Politics, Race in America

A child’s shoes

My lifelong friend called to ask the saddest question I have ever been asked. It was rhetorical, mind you — my friend knew I wouldn’t have the answer. But I understood the need to ask sometimes outweighs the existence of an easy solution.

In this time of nationwide turmoil, my friend’s sister was a well-known attorney in St. Louis, an arbiter who had the gift of gab and a fiery temperament to back it. For 15 years, her radio show captivated and motivated Midwesterners to reject the status quo and advocate for positive change. During the Ferguson riots in 2014, my friend’s firebrand sister was all over the national news, her lucid commentary offering an alternative to what had always been, before — what had never worked. But then, unexpectedly, my friend’s sister died. She died, leaving behind an 11-year-old son.

And my friend called me.

“How,” asked my friend, “am I going to raise a Black male child in this world?”

It pains me that I need to spell it out but my friend is a Black man. And he asked, “How am I going to raise a Black son in this world?”

It’s weird how you’re hit with it — hit with the magnitude of a question that doesn’t have an answer. You know it the moment it’s asked and you know no one will ever ask you a sadder question — a question with so many wrong answers.

“How am I going to raise a Black child in this world?”

What my friend meant was: how am I going to shepherd this Black youth through the labyrinth of complicated lessons that makes a Black man thrive in a world that doesn’t seem to want him to even survive? These are lessons white men don’t ever see. The term white privilege has been bandied about in recent months but it might be better described as Black non-privilege. If you find the term objective, please keep reading — I’ll explain it in terms that are clear and deeply personal.

Recently, I listened to a white person lament her upbringing. “I was raised in an alcoholic home, my entire childhood was ruined by alcoholism — I had no privilege!” she exclaimed, angry. “My early years are proof there is no such thing as white privilege,” she insisted. Everyone, she said, has their own hurdles — because her early life sucked, white privilege can’t possibly exist. “I had no privilege!” she insisted. “There is no white privilege!”

Actually, she did and does have white privilege and she is totally missing the point.

White privilege has nothing to do with how difficult a white kid’s childhood was, how hard a white child had it growing up. White privilege is not related to an abusive childhood, to general poverty, to awful parents — it’s not related to any experiences transcending race, religion, color, culture or any other grouping. People from any origin can experience a difficult upbringing or a trying adolescence. Rather, white privilege manifests itself in the details you never thought about because you didn’t have to — details Black people face constantly.

White privilege isn’t anything to be ashamed of — you didn’t ask for it. White privilege isn’t something you can give up but, to understand your friends of color, you should be aware of it. It makes your life easier in ways you never thought of — ways through which my friend must now shepherd his unexpected Black son.

White privilege starts very small — it’s me crossing a crosswalk as the older white woman in the Lexus waiting for the light to turn green ignores me. White privilege is the same older woman hitting the loud electric car door locks when she sees the Black youth crossing six feet behind me.

White privilege is me shopping at Nordstrom, free to wander without scrutiny while the security staff is closely watching the Black teenager who came in right after me. White privilege is another department store offering a wide variety of makeup colors for white women but few for women of color. White privilege is a white woman entering a boutique with a large shoulder bag and being allowed to browse at her leisure while the Black girl behind her is asked to surrender her bag at the counter before she can shop.

White privilege is me enjoying excellent service at my favorite bistro while the Black couple three tables over experience lousy service because the waiter incorrectly assumes they’re lousy tippers.

White privilege is another resident holding the lobby door of my secure apartment building open for me even though he doesn’t know me but him quickly pulling the door shut behind me because a Black man is heading in next.

White privilege is me relaxing poolside at a resort, unmolested by security staff while the Black family two rooms down is repeatedly asked for their pool pass, their parking permit or to show their room key to prove they are legitimate guests.

White privilege is me ordering the Grand Slam at Denny’s, settling the bill when I’m finished while the Black party seated across the dining room is asked to pay in advance because the white manager thinks they look “suspicious.”

White privilege is me applying for a loan to buy a house and getting approved, even without stellar credit when a Black family of similar means is denied repeatedly. White privilege is a Black home appraised well below its market value but increased by a full third when the bank orders a second appraisal before which the homeowners “whitewash” or remove all objects indicating the occupants are Black.

White privilege is me able to win a seat in our state legislature and freely canvass neighborhoods in my constituency while the Black woman elected in the next district has the police called on her repeatedly as she hands out reelection campaign leaflets in her district neighborhoods.

White privilege is me carelessly fumbling with my documents when a police officer stops me for a minor traffic violation while the Black man the cop stopped earlier had to very carefully maintain awareness of where he slowly moved his hands, asking permission each time he did so, trying not to appear to be reaching for a weapon. White privilege is the same cop allowing me to remain in my car while he writes me up when the Black motorist would have a much higher chance of being handcuffed — emasculated, humiliated — detained and left to sit on the curb before being released and handed his ticket.

Remember when I said my white privilege was deeply personal?

White privilege is me getting busted on federal cocaine charges in the early 1990s and enjoying a complicated adjudication that included six months in a cushy federal halfway house instead of jail time when my Black friend would likely still be serving his prison sentence for the same crime, even as I type these words.

That, my friends, is white privilege.

People like George Floyd pay for alleged minor crimes with their lives, a permanent sentence that white privilege would almost certainly spare them. That’s white privilege.

Each of these examples I have witnessed myself. I have felt pain in my heart when I’ve looked at the eyes of a Black man who is asked for the thousandth time to prove he belongs in a place where some nosy white person thinks he shouldn’t be — it’s a look of utter resignation. And most Black people I know bear this burden with grace and good humor even though doing so must be immensely difficult.

My friend must now teach his new adolescent son how to behave in a world that gives me a free pass in a thousand ways I never consider even as it has already tried and convicted my friend’s child before he leaves his home. If you’ve been unfairly asked to show a parking permit or to leave your purse at a shop counter, please remember these things happen to Black people with mind-numbing regularity — way more than happens to white people. Next time you hear the term white privilege, don’t dismiss it or mock it — it’s not a personal condemnation. Instead, please think of my friend who asked me the most heart-wrenching question I’ve ever heard: How can I raise a young Black son in this world?

Photograph © Joice Kelly via Unsplash