By Kassel Franco Garibay
As you are about to enter the History section at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., a guide explains how the exhibitions are structured. After a short ride in an elevator, the display begins three floors beneath ground level and begins to tell the story of slavery in America from 1400 to 1877. The ceilings on these galleries are low, and the hallways are narrow, dark and crowded; the structure of the exhibition is supposed to make you uncomfortable in the beginning, but as you advance through the years the corridors get wider and lighter, symbolizing the progress of the social movement.
The second floor of the exhibit deals with the segregation era, and it holds some of the more disturbing pieces in the museum’s collection. There are warnings before the galleries telling visitors to be careful when bringing children into these exhibitions. One of the most unsettling items is an original Ku Klux Klan robe, placed beside pictures of some of their rallies and demonstrations. As a non-white person, many of the segregation images struck a chord deep in me; it was difficult to watch, and I can only imagine what it would be like for black people viewing these explicit pictures of the violent actions against them just because of the color of their skin. And I can only imagine what they felt when they overheard the following conversation between two white women right in front of the KKK exhibit: “Don’t you just feel bad about the poor souls of the white people involved in this?” one of them asked the other. After a sympathetic nod, the second woman replied “Yes, they all most likely went to hell. Poor souls.”
The fact that two white women can stand before such graphic images and vocalize their concern for the ‘poor souls’ of the violent, murderous oppressors is hard to fathom. And yet, it happened–in a room full of people of color, no less. Such is the reality of whiteness in the United States. These women were born into an environment of privilege because of their race and have happily remained there for the entirety of their fifty-something years of life. And they are not the only ones.
Ironically, earlier in the week I was just talking to a (white) friend of mine who was a little bit “skeptical” of white privilege being a real thing. I think this recent experience should be enough to get rid of the skepticism: white privilege does exist and it is time to do better.
Kassel is a freshman International Relations and Women and Gender Studies double major with a minor in Latin American Studies