Artist ········· Kaity O’Reilly
Medium ········· Text
Year ··········· 2019
Language ······· English


Your privilege is a power. It is also a burden you have to carry.

   -- Marc Bamuthi Joseph

            In second grade I’m tasked to go around with a mini-me I built from colored paper in class and to take pictures of us together at Virginia landmarks. This will help me learn about our state, my teacher says. “This way, you’ll be able to see yourself in the history.” My mom and I make the 30 minute drive into Richmond, our state capital. We stop at one of the many statues that line the grassy median of Monument Avenue to take a photo. I look insignificant standing in front of the towering bronze statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback.[1] I’m told who Robert E. Lee was before I’m told that he was on the losing side of the War. It is a very long time before I’m told what they were fighting for. I didn’t did not question why we had statues of Confederate Generals. They were part of our history and historic people got statues to be remembered by.

            I’m not actually all that interested in the General at that moment, but more so his horse. I gaze up in wonder at the horse’s gleaming bronze muscles, in awe at the elegance. I’m thinking about my favorite movie, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, all the kid adventure books I’ve been reading about girls riding their horses, and how I just can’t wait until I’m old enough to start riding lessons, because then I’ll look just like this statue. This is what’s going through my head as I pose for my photo, gap-toothed smile and all. I’m a little white girl standing in front of the monument to the martyred Good Virginian Boy, who we’re told in class was simply a misunderstood Southern Gentleman who couldn’t find it within his conscience to betray his Great State. I don’t consider, nor does anyone bother to point out to me, that I’m standing on the soil of the former capital of the Confederacy, the side that supported the tyrannical enslavement of black people. Looking back on this memory, I feel weighted in the feeling that, just by standing in that very spot under those very circumstances, I am a continuation of Lee’s vision. “This way, you’ll be able to see yourself in the history.”

            I grew up in Mechanicsville, a fairly small town in Virginia of a little over 30,000 people. Maybe you’ve heard of its Sheetz gas station or the local Walmart, which are among the top attractions within county borders. It’s the kind of place where, if you don’t know someone personally, you’re likely only separated by one-degree because you know their cousin or sister or your families go to the same church. “The Ville,” as its locals lovingly call it, proudly displays homemade Tea Party signs, dotting the sides of our winding country roads. Each sign is made out of large 10 x 6 ft pieces of plywood, painted sunshine yellow. Spray-painted black stenciled lettering share the political leanings of many of the town’s residents, with messages such as, “Civics 101: More Govt. Equals Less Freedom!” People often say, “The town is as ugly as its name.”

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

       -- James Baldwin

            In 2008, I’m a freshman in high school and I neglect a conversation when it’s needed. My first boyfriend and his friends have spent a Friday night pulling “Obama/Biden 2008” campaign signs from people’s front yards. They tear down the center of the presidential candidate’s face, ripping the word “HOPE” below him in half. They leave the pieces on the street, scattered and muddy. I don’t say anything when he tells me, laughing at his vandalism.[2] I don’t tell him that I voted for Obama in the mock election our school held. People talk about how only “n****r lovers” are voting for him. For context, I should say that I can count the black people in my graduating class on one hand. I don’t say anything because I don’t want to be put on the spot, to have to defend or explain myself. I feel proud when he “wins,” and even more so when America elects him.  

            I’m finally moving out of my country-ass town and escape to the liberal enclave of Northern Virginia to attend George Mason University. When I tell people in my hometown where I’m heading to college, their response is saturated in Southern judgement: “Oh, so you’re moving up North for school?” Northern Virginia is still technically in the state, but if you ask anyone from Southern Virginia their opinion on it, they’re gonna tell you that anywhere with “North” in the name is Yankee territory. I don’t mind, because I’m looking forward to living in a place without a shrine to Stonewall Jackson or a rival high school named Lee-Davis, whose sports mascot is “The Confederates.”[3]

            My freshman year roommate is black. Her name is Shonda*.I don’t ask to touch her hair. I don’t ask her about rap or hip hop.[4] But, it is the first time I have ever been that close, both physically and emotionally, to a black person for an extended period of time. We don’t have a whole lot in common, but we bond over bothbeing from the South.[5] For the most part, we are fine roommates, not super close, but we know enough about each other and try to respect each other, which is all you can ever really ask for in a roommate.

            It’s the fall of 2012, so for the first half of the semester our campus is a bombardment of election and campaign energy as President Obama runs for re-election. I have an Obama/Biden bumper sticker pinned to my bulletin board. I’m proud to repeat the act I practiced four years earlier, and cast my first ever official ballot to keep the first ever black president in office. Istay up late watching the election results come in with some friends on the couch in our dorm’s common room. We rejoice when Mitt Romney is defeated. We didn’t believe that the Republican who had inspired memes over his infamous “binders full of women” gaff, exposing his lack of progressive values, could really become President. I feel so happy when he loses; I’m proud that America was going to remain progressive.

