By Elizabeth Allen, ’20

Photo by Emily Stewart

I am at the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum at the site of a former slave warehouse in Montgomery, AL. I am walking through displays about slavery and lynching and segregation and mass incarceration. A white mother is pointing to a display about segregated schools and asking her white son, “Did you know that black children and white children were prevented from going to school together?” A few feet over, a white little girl is pointing to a racist sign from the 1960s and asking her white father, “Why did people write those things about black people?” Such simple questions—“Did you know?” and “Why?” Yet these simple questions prompted me to think about white privilege in a new way.

Before I went on this trip to Alabama, I thought I knew enough about the ramifications of slavery. I had created videos for MLK contests and visited civil rights museums and read books and done research and memorized historical facts. I had worked at a nonprofit leadership program helping minority and low-income people get involved with STEM. I had spoken to black community members affected by CAFOs in North Carolina and heard from black community members affected by the lack of functioning water and sanitation infrastructure in Lowndes County, AL. I thought I had a decent understanding of what racism meant in the past and what it means today.

Yet somewhere along the way, I stopped asking questions. I stopped seeking out more information about the Civil Rights movement and racism’s subtle impacts today, complacent that I knew enough and busy with my own life. Somewhere along the way, I began to watch the news flash red with images of police brutality and other racist acts but not ask myself how I could help change the lived experience of black people in my country. As a white person, I got used to a problematic status quo and had the luxury of not needing to think on a daily basis about how to fix it.

Photo by Emily Stewart

The things I saw on our visits to the Legacy museum, lynching memorial, and Lowndes County homes were a wakeup call if there ever was one. Being there and seeing the stark reality in front of me helped me to confront the truth of racism in a new way. So did the two racist incidents that happened on Duke’s campus while I was away. All of these things are helping me to understand that I need to be more active as a white ally and that I can no longer accept—even subconsciously— what is happening to people across this country. Now I am a little more self-aware and a little more contemplative and a lot more committed to questioning my white privilege and my responses to racism in the world today.