I’m lucky. I will never deny that. I was born white, handsome and intelligent.
And these are just things given to me before I took my first breath. Not only is being white in itself a positive, but I grew up in white cultural. A cultural that taught me one thing: you can be great if you work hard enough. And this wasn’t some mantra given to me by one teacher, or one coach, or an Uncle. It was shown and reinforced everyday: quotes on the classroom wall, my father going to work everyday, teachers giving concern when I was slipping up. No matter where I went or what I did that simple yet important value was as real as my left arm. It wasn’t if I go to college, it was when I go to college.
Some may read this and go “well that’s nice” as if it was a helping hand, but for me..it WAS the hand. It was everything. Being taught “you will” is light years ahead of being taught “you can”. If I didn’t know there was a light at the end of the tunnel, I wouldn’t have made sure I got good grades in school, I wouldn’t have worked tirelessly all summer to pay for college, I wouldn’t have made sure I had a good resume, I wouldn’t have taken that American value of “hard work”.
Many of us forget the levels of progression in our lives that make us the person we are today. I wasn’t just born with the interests I have today. Those interests are all bits and pieces of a life that I partly chose. I have a passion for politics, but that comes from an understanding and desire to create change in that very field. Both of which are reactions of countless other reactions in my life.
Aside from “white cultural”, the direct effect of my very appearance may hold just as much value. For one, I don’t get harassed by cops ever. They’re not even in my scope. You might attribute that to the fact that I’ve never broken the law, but actually I have, many times. I’ve had illegal drugs in my pocket, I’ve driven after having three drinks, I even once stole a lamp that an employee didn’t scan. All things that could easily spiral out of control if not for me “looking” like a decent person.
When I was in college and running out of money, I would go straight to financial aid: an office full of middle aged ladies. I had the card, I knew I had the card and played it. I was looked at as a handsome guy with a lot of potential, and therefore always got the help I needed. Is it possible anyone else would have the same results? Of course. The difference was I KNEW I was going to get what I wanted.
Does my knowledge of this make me a better person? No. What it does do, is allow me to respond in a logical sense than a hateful one. I remember waiting for a train in Camden, NJ. Arguably one of the worst cities in America. I was afraid to go to the bathroom for fear of someone following me in and locking the door. Why was I afraid? Simple. There were a lot of poor black people around.
You might say I’m racist, but let me ask this, if I had said “thugs” who would you have pictured? Still I don’t deny or accept that I am racist. If I wasn’t in some way racist I wouldn’t be writing this post. Acknowledging that I have white privilege implies that people of color are lacking something.
Another time at that same train station, I was watching a black mother interact with her children. I was appaled. She slapped one in the face just for talking too much. If you’re a mother reading this you might say “I could never do that to my child.” While true, perhaps that would be different if your voice was silenced the same way. Eventually you believe through your narrow scope that your voice doesn’t matter. The woman around you don’t so why should you? What was once opinion becomes fact. Your opinion is worthless. Then you have a child and now it’s time to teach them. Oh, and you’ve been working 18 hours straight and just want silence.
I had imagined writing this, I would go more into the experience of being black and poor. But I believe the problem we have is too many white people writing about non-white people. Any experience I describe would just be a guess. But if I had to, I would imagine a life where I was told to shut up for speaking, or told my writing was pointless, or that my life would be meaningless. Then surrounded by people who proved this was true.
What I do know is this. People do not shape their lives by what is written in a book. A look of approval, a nod, a congratulations, a firm handshake, a consideration, an exception, are very real and powerful things.
What we are told can be everything. I am not handsome or intelligent. Somebody just told me I was.