Unpacking Privilege as a Privileged VISTA

I recently read an MPR article that overtly called out ‘structural racism’ for the racial disparities in health in Minnesota (the significant comparison being between people who are white and people who are either African American or Native American). I was struck by how new this language seems to be.

The newness might just be me. I’ll admit that race wasn’t something I engaged with until 2013, a year after I graduated with a BA in something along the lines of “recognizing oppression when it applies to plants and animals, or white women in the United States”. I’ll also admit that there was fear motivating that non-engagement because I didn’t know what I was talking about and didn’t want to offend anyone (or look like I didn’t know what I was talking about). I also think it’s important to point out that my racialized identity (that of a white person) was entirely framed within a white neighborhood growing up, with white friends, white teachers and white professors (not to mention white role models in the media). Not 100% white, but clearly enough for me to develop a lens of white-normality. The point being that I haven’t had to engage with race if I haven’t wanted to, and that’s part of the problem.

And it might not just be me. We’ve had discussions as a VISTA cohort about the ‘racial unemployment gap’ and how it has been the talk of the workforce development world in Minnesota for the last few years. We could extend racial disparity statistics to achievement in schools and many other areas of life, and Minnesota has been ranking very low in racial equality when compared to the rest of the nation. Now that I’ve been breaching the subject, there are more and more people in my life who want to talk about it.

In some of my recent free time I chose to participate in a 12-week anti-racism discussion group. As my toolkit for identifying and challenging the lens of white-normality grew, I began to recognize how prevalent structural racism is, and how little it is addressed. Let me rephrase: Structurally based racial inequalities are blaringly obvious when you look for them, and are completely hidden when you don’t. And once more: Are you white and Minnesotan? It’s time to wake up (and apparently MPR agrees).

I’m going to call out a recent example that’s been on my mind. The Seward Coop is building a second pilot store right in my neighborhood; a pretty diverse, lower income zone that could be considered a food desert in South Minneapolis because of its lack of access to a large grocery store. So what?
Answer one: Great! Finally, food that I want to eat closer to my home.
Answer two: How is access to this food promoting gentrification through targeted access, raised property values, etc…? How is the existing community being engaged about the new store in ways that could actually change the project? How many people of color will be in management positions or on the board of the new store? How are the cultures and diets of the existing community going to be represented and welcomed? How is the existing infrastructure of small corner stores (mostly owned and operated by people of color) going to be outcompeted or further racially segregated?
Answer three: Why can’t that existing infrastructure be utilized in a way that works for many people?
I would love to be able to walk to the corner store for local and/or organic produce. The Seward Coop has the power to make that happen, but without a lens that is conscious of structural racism, it will happen in a way that, directly or indirectly, benefits some (people like me) and hinders some (people of color in my neighborhood).

What does all this mean for me as a VISTA?
What can I change in one year? How does the “chosen poverty” of VISTA play into my existing privilege? How are my daily choices contributing to a more equitable Minnesota and/or how am I perpetuating the quantifiable, clandestine, racial power dynamics at play? How are the practices of my organization related to these larger systems? Can we do better?

There are so many questions, and one blog post is a pretty limited arena to process my confusion around these issues, but I think I have come to two conclusive answers:
1. My time as a VISTA has helped prompt me to be thinking about and engaging with these ideas because I am closer to the effects of structural inequalities, both as an effect of my modest living stipend and through the stories of clients my organization works with.
2. It is imperative, especially as a white person living in Minnesota, to be talking about this, especially with other white people. This is a problem I’m connected to, and as someone who has unique access to privilege, I have equally unique access to solutions if I am willing to see them.

Orin Rubin
IT Career Preparations Specialist
Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis