It was early summer in Chicago 2011, right after a particularly brutal winter, my first one in Chicago. Early 2011 was the roughest time of my life but I had made it through and was enjoying my summer.
I was out with two of my friends, entirely too late at night, way out in Montrose Park, when we checked the CTA bus tracker and realized we had missed the last bus west. Oops!
These were the Uberless & Lyftless days of existence (can you even remember such a primitive era!?) and the only way to get home at this point was to take a cab or go for a very very long walk in the dead of night. A cab is never ideal financially and us poor folk were annoyed at our stupidity but, we sucked it up and walked to the street corner to try and hail a cab.
I was with one of my best friends and favorite people in the world, who is a black woman. Brandi and I were tight and talked extensively and openly about all the important things: race, religion, art, and which Star Trek episodes were the best. #picardloversunite. We were accompanied by a white male friend as well.
As we stood at the corner, we watched cab after cab whiz by, ignoring our obvious hailing signals that were just short of running in front of a moving car. After about 15 minutes of this Brandi, said to us, “I’m going to go hide behind this tree over here and let you guys take care of the cab.” I was completely confused and laughed at first. When I asked her to explain, she said, “Trust me, the problem is me. If there are just two white people standing here, someone will stop.”
I honestly didn’t believe her but sure enough, after she walked away, within a few minutes we had a cab.
I was speechless. I had about 50 million realizations all at once and my head was exploding. It took me days to fully process it and I still think about it to this day. I had never considered myself to be someone who held any kind of racist ideology. I am a warm and accepting person and had never shied away from relationships with any people of color.
However, I actually realized in that moment that I wasn’t as “evolved” as I thought I was. I was blinded by my “white privilege,” a phrase that I didn’t really yet understand. It was painful to come to terms with at first because it involved me facing some inherently racist thinking and realizing that I was part of the problem.
The first ugly thing I had to face within myself was my first thought when this happened… because the first thing I thought was “But you’re so beautiful.”
Wow. It’s embarrassing to admit that.
There are other iterations of that statement. You know you’ve thought it. You may have even said some of these things.
…so well dressed.”
…so well behaved.”
…one of the ‘good ones.’ ”
…really more white.”
…so well spoken.”
…not like the ‘others.’ ”
I caught myself in the thought and immediately realized what that was. I was ashamed. Because A) it doesn’t matter and B) these statements come from an assumption that the opposite is usually true.
That is the heart of the issue. It is what all black people face all of the time, every day, for all of their lives. The automatic assumption that they are less than. If you think that someone is “one of the good ones” than you think that most of them are “bad ones.” If you think that someone is “so well behaved” you carry the assumption that most aren’t.
As a white person, I do not have to worry about this. I don’t have to prove my worth or my value to anyone. I don’t have to combat these assumptions that are ingrained in our society, whether you choose to see them or not, every single day. Every. Single. Day. Much more can be said and explained but this, in a nutshell, is white privilege.
Do you realize what that does to a person? To an entire group of people? To wake up every day and face people, everywhere you go, that hold these kinds of assumptions about you and are often blind to it? Brandi KNEW that she had to HIDE so we could get a cab. Do you realize the psychological impact that has on someone every single day?
The second ugly thing I realized is that I didn’t believe that this situation could happen because I didn’t WANT to believe this could happen… because that makes ME feel bad. This is called “white guilt” and it’s what holds many people back from facing racial issues. As a white person, I have never known and will never know that level of discrimination. As a woman, I can connect with others in some of the discrimination I have felt and experienced. However, I will never know, at all, what it’s like to be a black woman living in a white dominated culture. I can’t walk in guilt and shame or avoid looking at the truth square in the face because it’s uncomfortable.
The longer I have known her, the more I have learned about her daily struggles. This is just one of the things I’ve learned in my friendship with her. To say it was eye-opening is an understatement.
I have one more story for you.
Later that same year, I had moved to a very “interesting” neighborhood in Chicago, to say the least. One of those neighborhoods that the cabbie did a double take when you gave him the address.
