could go on, but there’s not enough space É or time.

To my white friends: Do the work. Open your eyes. These things happen to us, and come from us, every day in a multitude of ways. Learn to look at yourself and your actions. Dismantle the inherent biases you carry. Actively support your black friends, neighbors, and community members. Amplify their voices. And most importantly, listen when they tell you their experiences.

To my black friends: I hear you. I see you. I wish this wasn’t your life. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I am here to help. This has got to end.

And I will continue to proudly be as "difficult“ as possible to make sure you know me as an ally.

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