Checking My Privilege

I was raised not to see color. I know people say this all the time but it’s true, and my mom will back me up on this. My step-dad is a black man and my sisters are all beautiful black women. My beautiful mother is white and so am I. We were all raised together; in the same household, the same socioeconomic status, and my kids went through the same school system they did. (My sisters were much younger than me, my youngest sister was graduating just as my oldest child was entering High School.) One might believe we had pretty much identical experiences growing up. I believed it. But I was wrong. When I realized I was wrong I learned that seeing color is important and that white privilege is a thing.

One day I was talking to my sisters about how we used to act up as teens. My middle sister was teasing my youngest sister about how she used to sneak people into the house. I commented that I used to sneak out and go hang out at the park, and that’s what my eldest child did too. Both my sisters told me they couldn’t do that because they got hassled by the police if they did. I didn’t believe it and laughed at them a little. The police never bothered me and they never bothered my teenagers either, even though one of them was rather… attention-drawing? I wondered why aloud and both of my sisters looked at me like I was an idiot. “Well, you’re white.” I was shocked. I tried to argue but I had nothing.

Over the next few days and weeks, I made a conscious effort to see color and note the differences in the white experience versus the black experience. I even asked people a few awkward questions.  I compared my experiences with those of others and I began to learn my privilege and recognized the ways I’ve been using it my whole life. Let me just be a witness to the power of “White woman tears”. Do you know I have been pulled over about a dozen times in my life and gotten about a half dozen tickets? And while I have noticed that the police clearly view me as something “other”, I have never felt particularly intimidated by them. I have even had what you might call pleasant encounters, as pleasant as they can be while you’re being patronized and discussed as if you weren’t present.  To me, the police are just annoying. And I have been arrested, processed, and imprisoned (justifiably).  Even then they were polite (if condescending) and even awkwardly gentle (those white woman tears again) I was never afraid they would physically hurt me.

I was raised to believe that race did not matter, that color was just a biological thing that doesn’t really have any effect beyond appearance. Like a coat of paint on a house. White paint, brown paint, a house is a house. Yes, I knew that our country had a horrific history of institutionalized racism, but that was over. The civil rights movement took care of that. I also knew there were still racists, but they tended to just be ignorant older people who made nasty comments and maybe their kids who didn’t know any better and they were easily identified by their language and comments. If you just ignore them, they’ll go away and maybe learn that their behavior is unacceptable.

Even as a young child I knew that racist language was wrong, except… sometimes I would use it when I wanted to say the nastiest, foulest thing I could think of to someone. Because I was a horrible child. But not racist, of course, because I didn’t see color- until I was looking for a weapon to use to attack someone. Somehow, even though I didn’t believe in institutionalized racism or white privilege, I knew that I had that dirty ace to whip out in an argument when I come up with a more intelligent defense.  I thought of that woman in Central Park who weaponized her white woman tears in hopes of launching a police assault on a black man who just wanted to watch birds in peace.

As a young adult, I was so convinced that racism wasn’t a thing anymore and that race didn’t matter that I argued against affirmative action. My sisters had no problem getting into college, why should anybody else? And why should they have an advantage over college entry that I, someone who grew up exactly like them, didn’t? Except that I later found out that I didn’t grow up exactly like them.  Children of color receive different messaging when it comes to education. It may be subtle differences depending on the actual environment, but they are there. They tend to be pushed toward sport more often than say STEM or literature.  They are not presented with role models that look like them across all subject areas. Even when the pioneers of a field were black, it is their white counterparts and the white people who built off their work that often get the credit! Black kids are simply not given the “You can be anything you want to” message that white kids are.  Things are changing now due to the conscious efforts of educators and even filmmakers and other producers of media products are making the effort to include black voices, but it comes too late for many.

While slavery and Jim Crow seems like ancient history to many, both institutions had a lasting effect on our entire culture. Released slaves had little in the way of a social net(because slave owners fearful of uprisings actively discouraged them), many could not read (because it was illegal to teach them) and they didn’t tend to have any money. This severely limited their opportunities and left them wide open for exploitation. Most white settlers came here with a plan, some money in their pockets, or at least a group of like-minded people. Those who came as indentured servants weren’t prohibited from pursuing an education or socializing during their period of servitude. Their children would be just white people, indistinguishable from any other white people, not forever branded as former slaves and children of slaves.

Even the remarkable resilience of BIPOC communities has been whitewashed from history. Excluded from white communities, barred from many jobs and unable to get loans from traditional banks, those former slaves and free black people who had the means, helped those who did not. Successful communities of BIPOC sprang up and a whole BIPOC economy ran right alongside the white economy. Within just a few years after emancipation, there were black millionaires. I was almost 40 when I learned about Black Wall Street. I am a little angry about that. But white people went in and tore it down. Why? Was it a threat to them? Can white people not just let people get on? They didn’t just want them separate, they wanted to make sure they stayed in their place- lesser.  What would our world be like now if the Black Wall Street massacre hadn’t happened? Would true racial equality have happened, or would the two different economies go on indefinitely, eventually competing for supremacy? Apparently, some people feared that the black people would get so successful they would turn around and give white people a taste of what they’d given so they decided to put them back in their place.

