The second time I ever worked with a Black man was in the fall of 1972 in Galveston, Texas. I’d spent most of my then 22 years in Connecticut. After graduating from Simsbury High School, I thought I was a courageous world adventurer by choosing to attend the University of Maine in far distant Orono. After college graduation, I joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and was soon assigned to a social service agency in the poorest section of Galveston.

Galveston is a three shower a day town. At the time, if you lacked air conditioning, you showered in the morning, showered when you got home from work, and showered before bed. One typically steamy day, a VISTA crew was working with agency staff and local residents preparing a site for a trailer that would become a preschool for kids who couldn’t afford preschool. One local Black man appeared quiet and angry. Hours into the work he finally spoke. What he said smack me up the side of the head like a two by four.

“Why’d you come all the way down here from Connecticut? If you want to help people, if you want to make things better for people, you should have stayed in Connecticut with your own people and helped them. Go back. Change them.”

His statement still feels like a prickler bush stuck in my soul. He made me question, and I still question, how to best work for social justice, better race relations, and more equality. His statement may have been partially based on his ability to see what I could not see — my white privilege.

An essay by Gina Crosley-Corcoran (reacting to an 1989 piece by Peggy McIntosh) helped me understand white privilege. She talks about recognizing that some people have to work much harder just to experience things white men like me take for granted. In our society no one has it easier than I do as a straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied man.

Crosley-Corcoran lists many examples of white privilege that ring true but that I never recognized: “I can open the newspaper, go online, or turn on the TV and know I’ll immediately see people of my race widely represented. When I’m told about our national heritage or about civilization, I’m told that white people made it what it is. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”

One of my first days in Galveston I had the most uncomfortable feeling I’d ever experienced. I suddenly felt scared and out-of-place. It took a while to figure out what caused that feeling. Then it hit me. I was in a crowded room and the only white person was me. Is that what people of color feel every day?

I am appalled by our country’s endless string of violent, avoidable, race-based killings. I hate statistics like the Department of Justice’s finding that Black boys have a one in four chance of spending time in prison while white boys have a 1 in 23 chance. In the New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes that the typical black household today is poorer than 80 percent of white households. Systemic racism exists. White privilege exists. What are concerned white people like me to do?

During a recent church men’s group Zoom meeting,  a smart, fiery old white man said we need to stand up whenever we see someone, anyone, treated unfairly. He told us to start uncomfortable conversations. In another Zoom meeting with both Black and white men, a Black man told me that the first step toward social justice is to reduce tension by getting people of different perspectives talking together.

That thought brought me back to the first time I met a Black man. I was 16. I’d been hired for a one-day job and told to report to the man in charge–the chef in the kitchen at Ethel Walker School in Simsbury. All I had was a location and a name. When I met him my first thought was, “Oh no! He’s Black! What do I do? How do I act?” Fortunately, God intervened. I heard a voice in my head say, “Because he’s not white, why would you act any differently?” Exactly.

Chris John Amorosino lives in the Unionville borough of Farmington.

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