I really pussyfooted around when it came to my contribution during the unrest in St. Louis and Ferguson last fall.
I followed protests online instead of attending in person. I listened in to town halls on the radio instead of attending in person. I cautiously shared and linked to articles on social media so as not to offend too many people. I didn’t even place a “Black Lives Matter” sign in my yard. I’m not much of a sign person or a bumper sticker person. I was raised to keep politics to myself. And taught that it’s rude to make other people feel uncomfortable. But politeness is not why there isn’t a “Black Lives Matter” sign in my yard. The real reason is fear.
I have been afraid of being marginalized in my conservative 90% white town, to which I’m relatively new. I’m afraid of people making a lot of assumptions about me without even knowing me. I’m afraid of people not liking me without even knowing me. I’ve also been afraid of being victimized or vandalized. There are a lot of cars that are burglarized each night in our town. Some people think that black folk from the city take the highway “out here” and pilfer unlocked cars at night. I’m more suspecting of the teens in our town who are short on cash but apparently have some pretty extensive/expensive prescription drug habits. I’m afraid of those kids seeing my house or me as a target. I’m afraid of the kind of kids that I used to be and used to hang out with, who feel entitled and above the law, and who follow blindly in their parents’ politics. I’m also afraid that if something did happen to me (or my house) that I wouldn’t receive the same treatment from the police who would respond.
This, my friends, is white privilege. And, I’m afraid of giving it up. I’m afraid of being treated like people of color are. I’m afraid of not being able to bask in my relative safety and consistently enjoy the benefit of the doubt. I don’t like it when other white people assume (because I’m white) that my values mirror theirs, but it sure helps me out a lot – especially since I live in a place where the philosophical leanings are quite different from my own. My white privilege keeps me safe from racism and discrimination and then my silence keeps me safe from those enjoy and maintain the status quo.**
My complicity bothers me. It’s cowardly and hypocritical. How can I expect those that are already the most vulnerable and victimized to be the only ones to stand up for what is right? While I cling to each morsel of security that I enjoy. How is it fair to stick those that suffer from the least effective education, most aggressive policing, most discriminatory housing and financial practices, most biased judicial practices and severe sentencing outcomes with the burden of changing the systems that are stacked against them? It’s not. And my apprehension around relinquishing any privilege at all (even incurring the perceived vulnerability from placing a Black Lives Matter sign in my yard) is confirmation that that my commitment to racial identity development and racial equity is still all about me…the white girl. I can do better. And that’s not saying much.
**(If you are looking for other specific examples of white privilege, check out Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack)