If you know enough white people, you’ve probably heard some complaint over the last few months that the situation in Ferguson isn’t about race. It makes you want to yell and rant and tear your hair out that people are oblivious to something that is so present and undeniable.
One reason for this disparity is a lack of understanding of the constant onslaught people of color deal with in this country, from microaggressions to deadly violence and everything in between. It’s a familiar dynamic to anyone who’s had an argument about racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. I won’t pretend to understand what it’s like, but I make it my business to learn, and I believe people of color when they share their experiences.
For the people like this in your life, send them over to read Kiese Laymon’s searing essay at Gawker right away. Everyone should read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt to give you a sense of how powerful it is:
Like nearly every black person I know from the deep South who has one of these faculty ID’s, I anticipated reckoning daily with white racial supremacy at my job.
I didn’t expect to smell the crumbling of a real human heart when I went to the police station to get my student, Mat, who had been missing for days. Mat was a beautiful Southern black boy suffering from bipolar disorder.
I didn’t anticipate hearing the hollowed terror and shame in my student Rachel’s voice at 2 in the morning after she was arrested by Poughkeepsie police for jaywalking while her white friends just watched.
I didn’t expect to feel the cold cracked hands of administrators when we pushed the college to allow Jade, a black Phi Beta Kappa student from DC, back into school after they suspended her for a full year for verbally intimidating her roommate.
I didn’t expect to taste my own tears when watching three black women seniors tell two heads of security and the Dean of the College that they deserve to not have security called on them for being black women simply doing their laundry and reading books on a Sunday afternoon. I didn’t expect the Dean of the College and the heads of security to do absolutely nothing after this meeting.
I didn’t expect to have to wrap my arms around Leo, a Chicano student who stood shivering and sobbing in front of Poughkeepsie police after getting jumped on Raymond Ave by kids he called “my own people.” Didn’t expect to take him to the police station and have the questioning officer ask Leo, “Why do you use the term ‘Latino’? Can you tell me what country the boys who jumped you were from?” The officer told Leo that his partner was Colombian and could tell where a person was from just by looking at them. Leo told me that he felt “most Chicano, most Latino, and most like a Vassar student” that night.
I didn’t expect that.
If the racism at the core of our society is an unwanted barrage, white privilege is the opposite: white people aren’t going to notice it unless they go looking for it. A fear of acknowledging that unearned privilege undergirds the vehement denial of racism and its effects on our society. Sally Kohn writes at the Washington Post:
Privilege is like oxygen: You don’t realize it’s there until it’s gone. As white folks, we can’t know what it’s like to go through life without racial privilege because we literally haven’t. You may have heard stories about black friends being monitored in department stores or seen the research that black names on resumes get half as many job interviews as white names on the same resumes. Maybe you know that a black man or boy is killed every 28 hours in America by police or vigilantes. Maybe you’ve read the studies on implicit “shooter bias” — how we’re all more likely to pull a simulated trigger on unarmed black men than unarmed white men — and maybe you know that even the most egalitarian Americans harbor unconscious negative attitudes about black people. The studies and the stories are overwhelming. Just this week, police shot and killed a black 12-year-old for holding a BB gun.
But still, in some part of your brain, if you imagine that wouldn’t happen toyou even if you were black, it means you believe something other than race is to blame for all those statistics and studies — which can only boil down to some rationalization of inherent superiority on your part. And then you’ve just shown exactly what privilege is and why black folks feel the need to assert their basic humanity. See how easy it is to reinforce white privilege, even unintentionally?
As Kohn says, “Benefiting from white privilege is automatic. Defending white privilege is a choice.” Rather than clinging to an unjust system, now is the time for us to listen to people of color and join them in solidarity. That starts with accepting that when people say it’s about race, they’re probably right.