Poetically Yours Ep. 19 California Poet Shares Her Interpretation Of 'White Privilege'

Dec 11, 2020

Welcome to this week’s Poetically Yours. Poetically Yours showcases poems from northern Illinois poets but this segment features Heather Cleveland from Oakland California.

Heather Cleveland.
Credit http://heatherclevelanddesign.blogspot.com/

Cleveland is a residential interior designer with over 22 years of experience. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, in San Francisco and is also a member of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Northern California Chapter.

About a year ago, Cleveland took a class called How to Talk About Race. She was on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at her son's school and there had been some racially charged issues that divided the school. This became her main motivation for enrolling in the class. Cleveland shared that this class turned her world upside down, forcing her to take account of her role in the world of racism and white privilege. She said one of the homework assignments was to create an art project of any medium that communicated what "whiteness" meant to her.
She decided to write this poem “The United State of Karens.”  

Carolyn Bryant
A name we must remember
She held a deep hatred that once was an ember
Of racism so hot, it filled her with ill
Caused her to accuse a boy named Till
Of daring to speak to her, to call out her name
The first known Karen, she had no shame
Using her whiteness to seek and destroy
A little black child, merely a boy

Ruby Bridges was the name of this little black girl
She carried the weight of our ugly, cruel world
Passing the Cheerleaders, these olden day Karens
Who taunted and cursed her, their hatred laid barren
They knew they were better, with their whiteness to prove it
But Ruby walked tall, because somehow, she knew it
Was her role to play in the journey toward freedom
So she marched up those steps refusing to see them

BBQ Becky, another name for this Karen
Not from The Town but still was not caring
With no sense of history or culture or place
She whipped out her phone when she saw that black face
911 was the number she dialed with ease
Knowing her whiteness let her do as she pleased
Feeling entitled to call and to blame
Undisturbed by her action and feeling no shame

She sold bottled water from her small little stand
This little black girl with dreams of Disneyland
So on this hot day she tried to raise
Money enough so she could help pay
Then: Permit Patty, the Karen of this tale
Called the police and started to wail:
"No permit, not right, this horror must stop
Only people with permits, those with a shop
Should get to make money, to sell their wares
She's cheating the system, this is not fair"

Here's the rub, of this Patty, that Karen of late
The call to police? She claimed it was fake!
So, knowing full well what her actions might cause
She owned her white power, with nary a pause
Knowing her call could cause damage at best
She taunted that girl, with glee in her chest
She carried no fear, knew no need for police
Yet used her whiteness to do as she pleased

Amy Cooper, yes that woman we know from New York
This Karen was recent and called cops for sport
Seeing a man, a bird watching man
Hearing him ask her to do what she can
To follow the rules, to keep the birds safe
To leash her big dog, to "know her place"
That's what she heard when he showed her the rules
But her privilege of whiteness gave her the fuel
To feel like her rights, as a first class person
Were threatened by him, this was the reason
To call the police, claiming "scary black man"
Has threatened her life, come fast as you can

Stars on, stars off, Dr. Seuss told the tale
Of trying to one up, but to no avail
Perhaps that result is in our near future
But now it seems class is ingrained in our culture
For whites is has paid to make race a "thing"
For all that it does and all that it brings
Holding to its value to give an upper hand
To take what we want of man and its land.

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.