Standing in the blustery cold of Chicago winter, I waited for the Jackson bus which was a block south of my apartment. Stationed right in front of a school, I had no reason to believe this was a particularly dangerous area, especially at 3pm, in broad daylight.
My mind was changed quickly when a cop car pulled up to my bus stop.
“What are you doing here?” one of the two policeman asked me.
“Ummm…. Waiting for the bus…” I replied incredulously. I mean, OBVI!
“Get in, let us take you down a few stops. You shouldn’t be here right now.”
Concerned and primarily grateful to get out of the cold, I hopped in and let them take me. He asked me if I lived in the area and when I affirmed that I did, they were surprised. He explained to me that it was dangerous to be in that area when the school let out as there were violent altercations daily at the school. I vowed to never stand at that stop around 3pm again and they let me out in a “safer” area closer to downtown.
While I was thankful, it still didn’t feel good. If I had been a black woman, they wouldn’t have stopped. They would have assumed that I knew the danger, I was part of the danger, or that I was better equipped to handle the danger, when none of those may have been true. It is automatically assumed that I am not part of the danger. This is white privilege.
What if I was a drug dealer? What if I was an innocent black girl in the wrong place at the wrong time and was a victim of violence? It would just be another “black on black” violence story, swept under the rug. What if I, a white woman, had stayed and been a victim of violence? It would have been all over the news, people outraged. This is exactly what happens to black people, all the time. We do nothing to change the story and tell them to stop collecting welfare checks and to “get over slavery already.”
What if the girl in the Charlottesville protest that died marching had been black? Don’t you think the narrative would have changed?
Don’t you see yet that this is a deeper, cultural problem that starts with what you hold in your heart and minds?
White privilege isn’t about money, while it is very much part of the issue. One of the hardest things for me to let go of was the idea that even though I have had to work so hard for what I have, I am privileged. I came from a low middle-class family, worked for what I’ve wanted since I was 14 years old, and haven’t had anything “handed to me.” However, as a white person, not only have I had more armor and more “weapons” to fight my battles with, my battles will never be as long and hard… because I’m not fighting for my humanity, against the unspoken assumptions that everyone around me holds. There is much more to be explained in terms of armor, weapons, and battles but that is for another post.
Have you ever truly been treated subhuman for no reason? Have you ever walked into a room or down the street and everyone thought you were a threat to them for no reason? Has anybody ever told you to go back to the country you came from when the country you are from is the one you are in? Have you ever had to fear for your child’s life because of the color of their skin?
If each and every single black person deals with this on a daily basis for all of their life, the psychological and economical impact that it makes is on millions of people as a whole. The knowledge that this has happened for generations before them, is currently happening to those around them now and that it will continue to happen to their children weighs upon and impacts an entire culture. It is much deeper and more staggering than many white people are willing to understand and accept. They can’t understand it because they’ve never ever lived it and never will. They can only see through the eyes of their own experience, however difficult they have perceived it to be. They get lost in their own experience and cannot recognize another’s experience as they compare it to theirs.
So, why did I feel the need to post about this now?
Because what happened on Saturday and the aftermath is incredibly alarming and people still aren’t getting it.
Because this story is all about white privilege and the white men that want to keep their privilege at the cost of other people.
Our President took days to denounce white supremacy… has he ever held back on his opinions of Muslim terrorists? Has he ever waited for “facts” before speaking?
He places the blame on ALL SIDES.
In case you’re confused, if you are marching on the same side as people holding Nazi flags, you were on the wrong side. There is only one wrong side. It doesn’t matter if they were there “just” to rally against the removal of a statue of the slave owning, military commander of an army that nearly tore our country in two and denied a entire group of people their humanity who were literally ripped from their families, stolen from their countries, based solely on the color of their skin. Robert E. Lee himself opposed such monuments because he recognized that the nation could never fully heal with their existence.
