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Privilege and Deserved Racial Insecurity

I, a white female, went to my first Black Environmental Thought conference this weekend. The conference was wonderful, and the people extraordinary; I honestly cannot thank them enough for the opportunity, but also for their acceptance and embracement of me that they were in no way were obligated to do (for once). I want to back up a little bit, to before the wonderful people here made me feel so comfortable.

I am a student with the Nelson Institute of Environmental scholars program. Some jargon that basically says I am in an environmental program that gives us some awesome real world opportunities. I received an email inviting me to write a short paper on what "community engagement" meant to me in order to get the opportunity to go to an expenses paid environmental conference with one of our new (excellent) professors. I thought, fabulous, I couldn't be more excited. I saw the conference and it was the "Black Environmental Thought Conference II", I balked a little bit, wondering if I was trampling my white hegemonic privilege in what little space may be available to African-Americans; I felt self conscious of my whiteness. I submitted my essay anyways, figuring, if it was sent out to all of us in the program, they must know some (most) of us are white. I felt a tinge of self-consciousness telling family, friends and coworkers my excitement for the conference, bracing for the inevitable, semi-hidden, slightly torqued face in wonder and question. Some, questioned overtly, "why?", and I had to explain that I was interested in listening a new perspective, and understanding the intersections of race and the environment. At times they had me questioning my "place". My "place" being whether or not I should arbitrarily define what and whom I listen to based on the color of their skin, when in reality, I really wanted to hear, to listen, to understand struggles that I am inherently ignorant to at times without listening, hearing, and understanding as I was to do here. I was accepted to go, and I was so excited. I saw the names of the students that were selected: Dantrell, Adetutu, Keari. I thought... shit... what if they think I am Black based on my name, (I actually thought this). I got worried. I got self-conscious again. What if they see me and were expecting a Black student. What will they think? What if I am shunned, unwelcomed? What If I am seen as an intruder? In the mist of this insecurity I really thought about it. I slightly berated myself. I deserved this. As a race privileged person I  never had to think about feeling racially observable. To feel shame for my "whiteness", to feel as though my "whiteness" was abnormal, that it wasn't what someone was "expecting". I thought, good, you deserve to know what it feels like to worry about the color of your skin, to feel that you will not be accepted, or looked upon negatively based on your skin color. You deserve to worry that when you walk into a room, someone might look at your skin, and say that you weren't whom they were "expecting". You deserve to fret about how you will be perceived, if even for nothing, if even because I was being over-sensitive. You deserve this, because this is the one time that you will have to experience it, and then you can go back to your race privilege and never have to experience it again. All the while these teachers, these community members, after their safe space at this conference, will always have to feel the way I felt for just one day. I cannot thank all the people there enough for the way in which they embraced me into African-American space, a space in which they had absolutely no obligation to have me, but allowed me in there graciously anyways. They let me hear their stories, their perspectives. I am forever grateful of the experience, of both their open embracement of me, and to feel, for the first time, racially sensitive, racially vulnerable. Because, let's be real, I deserved it.


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