I grew up so white, I didn’t even notice the privileges I had over black people.
At age 15 or so my white friend and I hitchhiked to a music festival and slept in a random farm field. We got woken up by cops in the middle of the night. We got talked to. At age 18 I skidded a car off the highway and into the median at 70 mph. After midnight on my way home from a party. The cops came to the accident. I got talked to. They called my dad to come get me.
How many times have I been pulled over and NOT gotten a ticket. So many times. Honestly, I have actually shook my head and muttered these words to myself about a cop who just gave me a warning: “You should totally be writing me a ticket right now.”
How many times have I drank or smoked or peed in some “technically illegal” place and not worried one bit. The worst that might happen is that I would get talked to.
As a kid and young man – due to my personality – I did risky stuff even as a white person. If “this personality” had been black, I would be in prison or dead by now. No doubt in my mind about that. Given my shenanigans over the years, I’m lucky to avoid prison and death as a white person! I have gotten talked to and given a pass hundreds of times in my life.
Being white didn’t just keep me from getting arrested, it opened doors for me. Like all those times I have walked through a hotel lobby to use the restroom, as if a guest there, and maybe grabbed a cup of complementary coffee if I felt like it. Honestly, I have used hotel lobbies a LOT and once even used their limo service for a ride across town without being a guest. This is what privilege looks like.
And being white has kept me safe from bad white people. If I see a bunch of white people buying beer at a Seven-Eleven, even bad looking drunk-already white people, I got no problem going in there. I was black there would be places I would be scared.
The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired me to scroll back through my life and imagine if I was black. There are so many things I simply could not have done as a black kid, from big things like stealing another guy’s date to little things like asking a harmless question. I would have had to be so much more cautious about all my interactions.
I have been allowed to live large and take risks because of my white privilege. I know that now. Having read and heard so many stories of what happened to black people in situations just like mine and how their stories are so different, I understand better now.
My privilege in a nutshell? Freedom. I have been free to act out and be myself in ways that black people simply aren’t, and haven’t been allowed. Am I afraid that black people are going to rise up and take away my freedoms? Not at all. Not once have I heard black people say, “We want things to be worse for you.” They are saying, “We need things to be better for us.”
Freedom (also known as independence or liberty) is such a core American value, I think every American should have it. Like me. Yet many don’t. What can I do about that? Three things.
(1) I can tell my story and acknowledge my privileges. Just call them out. Name them. It’s called “checking your privilege.” (2) I can pass along and amplify stories of black people. Help get those stories told. Let’s benefit from hearing more black stories and fewer white stories for a change. (3) Stand up to racism when I see it. I am standing ready. And I hope to have the courage to say to a white guy, even if he’s talking to just white guys, that it’s not okay to say or do racist stuff.
Last note: while the focus here has been on white privilege, other privileges are absolutely in play every time I get a pass: my male privilege, my wealth privilege, and many others. Also, my privilege is not just over black people but over all non-white people. I’m just letting you know that I know these things. Calling out my privilege.
Another last note: My go-to books on racism have been How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and So You Want To Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.