Last night, I watched a video of a man intimidating a white woman into kneeling on a sidewalk and apologizing for her white privilege. That man has NO knowledge of her story. NONE. She is white, and therefore she is the cause of his sorrow. She is. This woman he does not know. This woman he’d not met until that day. This woman who has now been humiliated on national television to appease some need in that man for vengeance. I was mortified for them both, the man and the woman.
- 1.a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”education is a right, not a privilege”synonyms:advantage, benefit; prerogative, entitlement, right; concession,freedom, liberty“senior students have certain privileges”
Let’s talk about privilege, yeah? I keep hearing people use that word, and the way it’s thrown around these days you’d think it’s as vile and offensive as a four-letter word that begins with c and rhymes with punt.
My ancestors are Welsh, Irish, Scot, English and Austrian. The Welsh culture and history was all but obliterated by the English. The Irish and the Scot have struggled to own their identities and be seen as separate from England for what seems like centuries. And when people think of Austria, that’s that country that essentially started World War One.
I am the middle child of an upper-middle class couple — high school sweethearts who attended the same university because my father couldn’t bear to be too far from my mother. My father likes to joke that he wasn’t the smartest one in his class but he was smart enough to marry the smartest one. He played football and was in band (and bands) and a fraternity. She was in band as well and a sorority. They became teachers. He became a school superintendent. They had my brother, who seemed to be pretty perfect. And then they had me. All that sounds SO rosy, doesn’t it? My mother had two miscarriages — one before my brother and one after. Her father and sister were alcoholics. His brother was. Their firstborn son was. And me? Oh I made things interesting.
Let’s talk about privilege. My face has been cut up three times. My stomach and left leg have been cut up once and my right leg twice. If it weren’t for my parents’ love, if they hadn’t wanted a daughter so badly, if my mother’s parents hadn’t been a doctor and a nurse, if she hadn’t helped in her father’s clinic, if my father hadn’t attained a master’s degree in special education… if my body had demanded more medical attention than it has, I could be rotting away in some institution the doctors suggested my parents place me.
Let’s talk about the patches I had to wear on my face or the metal braces that were on my legs for God knows how long during my infancy that my mother threw away the moment I didn’t need them anymore. The times I’ve had people ask me if I’m talking to them when I’m looking right at them only it doesn’t look like I am because one eye’s off in lala land.
My eyes? They used to look this lovely. I had surgery the summer I turned thirteen to make them prettier. I was so eager to see them look better that I forgot that it wasn’t going to be instantaneous. The moment those patches came off and the doctor cut the stitches thad had been keeping my eyes closed so they could do their thing… I was eager to see the results. I looked like Frankenstein. It took months to heal from that. And I couldn’t swim. Swimming was what saved me back then. Swimming brought me peace.
Let’s talk about the number of times people have asked if I’ve Asian heritage because my eyes look like they do now–small and somewhat slanted. The times I fell off curbs in my youth because I couldn’t see. The times I’d be walking… just walking and something in my leg would snap or slip just because, the way I’d crumple, clutching my knee and screaming obscenities because the pain was immense. The times I’ve had to glue myself against an aisle in a grocery store or the wall dividing the dining area from the ordering stations in Chic-fil-A because I’d lost all cognizance of space and my place in it and felt like I was spinning and about to tumble… and maybe break something else… because things in me break so easily.
Let’s talk about the times people stare at me like I’m a freak. The number of times they ask me What the hell is your problem? And driving at night on a freeway? That’s fun stuff. Really. I love it. I do it because I have to, because damned if I’m going to stay home when I want to be out. But it was a whole lot easier when my town had twenty-thousand in it instead of a hundred thousand. It was a whole lot easier when people could give each other some room. People don’t know the meaning of personal space. ANYWHERE. And I rely on that space something fierce.
Let’s talk about the times my teachers assumed that because my father was who he was I would be this exemplary student — well-behaved with strings of A-pluses in their grade books. I would make them look GOOD. I didn’t. And when I didn’t, their response was to recommend I be placed in special education or relegated from honors to level classes.
Sure, if I came home without my books on the weekends, my father would haul my butt to school after Sunday Mass, unlock the place and practically drag me to my locker. He would not be happy about it. Sure, my mom would bench my butt at the kitchen table to work on an assignment that was due the week before because she was so pissed at me for being so thoughtless and disrespectful… and lazy.
God knows if my father hadn’t been who he was, the peers who’d bullied me in my youth would’ve done a lot worse. With the exception of one altercation in fifth grade in which a boy jabbed my face with one of my perfectly sharpened pencils that left a permanent mark, they never touched me. I think they were too afraid to do so. But you can maim a person’s spirit with words, and those wounds never heal so well as the physical ones do. Hell, if it weren’t for my folks, I doubt I’d be here today, banging on these keys.
You think because my skin is white that I can’t know tragedy?
Let’s talk about the time I came home from school sobbing and telling my mother I wish I could tear my skin off. Or the time a teacher put my desk in a refrigerator box so she wouldn’t have to look at me because she couldn’t bear the sight, because she didn’t want me in her classroom but was forced to keep me because I was too smart to be in a different one.
I’ve buried a brother, a man I spent a decade hating. I carry that guilt with me, and it weighs on my heart something fierce. I have lived my life without ever hearing a man other than those in my family say he loves me and mean it. I battle some godawful mental demons on pretty much a daily basis.
Tragedy doesn’t play favorites. It cares not for race or creed or culture. It doesn’t give a damn about color or shape. It’ll screw with you regardless of whether you’re single or married, rich or poor, black or white, fat or thin, kind or callous. It. Does. Not. Care.
I don’t presume to think that my experiences are greater or lesser than yours. I know damned well they’re not. My parents made sure of that. They’ve spent years, YEARS telling me I wasn’t any different from anybody else. I’m not. I know the ways in which I have been blessed. I know the ways in which I have been burdened. My limitations may be different from yours, but the fact that I have them… we all do. Every one of us. I wish we could be more tolerant of each other. I wish we could be more considerate.
The day I originally published this I learned a couple flying from Sacramento to Philadelphia were booed by passengers in first class because the pilot had requested that couple be allowed to deplane first so as not to miss their connection. So as not to miss their flight to Dover where they were to claim their dead son, a soldier who’d been given a Gold Star for his service. The folks in first class booed them because of how inconvenienced they were at having to wait, that someone in coach should receive preferential treatment when they’d paid the exorbitant costs of flying first class so they could be more important.
The pilot gave that couple a privilege. Because if ever there’s a time one should be given it’s then.
This is America. Land of the free, home of the brave. We are for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness here. We are for life. We should be helping each other live and love. We should be helping each other. We should be building each other up, not forcing them to the ground and setting things on fire to assuage some need for repentance. I saw an article the other day about protestors setting a building on fire WITH PEOPLE INSIDE and then BLOCKING the firefighters sent to put out the flames. A child was in that building. A CHILD would have died were it not for those firefighters’ persistence to save those people within.
If you want racism to end, stop throwing it in people’s faces at every available opportunity. I don’t treat people differently because of the color of their skin. I know how much it sucks to be mistreated. I strive to be good to everyone. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. Sometimes I really miss the mark. But I strive to be good, to put good in the world. It starts with ONE. And that one can have monumental ripple effects. Let them be good.
I’ve had the Youngbloods’ in my head so often lately. Come on people, now. Smile on your brother. Everybody get together. Try to love one another right now.
Originally published November twenty-first, ‘sixteen.