How do you expect people to “get over slavery already” and then fight to keep up constant reminders of the abuse that their people endured? Abuse that continued to endure for over a hundred years after the war was over. Why do you continue to glorify those who perpetuated this violence again other human beings and then demand that their offspring to “get over it” when they are still suffering the repercussions of it??
Read your history books. The war did not end the problem. It was just the beginning.
“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.” – TA-NEHISI COATES
The counter-protesters were marching for their lives. The Nazis that people were marching against don’t believe black people should be in America at all. They believe they are subhuman.
Do you ever get violent when your human rights are violated? Have you ever had your human rights violated? Have you ever even known what it’s like to have people marching and rallying against you because of your skin color? Are we really to expect people to stand silent as white supremacy groups march in our cities? Why is it so hard for people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes for 5 minutes?
Do you realize that, by defending Nazis, our President is opening the door for so much more of this? To all those people who kept telling me that I had nothing to worry about, that this would all die down, I beg you, open your eyes!
This isn’t the media over-blowing anything. There are no excuses to fall back on. Our President is leaving the door wide open for more of this to come.
Look at these people. They are not your old racist grandpa. They are young, technologically savvy, well-connected, and unchecked on the internet. They are coming together and mobilizing because they want to stay in power. They don’t want to lose their white privilege. They want to keep it, hold onto it forever, stroking it, whispering “my precious” in the night.
White people will never be able to understand what any single black person goes through because they aren’t willing to admit that they hold racism inside of their heart, whether they like it or not. It’s too uncomfortable to face.
Because they are unwilling to face it, they choose not to educate themselves on why black people feel the way they do. They can’t admit that they truly have a leg-up in the world because they are white. What does that mean for you to acknowledge that?
Think about it, how many of you truly have a deep friendship with any person of color? When is the last time you read a book written by a black person? When is the last time you read an article written from the perspective of a black person? When is the last time you watched a show or a movie written by a black person? When is the last time you viewed artwork created by a black person? Do you follow any black people on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram?
How can you claim to know anything about a culture and the experience of those in it when you don’t try to educate yourself or understand it? We cannot ignore their experience and continue to punish them for a situation that we have created. We have to recognize and admit that we, the white people, created this problem over a very long period of time. We have set them up to fail and then blame them when they do. (Start how we created the violent Ghettos that have churned out generations of violence due to immobility and with how we created Mass Incarceration in response… also every single article mentioned here!)
We have to face the ugliness that we have inside and let go of the assumptions and preconceived notions that we have. Put aside your pride, cultivate your empathy and truly look at the world through their eyes.
There are human beings lives at stake and until you realize that you have the power to change it, just by changing your heart, you’re just enabling this:
I sent this to Brandi to read before I posted it, asking her if she’d like to provide any additional perspective.
Here’s what she said to me:
“It is important that this conversation is coming from white people because it is one of perspective and yours is the one that has to be heard and can be related to. People of color have been shouting from the rooftops but it’s been coming from a different perspective.”
You’ve been in a horrific accident and lost your leg. As you hobble down the road on crutches, everyone that walks taunts you, telling you to stop using your crutches and walk already. None of these people saw the accident you were in nor were they the perpetrators of the accident but you don’t understand why they are telling you to do this. They might not have seen the accident but, can’t they see that you don’t have a leg? You ask people if they can see that you don’t have a leg and they dismiss you and tell you that you need to just get over it and walk already. You don’t understand how you could possibly walk without a leg and don’t see how anyone would expect you to do so without it. You shout “I DON’T HAVE A LEG!” and people ignore it and tell you that you’re weak, you’re wrong, you just want the attention, and that you’re just trying to get out of work. On top of it, there are people that can plainly see that you don’t have a leg but they continue to let the other people provoke you. They walk by, feel bad for you, but do nothing to help you.
I’m not going to stand by and allow this abuse.
I told Brandi how angry I was about all of this. You know what she said?
“Anger gets shit done!”
She’s damn right.