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As I drove home one night last week, my mother texted, wondering if I’d done any writing about the recent events in Charlottesville.
I hadn’t. Yet.
“I never would have imagined it would get this bad,” she said. “It’s just so terrible. I can’t believe it.”
She noticed I didn't share her astonishment.
“You’re not even a little bit surprised?” she asked.
No, I told her. Saddened. Angry. But not surprised.
Mom married my Pops, a black man, in 1974. That’s less than a decade after the Loving v. Virginia decision made interracial marriage legal. Her mother was ashamed of her marriage to my father, so much so that she didn’t want us to attend my Grandpap’s funeral for fear the extended family would find out. She has seen the struggles I experience(d) as a biracial child and man, fought for the rights for access to mental health for people of color and contributes both time and money to causes dedicated to social justice.
Yet she couldn’t believe this was happening.
Our conversation reminded me of another I’d had months ago.
Less obvious, but no less ominous, white privilege is the ability to be surprised about the state of race relations in our country ...
I’ve got this friend. He’s a contrarian by nature, and almost always for his own entertainment. And mine. We spend most of our time together laughing over beers about the way he’ll oppose someone’s views, even if agrees with them, in an almost comical test of their convictions. Mostly, he enjoys skewering the lack of general common sense displayed on any manner of topics, but particularly gender, race and politics.
You can see why we’d get along.
One day we’d been talking about nothing in particular until the conversation turned towards the current administration and the state of race relations in the country. We conversed at our normal agreeable clip, until I rolled an inadvertent hand grenade into the discussion.
I brought up white privilege.
And my friend, my ally … he bristled.
At first, I thought it was the act, the disagreement to be disagreeable. But his face tightened; he leaned back in his chair, arms folded. It was no put-on, and I knew what he was going to say, because I’d heard it before, though never from him.
“I don’t have or come from money. I worked for everything I have.”
“I don’t have power over anyone.”
“I was the only white person living in a black neighborhood.”
“I didn’t ask for it.”
Privilege is an unfortunate word. Though meant to describe things that confer immense benefit, it rarely bathes its bearer in a positive light. In many ways, the argument that white people never asked for their privilege in the strict definition of the word, holds some merit.
I get it, I told him. No one requests white privilege for himself. The issue is what people who have it think “it” is.
White privilege is not about how much money you have or how you got it, though the fact that white is seen as the default elevates your position in employment and housing.
White privilege allows you to leave the house every morning without thinking about the fact that you are white and how that might affect the events of that day, and every day that follows.
White privilege is being pulled over for windows too darkly tinted, a broken tail light, for driving too slowly -- and not worrying, not even considering, that you might be shot by the officer.
White privilege is living in, or even just walking in, a neighborhood where you are the minority, and wearing a hoodie or whatever the hell you please without worrying that someone will think you are a dangerous criminal. That’s power.
Less obvious, but no less ominous, white privilege is the ability to be surprised about the state of race relations in our country — to be in denial that things have always been this way. Always.
My friend listened. And he heard me. Not only that, but he said he would take our conversation back to people he knew who objected to the "white privilege" label on the same grounds.
It gave me hope.
That’s the duality of privilege; that though the concept carries such negative connotations, there is an inverse that holds true, without fail.
It can be a force for positivity. More valuable than any financial donations, it gives a powerful voice to the cause, one that fights racism where it lives, calls out injustice at its source.
But in order for that to happen, white privilege must, without defensiveness, without exception, be acknowledged.
Along with something else.
More valuable than any financial donation, [privilege] gives a powerful voice to the cause, one that fights racism where it lives, calls out injustice at its source.
Mom will be 80-years-old soon. When we talk politics, she still shakes her head in disbelief, recalling my prediction that the presidential election would play out the way it did. At her age, she has experienced much of this country’s brief and awful history of race.
But not all of it. Because she can’t.
She acknowledges her white privilege without defensiveness. But despite all she’s done to rail against it, despite her black husband and her mixed-race child, there are parts of this experience she can never fully understand. There are limits to her “wokeness.” Because she has that luxury, that privilege, even acknowledged, there are limits to what she can believe about the state of our country.
It makes me sad. A little angry, though not with her.
But I’m not surprised.