As the ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri show us, America’s racial tensions didn’t disappear when George Wallace backed down from the schoolhouse door. Dr. King didn’t wave a magic wand, and we never got together to feel all right. White America remembers this at ugly flashpoints: the Rodney King beatings, the OJ Simpson trial, the Jena Six, Trayvon Martin’s death. White America recoils in horror not at the crimes – though the crimes are certainly horrible. It’s not the teenagers gunned down, the police abuse, the corrupt trials. It’s this: at these sudden, raw moments, in these riots and demonstrations and travesties of justice, White America is forced to gaze upon the emotional roil of oppression, the anger and fear and deep grief endemic to the Black American experience. Black America holds up a mirror for us.
And white America is terrified to look.
To admit white privilege is to admit a stake, however small, in ongoing injustice. It’s to see a world different than your previous perception. Acknowledging that your own group enjoys social and economic benefits of systemic racism is frightening and uncomfortable. It leads to hard questions of conscience may of us aren’t prepared to face. There is substantial anger: at oneself, at the systems of oppression, and mostly at the bearer of bad news, a convenient target of displacement. But think on this.
I have three sons, two years between each. They are various shades of blond, various shades of pinkish-white, and will probably end up dressing in polo shirts and button downs most of the time. Their eyes are blue and green. Basically, I’m raising the physical embodiment of The Man, times three. The White is strong in these ones.
Clerks do not follow my sons around the store, presuming they might steal something.
Their normal kid stuff – tantrums, running, shouting – these are chalked up to being children, not to being non-white.
People do not assume that, with three children, I am scheming to cheat the welfare system.
When I wrap them on my back, no one thinks I’m going native, or that I must be from somewhere else.
When my sons are teenagers, I will not worry about them leaving the house. I will worry – that they’ll crash the car, or impregnate a girl, or engage in the same stupidness endemic to teenagers everywhere.
I will not worry that the police will shoot them.
If their car breaks down, I will not worry that people they ask for help will call the police, who will shoot them.
I will not worry that people will mistake a toy pistol for a real one and gun them down in the local Wal-Mart.
In fact, if my sons so desire, they will be able to carry firearms openly. Perhaps in Chipotle or Target.
They will walk together, all three, through our suburban neighborhood. People will think, Look at those kids out for a walk. They will not think, Look at those punks casing the joint.
People will assume they are intelligent. No one will say they are “well-spoken” when they break out SAT words. Women will not cross the street when they see them. Nor will they clutch their purses tighter.
My sons will not worry their girlfriends’ parents will dislike them for their race.
My sons will never be mistaken for stealing their own cars, or entering their own houses.
No one will stop and frisk my boys because they look suspicious.
My boys can grow their hair long, and no one will assume it’s a political statement.
My boys will carry a burden of privilege with them always. They will be golden boys, inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by Black America.
For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons.
It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying.
Your sons may become the shooters.
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