I will never understand what it is like to be black, and saying anything along the lines that I could, is ignorant. Racism bothers me, and by bother I mean it is like taking a rusty blade to my guts and twisting it slowly. It makes me angry, it makes me sad, and lately I seem to be shaking my head much more than usual.
I never thought much of white privilege, because while I am white I am far from privileged. I belong to too many other minorities that get the short end of the stick when it comes to equality, that it just wasn’t something that I was aware of.
But that changed in 2007, because I became guilty by association. Joe, my serious and live-in boyfriend was black, and I got to experience the crap he dealt with on a regular basis. I used to think he was just a paranoid ‘everyone is out to get me’ kind of person. But he was right in a way.
The incident that I remember that best demonstrates this (because it makes me the sickest) happened in June 2008. We were going to the grocery store, when I realized that I forgot my wallet, so Joe drove back to the house we were renting in North Long Beach. Our driveway was in the back of the house and it was off an alley. I ran back inside as soon as Joe put the car into park. I didn’t see anything or notice anyone (and I am the kind of person to notice everything) when I went inside.
I was in the house for two minutes – three tops. When I came out a police cruiser was blocking our car in, and Joe was being manhandled by two officers against a patrol car. When I opened the gate I asked what was going on and they turned on me, with this wild expression. I knew it was one of surprise, but it also seemed like something else: fear, shame, or something more along the lines of hate. But their look had nothing to do with me.
One of the officers grabbed me and slammed me against the car, jerking my arms up over my head. He was yelling, but being nearly deaf, I couldn’t hear a damn thing and since he was behind me, I couldn’t read his lips. They frisked me and then let me go. Joe was on the other side of the car and he was beyond pissed. He started yelling about how they had just grabbed him for no reason and in the struggle they smashed his cell phone (yes they did). I was pissed too, but I took a more rational approach.
“Why did you accost my boyfriend?” My voice was cold and dripped of contempt.
I had dealt with many police officers in my life, usually in caring for a victim of domestic violence (I was a sexual assault and domestic violence victim advocate for three years) or when they were called to look into reports of abuses against me when I was younger. I didn’t have much of an opinion of most police officers and I am quite certain my body language and tone relayed that fact. They didn’t scare me, they irritated me, and they were getting very close to downright pissing me off.
They couldn’t give me a straight answer. They saw him near our vehicle (he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the car) and thought he was trying to break in. Why? There wasn’t a spike of car-jackings going on in our area. He wasn’t holding anything suspicious – he hadn’t locked himself out. I was getting more frustrated by the minute and then I brought up Joe’s phone. “What are you going to do about that?”
“We didn’t break it, he must have dropped it.”
“Yeah, because he was grabbed suddenly thrown against a police car.”
“It’s not our responsibility…”
“Call your sergeant.”
“California law, if asked, you must contact your supervising officer, and I am not asking, I am telling you. Get your sergeant here now.”
They didn’t like that. They tried to get around it, but I was adamant and they were between a rock and a hard place. The sergeant refused to come out to the scene, he sounded like an arrogant prick who was just too busy. He refused to acknowledge his officers had done anything wrong (but how would he know if he refused to come out) and essentially told me tough shit about Joe’s phone and the incident as a whole. Fine.
I called Internal Affairs, in front of both officers. I was clear: come out and take a formal complaint against two officers and their sergeant. Internal Affairs was skeptical at first, until I informed them of everything that had transpired. The local precinct was already under some heat, with reports of shootings at unarmed non-white people they stopped (and their reasons were always iffy). An IA detective and a CSI team came out. The detective took our statements; the CSI team took pictures of our car, Joe’s former phone, and the bruises on my wrists, arms and right side. When you’re very fair-skinned and only 100 pounds, any use of force will show in your skin – and my skin told the story of excessive force.
I was the bitch who took it too far, but it was because I could. Suppose Joe had tried to raise the same stink. What would have happened? Would he have been shot? Beaten? Or simply ignored? And how are any of these outcomes all right in this scenario. The officer who had grabbed me was suspended with pay, the officer who was Joe’s main instigator was still in the field. We know, because we saw him a few weeks later at a gas station. He started to come towards Joe with an angry look in his eyes and then I waved. He stopped, looked like he was about to shit himself and walked back to his replacement partner.