Today we have a big problem with the police and there is are several good reasons for that. Police, historically have been used to keep the rabble in line. To keep “undesirables” from desirable places. Here in America, that meant rounding up escaped slaves for a lot of years, and for many years after that, it meant keeping black people out of white areas. It also means keeping poor people from bothering rich people but isn’t it so much easier if you can tell one from the other at a glance? While an individual police officer may not be a racist, the police are intrinsically racist. Something that deeply embedded in the culture for so long doesn’t just go away without a concerted effort and this effort has not been made from within our policing systems. It is largely ignored. Meanwhile, movies and TV shows glamorize gritty cops who listen to their gut and sometimes step over the line to get the bad guy who would never have been caught if they’d gone by the book. On the other hand, you have these outreach programs from police stations going to schools, and being friendly to the kids, walking around the neighborhoods, shaking hands and kissing babies. These are three very different police. Who are we supposed to believe?

Let’s say that for every three kids that join the police force, one of them wants to join so they can keep black folks in their place, and one wants to join to kick bad-guy ass, and one wants to join the serve their neighborhood and protect kids.  That’s 2/3rds bad cop, and the 3rd cop is going to go bad eventually out of self-defense.  Because there are no good cops. You know how I know? Because there are still bad cops. If there are good people inside an organization that see bad actors, they drive them out, they report them, they hold them accountable. But cops don’t do that, for the most part, and silence is consent. Police are not held accountable. Other police cover for them or pretend they don’t see. We live in a society where people with greater power have less accountability.

If I, as a cashier, backhanded a customer who got lippy with me (and they do, all the time, even handsy on occasion), I would be fired. My employer would promptly turn me over to the police and I would be charged with assault. The customer might sue my employer. My coworkers would all be required to take additional training to make sure they knew that it was not okay to hit a customer under any circumstances and what to do instead and I would be barred from many jobs in the future. But a cop can hit someone sitting on the ground with their hands cuffed behind their back and continue being a cop. If someone records the incident, they might get a little vacation while an investigation happens that concludes that the person did something disrespectful so it’s A-ok. Even if the cop did get fired, they could often still go work at another precinct. Even if a cop gets prosecuted, if they are found guilty they get a much lighter sentence than you or I would.

And here’s the thing. Cops are not just disgusting toward black people. They are just much more relaxed about being disgusting toward black people because our system doesn’t value black people as much as white people. Black people have historically received less sympathy in their dealings with police because our society has embraced the notion that all black people are potential criminals ever since they tried to justify keeping slaves on the grounds that black people can’t be trusted to live in society without white supervision for myriad reasons, not the least of which was their “criminal tendencies”. The excessive numbers of black prison inmates only support this attitude even though the cause is associated more with the Justice system’s habit of giving black people more severe sentences than white people for the same crimes.

But things are changing. Black people are more educated about their rights than ever. They are educating their kids early, forming networks, they are collecting data. Well, now they’re just pissing the cops off…

And now that there are protests going on, cops are doubling down on the abuse they are dishing out. If you are demonstrating, you’re the enemy, because apparently wanting equal justice means we hate cops. Well, if the shoe freaking fits. So now they’re just going all out on everyone? It’s like your abusive spouse found out you’re leaving and now there’s no reason to hold back, they might just kill you. With daddy Donald standing there cheering them on.

I know I’m generalizing. I am cautiously optimistic about Flint, Michigan. But you know, Minneapolis was looking pretty hopeful before this last incident. Chicago, Baltimore, efforts have been made. The Obama administration was also working on this within their limited ability (Policing is a State thing, not under the purview of the Federal Government). The problem is not that progress is not being made, the problem is that a lot of individuals aren’t taking things seriously. Many white people still think black people are making this stuff up. They’ve been sitting in quarantine whining about being bored and needing to get their roots touched up while black people were still being attacked.

My sister wrote me a note today in response to my kids’ posts on social media. They are actively taking part in the demonstrations for equal justice that are taking place, using their privilege to help keep others safe and document what is going on. She said I was a good sister and a good mom. I cried a little. I was late to the game, but I have made a conscious effort to point out the inequalities in our system to my children. It was the least I could do for being such a clueless kid. Was I a good big sister to a black child? I didn’t see that part of her AT ALL until she was well into her 20s and I certainly didn’t notice my privilege while I was feeling sorry for myself for being the put upon eldest and trying to be a badass. But it was always there, at my beck and call and I pulled it out when I was feeling petty, even though I didn’t notice it. Now that I know its there, I don’t have to apologize for it(separate from some of the behavior it inspired),  I sure didn’t ask for it or do anything to earn it. I’ve just got to figure out how to use it for good.

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