Facing my white privilege

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A road closed to thru traffic–but I drove on through.

I live without fear of consequences during most days of my life.  

This week, however, after watching George Floyd be murdered for being a black man who used a possibly fake $20 bill, I’m thinking about white privilege.  I could use the same $20 bill, deliberately or accidentally, and not lose my life during an arrest.  

When I’m hiking and come to a “Do not trespass” sign, I sometimes pass right by it to get to my destination.  I don’t expect to get shot.

I like driving on a deserted country road or mountain road, going places I’ve never been.  I stop and take photos, unafraid of meeting a hostile stranger.  Sometimes on highways that say “No stopping” I pull over to take a photo.

I’ve driven through the south with bumper stickers that identify my politics, often very different from the area I’m exploring.  I don’t fear for my safety when I stay in a cheap hotel.

I’ve never feared the police, either for myself or for something an officer might do to my husband or one of my children. 

Sometime I exceed the speed limit or make an illegal turn and get pulled over by an officer.  I cooperate and do not expect to be shot if I reach for my purse or to be pushed up against a wall and roughed up.

I expect being white and female to be a message others that I’m not a threat and that they should treat me with politeness, even though I’m tall and occasionally briefly mistaken for a man.

Sometimes I walk with my dog off leash, even though I know that the law requires keeping dogs on leashes.

I’m not afraid of dogs–I’ve never imagined that someone might sic their dog on me.

When I’m in a Target store, I browse freely in remote aisles and never get an employee tailing me to make sure I don’t shoplift.  

I’ve never been accused of stealing something in a convenience store or clothing shop in a mall.

I’ve never been pulled over for driving without my headlights on or for failure to dim my headlights.

I’ve never been mistaken for a housekeeper in a hotel.

I’ve never been ignored when shopping for a car or treated like someone who is not a potential buyer.

I’ve never had doors closed against me because of my race.  Because of my gender, yes.  When I admitted that I was a mother of three young kids, I didn’t make it far in job interviews. 

Furthermore, I’ve never had anyone in my family falsely accused of a crime or arrested or imprisoned for something he or she didn’t do.  I don’t have relatives who have been in prison except for a night or two.

My brother once told me that when he enters a room or a social situation like a swimming pool, he notices whether anyone present may be bigger and stronger than he is–whether he could defend himself if need be.  I think most black men notice these things too.

I’ve been afraid on a dark street at night on occasion, but I’m not usually in dangerous neighborhoods.  I haven’t been raped or beaten up or even been robbed, at home or on a street. Once my car was broken into.  

Until this week, I thought my general fearlessness was something to be proud of.  I thought it was part of my personality, something I was born with.

Now I realize that this freedom from fear is mainly because I’m Caucasian–white.  

It’s white privilege.  

A few months ago an African-American friend told me about being shadowed in 2020 as a possible shoplifter in a Target store–though she’s a nicely dressed woman in her fifties.  She said her mother had “the talk” with her when she was 12 years old– “Because of your race, you need to dress nicely in stores and be aware that clerks may watch you as a possible shoplifter.”

I don’t dress nicely except for weddings, yet I never get spied on as a potential thief.  My mother never had to have such a talk with me; in fact, she told me about the time she was a teenager and got away with shoplifting.

Some of my freedom to move about is economic privilege–not living in places where there is a high level of poverty or crime or drug use.  Well, there is a lot of drug use in West LA, but so far I haven’t been robbed by someone seeking money for drugs.

This week another African-American friend told me about being pulled over by an officer when she was a teenager driving in a deserted part of town.  He threatened her, “I can do anything I want and nobody will ask any questions.”  I’ve never been threatened by a police officer.

Now I realize why twenty years ago the husband of another African-American friend had high blood pressure and died of a heart attack in his fifties.  He lived with racism and tension and fear all his life.  

It makes sense why poor people and some black and brown people seem to be more vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus.  They have higher levels of stress, which affects one’s immune system, and they may have less access to health care, healthy food, rest, exercise, etc.  People who live near a freeway or next to an oil refinery breathe in more air pollution than someone in Beverly Hills.  When they visit a doctor, their concerns may not be heard.

George Floyd was perfectly healthy, but he lost his job as a security guard when the restaurant had to close during the stay-at-home order of the Covid-19 epidemic.  Like so many, he was feeling an economic pinch.  If he had had work that could be done online, he would still have had a paycheck.  He might not have had contact with a forged $20 bill… or if a clerk did challenge him about it, he could have whipped out another $20 and used it.  Or he could have used a credit card.

He lost his life because of four racist, entitled police officers–at least one of whom wanted to harm him–and because of a $20 bill.  

I am not likely to lose my life in such a situation.  I’m still alive at almost 72, and he lost his life at age 46.  White privilege.  If I were to say, “I can’t breathe,” someone would intervene.

Now that I’m aware, what can I do about this inequity?

1) Respect black lives.  Honor George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and all who have lost their lives because of racist assumptions and attitudes.  Say their names.

2) Work for equity in employment, health care, housing, and every area of life.  Donate to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

3) Stand up against racism.  Speak up for people of all races in conversation and in writing.  

“Minnesota has been on fire for black people for a long time,” said Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University, on MSNBC yesterday when someone expressed concern about the burning 3rd precinct police department in Minneapolis. “Blacks are 20% of the population in Minnesota, but 60% of those killed by cops.”  

Sometimes an uprising is needed to push for change.  A black owner of a small business watched his property burn down in Minneapolis last night.  His daughter grieves for her family’s loss of their hard work and investment, but she said on MSNBC, “If our loss is part of bringing about change, I can accept that.”

 4)  Also, I need to have a little more fear.  Stop trespassing or exceeding the speed limit or walking my dog without a leash.  If a darker-skinned person has to be cautious to avoid attracting attention, I should be cautious and more respectful of laws too.  

I should stop crossing boundaries while counting on my race and class to keep me safe. 




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