            I don’t remember Shonda and I ever talking about politics, or even about the election. Maybe I assumed she was a supporter of Obama, so there didn’t seem to be any need to ask. Afterall, we were college students in Northern Virginia, the section of the state that consistently voted “blue.” It’s entirely possible she was skeptical about how deep my beliefs really ran. I was a white woman who’d grown up Southern, so there were possibly some assumptions regarding whether I was a redneck, a debutante, or a Republican. Either way, there was potential for a dialogue, an understanding, that never happened. Neither of us wanted to open a space for conflict, to expose the racial boundary between us by acknowledging that reality outloud. I knew I was white, but I don’t think I knew what that really meant or how to talk about it in a sincere way. I honestly didn’t have a clue how to approach a conversation about race with another person. Most of my exposure to race, outside of other white people, was through a historical context, like the Civil War[6] or the Civil Rights Movement; it felt like a distant concept to me. It was the Pandora’s box of our roommate relationship: if we opened it, there was no way of telling whether  our tiny 15 square foot room could could fit the space of that conversation. We would have to continue living together, regardless, so maybe it was easier to pretend that it wasn’t a factor.[7] Maybe I never brought up the election, or politics in general, because I was afraid to admit to her, and more importantly myself, that voting for Obama in 2012 was a way to appease the guilt I had for how easily I’d stayed silent in 2008.

            While Shonda and I get along fine, I find myself becoming close friends with the two girls next door, Roselyn*, who is Puerto Rican, and Hedieh*, who is Iranian. I am over in their room a lot, and at some point I stop inviting Shonda. She and I just have some differences in our personalities and our living preferences, so I feel like we don’t really “click” in the same way as I do with Roselyn and Hedieh. After the first semester, Shonda decides to become a business major, even though we live in a dorm full of students studying the arts. I respect her choice as her roommate, but now we don’t talk much about our classes or what we’re studying, as our majors are at ideological odds. Soon after, Shonda pledges a black sorority on campus. She frequently invites me to their parties, but I politely decline since I usually have plans to go to some majority-white[8] frat party my (majority-white) friends are going to. “It’s not really my scene,”I tell myself, never really making an effort to go.

            Shonda talks like I’ve been told black people talk.[9] She has a loud laugh, but it’s always genuine. There’s an ever-growing pile of her clothes in the corner of our room, while I try to do my laundry on a weekly basis. She’s not shy about her body, and I get used to her being naked or nearly naked. We live on a co-ed floor, so I want to make sure to be decently dressed. While I try to be prompt about leaving for class on time, the morning is usually filled with the sound of her alarm clock every nine minutes. The other stuff I can deal with. We’re all humans, we’re all different, it’s cool; as long as you respect my space and time, I’ll do the same to you. My biggest point of contention is over our different concepts of what constitutes a “reasonable” bedtime. More than once, I have to mention to her on a Tuesday at 2 am that I’m trying to sleep, so would she mind if she and her friend watching that movie put headphones in? That’s what the monologue in my head says. What actually comes out is, “Y’all, it’s 2 o’clock in the fucking morning and I have class at 9 am. Can you put headphones in or something?”

            One day, I lose all of my rings at once, one of which is my mother’s. I swore that I took them off and placed them on my desk before getting in the shower. I immediately suspect Shonda because she is the only other person with access to the room. We have been having roommate difficulties as of late, and she doesn’t know anything when I ask. I never find them.[10] We’ve been living together for most of the year at this point, and still come up against the same issues. Mostly the regular roommate stuff of sharing a space and communicating. I get upset over something I feel is a valid issue, and attempt to talk to her about it. Shonda seems to shut down and doesn’t seem to want to try and resolve anything I try to talk to her about. Over time, she begins to seem more passive aggressive towards me. I am probably not the best communicator, either, as I don’t yet know the magic of “I” statements.[11] When I bring it up, she doesn’t want to discuss the issue. And so the cycle goes.

            In hindsight, we were probably not the best pairing for many reasons, including that we were both 18 years old and had yet to learn roommate rituals and etiquette. At the time, I take it all very personally. I cry White Woman Tears in an intervention the RA[12] sets up for us over our roommate issues.[13] We seem to have a disconnect in how we express our expectations of each other. She is an only child, while I’m the oldest of three children, and our perceptions of a shared space and a respectable compromise are at odds with each other at times. I’m feeling ignored and the victim of passive aggression. So, I reach out to a fellow white person, one with power and influence over our situation. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I did what I was socialized to do: use my whiteness to play the victim and get my way.

