How I Learned About White Privilege

06/23/2015 10:11 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

As an expat living in Scandinavia, it's a cheap shot to call my fellow Americans racist. Whenever I do, my smugness is dented by a comment attributed to the late Louis Armstrong. He, like many American jazz musicians in the 1930s came to Copenhagen because Danes loved jazz and American Negroes.

"They love us because we are few in number," Armstrong is supposed to have said. " Were there many of us, we wouldn't be welcome." According to Armstrong, Danes were just as racist as Americans.

Armstrong didn't live to see the results of the recent Danish elections but he was right. Homogenous Danes don't like "the other" any more than other white cultures. It was a founding principle of the Danish People's Party to oppose multi-culturalism.

This expat is about to return to Denmark after living for six months in the San Francisco Bay Area. Berkeley is my second home and I always say it's one of the only places in America I could live because of its cultural diversity and inherently liberal environment. On the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, I wrote a love letter to Berkeley and saluted the community for still being an oasis.

Before I get on the airplane, however, I want to acknowledge my näiveté. One-fourth of college students say racism is no longer a problem in the U.S. and until recently, I would have agreed. That is until Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown; until Ferguson; until Cleveland; until June 17th in Charleston, South Carolina.

Racism in my native America is deeply rooted and for that I feel deeply embarrassed. As a veteran of the civil rights movement, I honestly believed that my country had advanced, disgracing white supremacy and making its policies a part of our cultural history. I was wrong. This racism fills me with outrage, shame and disgust. But also sadness.

These killings occur against black people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. "Actors, professional football players, college students, high school grads. They happen to black cops, too," says Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Statistics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

As Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Missouri chapter put it in a statement of condolence to Michael Brown's family, "Unarmed African-American men are shot and killed by police at an alarming rate. This pattern must stop."

Stop! But how?

I believe it starts with us, white liberals who disseminate the blind type of racism; the kind that, until recently, had no name. Now we understand it as white privilege.

White folks never have to think about race. People of color think about race all the time because it is essential to their identity. Therefore, being color blind is another form of racism.

When we pretend that color doesn't matter, we're making people of color invisible and ignoring an essential part of their experience in a white dominant society.

I'm kind of old to be learning this but I recently did with an incident at a Hayes Valley restaurant in San Francisco.

My husband and I were out for the evening with two friends who were taking us to hear the musician, Terence Blanchard at the San Francisco Jazz Center. We decided to eat dinner prior to the concert and my friend chose a restaurant and put our name on the waiting list because we had no reservation. We waited and waited. A long time. When we decided to ask where we were on the list, my friend pushed me to the front and instructed me to ask. When I looked puzzled, she realized I didn't have a clue about what was going on. She is African-American and I am a Scotch-Irish Caucasian. When I asked the receptionist, we got a table within minutes.

I was speechless. It had never occurred to me - not for a second - that she would be denied service because of her pigmentation. In San Francisco. In 2015.

Worse, it had never occurred to me that my whiteness made a difference.

This is what has to stop. Whites - especially liberal whites - need to stop living with myths. We have to recognize that the legacy of slavery is still with us. We need to become aware of skin color and its significance because only then can we stop pretending we're not a racist nation.

Cultural analyst, Gus diZerega - author of Fault Lines: The Sixties, the Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine- said privately in a recent conversation that Charleston was like a lance to a very large boil. Because liberal whites are color blind, they hadn't even noticed the abscess or how it was getting systematically more putrid as it

Now the venom is gushing and we can no longer ignore it.