Having conversations with racist folks is usually awkward and frustrating. It can also be eye opening. Unfortunately, it’s usually only eye opening for the non-racist party.
Last night I spoke with a childhood friend. He no longer lives in my state, and now resides in a large metropolitan area. My assumption that once one moves away from a tiny town like the one in which we grew up into the higher populated city they grow from some of the small town mentality, was horribly wrong, at least in this case.
As we discussed the goings on in the world, we hit on the Ferguson, Michael Brown,racism, and white privilege. His initial comment was “I don’t believe in white privilege. It just doesn’t exist. I’ve never been given anything extra in life, and in fact, I can tell you a story showing how stupid this all is.”
Not only was moving away from his rhetoric about having to “work for a living like everyone else” a nice vacation, but I couldn’t wait to hear how he was going to outline for me the supposed non-existence of racism and white privilege. My ears were at full attention.
His story follows:
My son and I were at the movie theatre the other night. As we left, the light turned red,
but no traffic was coming, so I just made a rolling stop. Apparently, there was a taillight
on my truck, too, and the policeman pulled us over. He approached our vehicle, and tried
to be really tough with us. I basically argued with him a little bit, and we both handed
him our credentials so he could check for warrants. I’d forgotten my NRA card was
behind my driver’s license, and I inadvertently handed it to the officer along with my
ID. When the officer returned to the car, he let me off with a warning, thanking me
for supporting the 2nd Amendment Rights of American citizens.
According to the man, his story was supposed to prove that A) white folks get pulled over and questioned just like everyone else. B) The police officer wasn’t friendly with him, a white male, until he knew they weren’t criminals, and finally, C) That officer was just doing his job, not harassing anyone.
My answer is the story he told makes the exact argument for white privilege. There are so many things about this scenario that might have, and probably would have, played out differently had he and his son been of color.
1) Arguing or disrespecting law enforcement would have probably led to an immediate call for backup.
2) They probably would have both been breathalyzed due to running the light, as that would have been documented as erratic driving.
3) Reaching for their wallets could have been misconstrued as reaching for a weapon.
4) Showing an officer, inadvertently or not, a card denoting gun ownership would have led to removing both parties from the vehicle, handcuffing, and searching the car.
In other words, the incidents that night would have made them suspects, not respected members of a community, and this is where so many white folks go blind. Yes, you may get pulled over and questioned, but you aren’t a suspect unless you give good reason. People of color are suspects from the moment some officers approach the vehicle.
Growing up and living in a tiny, racist town, this isn’t the first illogical argument like this I’ve heard. It’s not the first discussion I’ve had with someone who tried with all their might to prove to me (the liberal whackjob of my town) that racism went away in the 60s, and definitely with the inauguration of President Obama. They all try to prove there is no white privilege because white folks have to work, too. For whatever reason, they all seem to believe people of color just don’t want to work for anything, and they call it “white privilege” because they think white folks just hang out in the shade somewhere. They don’t even try to understand that all people of color have ever done is work. Be it in chains or to overcome and survive—they have worked. That’s not the privilege of which they speak. What they speak of is the privilege to be able to work, go to school, and achieve without discrimination. They want to be able to walk down the street without fear of false arrest or being beaten and/or murdered. And that’s exactly the privilege we white folks enjoy every single day.
I’ve lived here all my life, with brief exceptions. I’ve heard the slurs thrown about like they’re meaningless. I’ve witnessed the stern objections to anyone of color being part of our town. Aside from complete lack of diversity and culture, my town is okay. It’s quiet. The school system is advanced enough, yet small. If the citizens could move beyond their own biases, I’d say it’s a pretty great place to live.
I don’t know shit about what it means to be a person of color in the US, let alone in my hometown. Sure, I’ve gone to college. I’ve taken a cosmic ton of sociology courses. I’ve studied multicultural literature.I know what the books say. However, I do not personally know the feeling of fear and anger a non-white must feel in a community like mine. Some of the horrible comments I’ve heard white folks say around here are enough to invoke fear and anger in anyone.
What I have been is lucky enough to have lived outside this town as a very small child, so my initial years were complete with experiencing diversity. My parents were not racist. That made all the difference, too. I was taught to never mistreat anyone. I’m also lucky to have friends beyond the white friends I have here. I listen to them as they tell me how they feel and the struggles they face. They teach me to be a better human being, and I can never fully repay that.
As I remain in my tiny town, I see the ignorance and fear from which racism is born. Some of these folks have their white privilege turned up so high it screams from far away as they commit crimes, yet the police let them walk away. They’re no better than anyone because of the level of melanin in their skin. Somehow, though, they fear what they have never taken the time to understand—the people who look different from them, different cultures, different languages. What’s more, they fear the loss of control they have over our tiny town. Someone might come in and make changes. They might lose complete charge. I, for one, would embrace some change. Some culture around here would be nice. These old timers though, they just keep passing on their racism to their descendants like a sick inheritance. It’s not going away anytime soon.
Look, I’m just some white chic from a small town with only some thoughts I record for others to read. I’m often accused from the aforementioned fellow citizens of my town of having “white guilt,” and to answer that, no, I do not have white guilt. I’m not ashamed because I was randomly born white instead of some other color. What I do have is what I call Human Responsibility. It’s my job to speak out to these white racist fools who can’t see beyond their own stories to understand the experiences of someone else. It’s my duty to try to teach folks that racism is founded in fear and ignorance, and the white privilege does exist. If I’m ever going to even try to repay the debt I owe my friends who helped me understand what life is like for them in the country which is supposedly “the land of the free,” I must speak out—not for them, but with them. Finally, it’s my job, not as some great white hope, but as a human being to try to make the world a better place. That, my friends, is everyone’s job.