What would my life be like if I wasn’t white? If I didn’t benefit from white privilege? Certainly being female provides me with a tablespoon’s-worth of inequality perspective, but that’s nothing when it’s measured against a gallon’s-worth of racial inequality.
When I consider how charmed my life has been– not by virtue of a lifetime’s worth of law-abiding, responsible decisions, no– due to the invisibility afforded me thanks to the color of my skin. No one was paying attention to a middle-class, white, teen-aged girl as a potential law-breaker. In point of fact, my teen-aged self only caught law enforcement attention when I was with my black friends. Because then, and only then, was I suspect.
Nevermind the evening I was (illegally) drunk in public (also illegal) at the MacDonald’s of my local mall. Despite knocking over one (three) of the tables, no one ever called security on me. That same mall, several weeks later, I shopped, sober, with a black friend. Security followed us the entire time. Though they weren’t really following us, something blatantly evident when she and I would wander into different sections. A bizarre choice on their part; after all, of the two of us, I was the only one that had ever been caught shoplifting.
Let’s talk about that for a minute. At 12, I discovered the adrenaline rush that comes from deliberately leaving a store with a product for which I had not paid; I was a thief. I was eventually caught though it was many months after I had begun. Back then I remember thinking I was just that good, but in reality, I was just that White. I recall the police officer being justifiably disgusted with my actions, but I was not arrested, nor was I taken into custody. He called my parents and released me to them instead. He did refer me to juvenile court, and later in the week, those same parents accompanied me to the juvenile court intake officer. She looked at my grades, at my parents, and listened to my tearful apology. She determined that I “had made a stupid mistake, but they were going to let this one go.”
They were going to let this one go. How lucky for me. I don’t remember the dollar amount of my unpaid purchases; more than $100, but less than $500. My point here being that I had stolen far more than a tube of lipstick. My privilege had saved me from what could have– what should have– been the start of a relationship with the juvenile court system.
For every example of risk I face as a woman I can counterexample with a time I got away with something I wouldn’t have had I been black. Of the times I drove through road checkpoints with an open container of alcohol–twice. Of the time, in college, that a busted taillight resulted in my being pulled over by two police officers that, though they could smell beer in the car, accepted my (not sober) explanation that I had not been drinking and was, in fact, driving my drunk passenger home.
I’m not proud of these moments and my rather public sharing is causing me no small amount of anxiety. Will people think differently of me for my admissions of younger-self stupidity? Theft, drunk driving– what kind of person am I?
The kind of person privileged enough to have my mistakes not count, thus allowing me the chance to grow up and to grow out of the tendency of making bad decisions.
Imagine my life story if any of that teen/young adult stupidity had stuck? If they had been treated as the criminal acts they actually were. If both my skin and class privileges hadn’t provided me with seemingly unlimited get-out-of-jail-free cards.
People see what they want to see. Nothing about my average height, average looks, and skin color ever resulted in closer scrutiny. Even later, when I wasn’t breaking any laws, I enjoyed the oblivion of privilege. When the TSA agent searched my carry-on and found 10 bottles of Alum, a white powder used for pickling, he joked about my having “lots of spices” and then sent me on through security. He never opened one of the bottles; he never asked why I had 10 bottles of white-powdered pickling spice in my bag suggesting that it never occurred to him that I had anything else in those jars other than alum. It was post 9-11, why didn’t he check?
I’ve struggled with how to explain this reality to my children, two middle-class, white males that will never experience a life without that privilege. What affect will it have on their own lives? To a lesser degree, I’ve already watched it in action in the classroom; the known/expected behavior problem kids spend the day over-scrutinized with the resulting disciplinary action, while my known/expected well-behaved kid slides through similarly minor infractions without acknowledgment.
Privilege, of a sort, is already happening, and I’d be a fool to think he doesn’t notice.
This issue, of how to explain the full impact of their privilege, has become increasingly more important to me with each passing year. This past January, I spent a car ride trying to explain the importance of Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy to my first grader. Trying to reason out with him why adults would behave that way to other adults based on nothing more significant than skin color.
He doesn’t get it.
Similar to the disjointed absurdity that I felt during twitter’s #YesAllWomen movement, that I was a woman that has never been sexually assaulted, I find myself quietly accepting feeling that same gratitude for being mother of white males. Because while I can certainly worry about their increased likelihood of being murdered (Males, irrespective of race, comprised 76 percent of homicide victims between 1980-2008) I will never experience that fear from the perspective of a black mother. Or to reverse mirror image the words of Stacia Brown, “Their truth is not our truth.”
I can read the stories; I can weep for the losses of innocent lives; I can rage at the injustice. But I cannot live in that reality and so I cannot truly understand. That is my privilege.