This room is way bigger than I expected.
The hall is the size of a football field and full of crowded tables. Three hundred fifty people are there. Five of us sit at the front of the room and try not to let our hearts pound into the mics clipped to our shirts.
We’re on display at Bank of America headquarters, Boston. The building is massive and everyone is dressed up a notch. I look down at my notes and back up at the audience. The first panelist is speaking all the way to my left, but I’m thinking: how did I get here?
Why is it that I’ve been tapped multiple times already to speak about credit building in low-income communities? My face is showing up on a lot of things recently. Today it’s Boston Builds Credit, an initiative we’ve been heavily involved with. The next panelist is talking about it now. It’s almost my turn.
The topic today is ‘racial equity’ and how credit plays a key role. I’ve been plucked because of our rent-reporting project, but still – I’m white as sour cream and come from relative privilege. Should I really be representing—
Uh-oh. The person on my left just broke with the rest of us and claimed credit was colorblind. I can feel the other panelists, a black woman and two Latino men, prickling in their seats. I get goose bumps too. What should I do to follow that?
The moderator says my name. Three hundred eyes lock to me like heat-seeking missiles. My foot fiddles on the chair and I look at the others – all four are watching me. I try to think of my notes – Game of Thrones theme music plays instead. Shit. I gulp and try my best:
“So, there are a myriad of ways credit affects us, from cars to credit cards to apartments. If you look in each category I’m certain you can find ways that discrimination has held people back, especially in a city as structurally racist as Boston.”
Now the room prickles.
“In my program, we speak directly to the housing piece. We’re trying to give people’s credit a leg up with our affordable housing by reporting their rental payments on their credit reports.
“If you rewind the clock, white families could own land – that’s an asset. They then sold those assets for bigger and bigger assets. They passed this wealth through the generations and the reward is today, a white home owning family makes a payment on their mortgage that builds their credit. That’s not a line item afforded to our Black and Latino families who’ve suffered thing like red lining.”
I’m drawing imaginary shapes in the air with my hands. People’s eyes follow my fingers.
“We took a look at that and said, why not? With rent reporting, people build their credit scores using the same structure – a white family in Newton pays their mortgage on-time and their credit score goes up. Now, a Black or Latino family, at our properties, pays their rent on-time and their credit score goes up. We’re using the structure of the inequity to fight the very same inequity.”
I’m still drawing in air. I realize this, blush, and let my hands down. In a short silence I take in the room.
Some people are still prickling. Others appear pensive. A few heads nod and others sip their coffee in bored gestures. I said my piece, though, and the panel continues. It isn’t until later I discuss what was said in more depth with the hosts and others.
I still feel uncomfortable speaking on behalf of communities that don’t look like me. Ownership I feel for the programs I build, does not translate to the public speaking I do. Although I don’t resemble the population I serve, I hope I can at least advocate on their behalf when called upon.
No one had asked me to speak on racial injustice in the economy until that day. What I said felt valid, but only the public can validate it. Three hundred folks wasn’t enough – hence this blog.
I leave my words open to critique and criticism for as long as the internet lives. Feel free to comment below – and thank you.
Jeff- “Why?” YOU are committed, knowledgeable and a person of quality despite “being as white as sour cream”. If you don’t speak, who else would or can. So feel “uncomfortable speaking for communities that don’t look like” you. Know that there are some of us behind you who are so proud and wish we had your abilities and heart. Love, Gretchen
Thank you Gretchen – I appreciate the support and hope to continue earning it. Wishing you’re well!
This is such a common issue. Last week I was at a meeting of Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ), which sends people like me, who have been trained, to try to mediate conflicts as an alternative to incarceration. Several of the facilitators in the room said, “I feel really uncomfortable being ‘in charge’ when I’m the only white person in the room. The perpetrator, the victim, the police are all non-white, and here I sit in my privilege trying to understand and help resolve the situation. How can I, really?”
I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels out of place at times. Funny how having the right tools, but perhaps the wrong background, can dilute good intentions pretty quickly.
Do people of privilege hear people who are not of privilege?