            We didn’t choose to be roommates again, but Shonda and I would catch up whenever we saw each other around campus over the years. She continued with her business major, and I with my art history degree. She was a semester behind because she’d struggled with some classes, and I remembered her not being as strict a student as I was. I think she was the first person in her family to go to college.My parents met at college together. I tell her all that matters in the end is that she finishes. We are not friends on Facebook anymore. I friend-requested her after writing this. She has not responded.[14]

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

       -- James Baldwin

            Born and raised as a Virginian, I have Southern Pride bred into me the same way Thoroughbreds are bred for Derby Days.[15] Though I’ve been living in Illinois for almost two years, it feels against my nature to love another state as proudly as I love the Commonwealth. I am so unwavering in my commitment to the Old Dominion that I’m planning to get the Virginia state flag tattooed on me. The flag has a white seal, representing peace and honesty; the seal is surrounded by a deep navy to symbolize vigilance, truth, loyalty, perseverance, and justice.[16] The seal is the part I really care about, tattoo-wise. It’s the image of a white woman in a tunic holding a spear, with one of her breasts out, standing over the deceased body of a white man, a crown fallen from his head. The Latin words “Sic Semper Tyrannis” are emblazoned below her. She is the Roman Goddess Virtue, and she has slain the tyrant: the British Monarchy. Translated to “Thus Always to Tyrants,” our flag creates a strong imagery that reflects the pride Virginians hold in our tradition of defeating those perceived as threats to our freedoms. History begs the question, who are the virtuous and who are the tyrants?

            The Virginia state flag is meant to represent all who reside in the state. There is another, probably more famous, flag that also originates from Virginia that challenges this assumption. It’s official name is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. Until 2015, you could receive a customized Virginia license plate with it as the background. It hangs off the back of every redneck pickup truck. You know it. Tiki-torches have taken on a new meaning after their fire lit up its image in Charlottesville. I am not proud of this flag. There is a cruel irony in the state boasting about standing up to tyrants, when it has been that tyrant to others.

            Tyranny is as much a part of this state’s identity as our “Virginia is for Lovers”[17] slogan. The morning after Donald Trump is elected President of the United States, the city of Richmond awakens to see that someone has spray painted “Your Vote Was A Hate Crime” in bright red on the base of Robert E. Lee’s monument. “Black Lives Matter” is written in black spray paint against another statue’s white marble base. Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, a black man, is called upon to remove the monuments. He cannot, as they are protected by state law.

            White privilege is so heavy that it makes you feel light. The lies it tells you, building upon one another over time, slowly bury your sense of others. To the point where you’ll cry in a meeting to win an argument. You’ll vote for a black president to appease your sense of guilt. You’ll be nervous to go to your roommate’s party because it’s hosted by a “black frat.” You’ll steal people. You’ll build a system that makes sure you can always be superior. You’ll build towering monuments to men who demanded black enslavement, and see only yourself in the history.

[1] Walking through a park in downtown Chicago, I come across a statue of a Civil War soldier. As I read the inscription, I see it is of a Union general. I realize I have never seen a non-Confederate Civil War monument. This is the closest I come to culture shock.

[2] He is white; so, harmless teenage antics.

[3] For those of y’all without a Southern education, Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was a racist asshole. “Lee-Davis” is a homage to two separate racist assholes: Robert E. Lee and President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis.

[4] It took me years to be able to talk to black people normally. I had to fight the urge to expel my white guilt by proving my “wokeness” through oversharing my progressive political views. They must know I am one of the Good White People. I cannot be a Bad White Person.

*Shonda is a pseudonym

[5] Meaning, south of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the modern Mason-Dixon line, where it’s all country music stations, pickup trucks, and sweet tea.

[6] Also known as “The War of Northern Aggression” in Virginia textbooks

[7] I wonder now if she’s ever told stories about the White Girl she had to room with her freshman year. Only a white girl could think race “wasn’t a factor.”

[8] READ: “regular” or  “normal”

[9] For more examples, please see:television, rap music videos on YouTube, news outlets, comedians, movies, my parents, friends, and other general popular culture directed to and by white people.

* Roselyn & Hediah are pseudonyms

[10] I am still not sure if it was logical or racist to suspect  her.

[11] For example: I feel like you’re being a real bitch about this.

[12] A white man

[13] I can vividly remember the exact number of times she rolled her eyes during this conversation.

[14] Update: From the time I wrote this piece to the time of publishing, she did end up accepting my friend request.

[15] Coincidentally, us southern women are also bred for Derby Days, but in the tradition of large hats, floral colors, and sipping whiskey cocktails.

[16] To what cause and which people is unclear.

[17] Lovers of what, unknown.

2019, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago