First, before I begin I want to say this: if you have already formed your opinions about racism, about the protests in Ferguson, about anyone’s testimony—if you are here to argue with me, if your first comment begins with “but I…” please turn around. I am not here to engage with you on this topic. I do not have time (nor patience) for this argument. Because it will be just that—an argument, not a dialogue. Neither party will change their mind. The Internet, while wonderful, was hardly built for intelligent dialogue. And it breaks my heart to try to express my sadness, my anger, my frustration in the face of “Support Darren Wilson” posts. I cannot. I’m sorry. Perhaps you will think less of me, perhaps you will think me a close-minded liberal, perhaps you will even see me as unintelligent, uninformed, ridiculous. Think what you will. I’m not here to prove myself to you.
For the rest of you—hello. First off, I want to thank you for being here. While I’m not here to coddle you, I want to acknowledge that racism is scary. That talking about racism is difficult. Privilege is difficult. Our immediate reaction tends to be defensive. “Well, I’m not racist, so this isn’t really my issue,” “it’s not my fault that slavery was part of American history—I didn’t own slaves,” “I’m just one person, what can I do?” We don’t want to be at fault for the sins of others—for the failures of our country, our police, our culture. We would rather stay in our own bubble of privilege. That is the scary part of privilege—it allows us to ignore those our systemic advantage oppresses. It allows us to live in the bubble of our own problems, content to believe the narratives of mass media, of the American Dream (everyone has equal opportunity to “become something”), of some serious propaganda. So thank you for stepping outside your bubble. Stay out here. It is scary, and it is difficult, and you will screw up, but you need to be here. We need to change this world, and it will begin on an individual level. So stay here. Stay talking. Stay thinking.
So, what is privilege? It seems to come up a lot when we’re talking about race in America, but what exactly are we saying? Are you at fault for your privilege? And what should you do with it?
Privilege refers to the special rights, advantages, or immunities granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. I’m female, white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight, and cisgender (my biological sex aligns with my gender identity). Some of my privileges include knowing which bathroom to walk into, having vast options for hairstylists who know how to deal with my European hair, not needing to add extra time to my airport security experience for fear I will be “randomly selected,” and not worrying about societal reaction when interacting romantically with my partner.
If you want to learn more about white privilege in particular, I’d suggest reading the 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. It’s a great resource for helping you see your white privilege.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by privilege. I’ll be the first to admit that even I don’t know all the ways I’m privileged. I’m constantly learning new ways to be inclusive, to help someone who might not have the same advantages as me. But wait, isn’t this all just too PC? This is just political correctness gone too far! Eh, perhaps. But it’s hard to know someone else’s struggle. If you are cisgender, you have the privilege of never having to worry (as some transgender people do) about feeling like your body is betraying you—as though you are not yourself. Your identity is solid. You have the luxury of confidence in your own identity—of looking in the mirror and feeling connected with the person staring back at you. Not everyone has this. And it is a daily struggle for these individuals. Is it so hard to change your vocabulary to help them feel less outside? To work to use language like “all genders” rather than “both genders?” To reject television tropes about “men in disguise as women?”
So, now we know about privilege. But what can we do about it? I mean, you wouldn’t identify as racist, you have no ill-feelings toward people of different races (I hope), and you probably have friends of different races. What does knowing your privilege mean?
Well, for starters, it means acknowledging that you live in a society where some people have more options than other people. If you’re a woman, you know this firsthand. You know that walking home, late at night, is somewhat nerve-racking (and is frowned upon). You likely hold your keys firmly between your knuckles, walk quickly, avoid deserted places. For the most part, white men do not have to worry about this issue (fear of being mugged is very different than fear of being raped). This is a consequence of a patriarchal society. Consider reading Lindsay Beyerstein’s Attention, Space Cadets: Do Not Proposition Women in an Elevator for more information on this topic (here’s a great quote too).
This directly translates to race relations. Not all men are rapists, and not all white people are racist, right? What’s the problem? As long as you’re not either one of those things, it’s all good, right? Wrong. While you might not be inherently racist, you benefit from a racist society. You benefit from a culture that systematically oppresses different groups of people (usually people outside the spectrum of white, middle-to-upper-class, male, able-bodied, straight, and cisgender).
By now you’re probably feeling pretty guilty, and likely getting defensive. That’s ok. It’s a natural reaction to checking your privilege. No one is saying that just because you have privilege that you are a bad person—in fact, privilege isn’t really inherently negative, and most of us have it in some way. It is a consequence of the society we’ve built, of the history we collectively have. No, it isn’t your fault that you are privileged. But that doesn’t mean you can just accept it and move on. Just knowing about it is the first step.
So, what does this all have to do with Mike Brown and Eric Garner? I’m not here to discuss the nuances of the defenses, or the grand jury decisions in these cases. (Check out this article if you want more information on that front.) No matter what you believe, the basic fact of the last several weeks boils down to this—an oppressed group is crying out for help. Your job, as someone with privilege, is to shut up and listen. That is your first job. Your opinion does not matter in this situation. Honestly. You may have lots of them, you may want to start screaming, or arguing back. But take a moment to listen. Really, really listen to the people of Ferguson (and destroy the “riot/loot” angle), listen to the stories they are sharing, listen to the consequences of casual racism. Just listen. Do not speak. Do not argue. First and foremost: listen. That’s all I’m asking of you today.
There is a huge race problem in this country. We all probably believe that we would have been in the marches with Martin Luther King Jr., because the lens of history tells us who was “right” and who was “wrong.” But now society is right again—now everything is better, and people are just overreacting. No. Reject this idea. Reject the idea that these things should be easy—that we are post-racism. We are not. We are still in the middle of racism, we are still grappling with our history, burying it as though discussing it will only make things worse. Ignoring it is making things worse. Talking over it is making things worse. Forty years from now, I hope these years will look as “right” and “wrong” as the civil rights movement looks to us now. I hope these years will be taught in the history books, and our children will ask us which side of the fight we were on. Because it will come. The battle will be long, and hard fought, and terribly, terribly painful. It will never be easy—change is never easy. Compliance is easy. Ignoring the issue is easy. Privilege is easy.
Get your hands dirty. Find articles that upset you, frustrate you, break your heart. Learn about the world around you—the experiences of others. And years from now, when you look back, I want you to be able to say you did something. That for once, you thought about more than yourself. That you listened.