I know it wasn’t because I’m so scary, it was because of what I could do to him, because my skin color made me able to have a voice, when Joe (the person he offended) could not. How sad is that?
There were other incidents, but this one is the one I most remember, because it was the only time Internal Affairs had to get involved (because the other incidents had decent sergeants who would come out and do their job, correcting their officers).
It was then that it really hit me. Most of my closest friends are black. At the time I was dating and living with a black man. I have been an ally and aware of racism, racial profiling and racial prejudices… but this didn’t mean I could ever understand them firsthand. I was never colorblind. Race, like sexual orientation, does not affect a person’s worth as a human being (even if society says otherwise) but these differences should be celebrated. I could not group all of my non-white friends together and say they acted a certain way or had all of these things in common, but they all share an experience that they shouldn’t have to experience in the first place.
I am white. And because I am white, I have certain privileges that they don’t. And you know what? That privilege just pisses me off. I shouldn’t have it and neither should anyone else. Trying to prepare for the future, I think about the kids we will have. And if we had a son? I would worry. I would worry about the decisions he would make, peer pressure, smoking, drugs, getting some girl pregnant, having sex before he is ready, getting into a car accident, being hurt or lonely or scared – I would have all of the ‘normal’ parenting concerns. One thing I wouldn’t worry about – I wouldn’t worry that he would be the victim of police brutality just because. I wouldn’t be afraid that if he walked out the door, it might be the last time, at the hands of someone who is supposed to protect and serve. For a world-class worrier, these worries would not enter my mind.
And some of my friends – they can’t say the same. What happens if their son is walking to the gas station or rides bikes with friends, and someone thinks they may be a threat because of their skin color? What would happen? How could it escalate? Sad and sick, sick and sad.
I am privileged, this lack of fear – the voice I was able to have when officers were out of line with Joe and me, are examples of this privilege. And I hate it, but I acknowledge it. I think it needs to be acknowledged. A lot of white people who are very sensitive to racial issues and allies may not like admitting their privilege. Me – I kind of feel guilty that I possess it, even if it wasn’t something I took or accepted. But it is automatic, and it is the way things are. And acknowledging it as real may be the first step to making it so the privilege becomes a standard for everyone – as it should be.
The events in Ferguson, Missouri have brought me back to these thoughts, repeatedly. I want to say that I feel like I have stepped back into the 1960s and I am both shocked and outraged by everything that has transpired. But it is only half true, I am outraged – I am not shocked. Racial prejudice is still an issue in this country and while it has gotten better than it was sixty years ago in some ways (on an institutionalized level such as voting rights) in other ways there has not been much progress. And that needs to change.
Rejecting the idea of white privilege because it makes you feel bad (it makes me feel seriously icky) is not the answer. Being colorblind is not the answer either. We try to push how the color of someone’s skin does not matter, except that it does – to that individual. It is a part of their identity, history and I think society tries to strip these differences away. Race should not matter when it comes to equality, fair treatment, privilege, and prejudices and these are the things we should be trying to change.
The truth is there are so many tragedies that people are not even aware of. Lives that are lost because of racial prejudices. The media chooses who they focus on, but they can’t give every victim the same spotlight. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are two of the victims the media has focused on, but there are so many others out there. My heart hurts for every family who has had to bury a loved one just because they were singled out by the color of their skin. I send my love, thoughts and any healing energy I have to each of them, the victims with names most of America knows (Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown) and all of those whose names are less well-known or perhaps, not known beyond the people grieving them.
Many of my white friends have made comments recently, about how they feel like they can’t speak out, because it isn’t their place, or they feel like people will treat them like bad guys themselves. These are like-minded allies such as myself. I hope that it isn’t true, and that I won’t receive a lot of push back for saying what I have said here – but silence is never the answer. I don’t pretend to understand how it would feel to not hold the privilege that I do. I do not claim the non-white experience as my own. I can empathize, but they are not my experiences. But I do know one thing – even with my inability to completely understand, there is something I do understand: This is not okay. Things need to change.