White privilege is a very hard concept for many White folks to get.
It was hard for me, too. For years and years as a young adult, I refused to believe that the color of my skin had privileged me. I felt the opposite of privileged–I felt my life had been one freakin’ long-ass struggle: I was in a ridiculous amount of debt from my undergraduate education which I had paid for; I had a dad who had been sick my entire life and had died of diabetes complications; my sister had done many an illegal act, had two kids in high school, and had married a crack head who had threatened to kill us; my mom was a religious zealot who constantly belabored the fact that I was going to hell. I grew up as barely middle class, feeling poor by comparison to neighbors and friends, eating hot dogs and chicken livers because they were cheap. I was raised being spanked to the point of almost being beaten (Spare the rod, spoil the child. –paraphrased from Proverbs 13:24). My life did not feel like the life of privilege, believe me.
I entered my mid-twenties feeling like I had just barely survived the life given to me.
Then I started teaching in Brooklyn and I met my students–class upon class upon class of Black and Brown and Arab and Asian inner-city kids.
Over years and years of working with them, I learned what sorts of privilege my skin color had given me. Privilege that I had not earned through the merit of my actions, privilege that I had not asked for, but privilege that I had benefited from and that I happily used to my advantage again and again and again and again and again.
When people say that the Trayvon Martin murder had nothing to do with race, I am filled with rage. It had everything to do with race, racial stereotypes, and racial bias.
I have been reading a lot since Saturday’s verdict. One of my favorite responses to Zimmerman’s acquittal is this blog: We Are Not Trayvon Martin.
Through anecdotal stories, people are writing about their White privilege as well as what it’s like to be not-White in America. Some voices are angry, some are soft, some are factual, but this one woman’s post moved me greatly. It reads:
I am not Trayvon Martin. I’m a fifty-one year old white woman who teaches high school in LA. I have students who could have lost their lives this way. Students who have been belittled and marginalized because of the way they look and where they live. Students who regularly have to deal with racism — subtle and overt every single day. And every day at my school we work together to raise ourselves up, to reinforce in each other a sense of self-respect, hope for the future, a sense of connection to community. And then things like this happen. And I’m just not sure how we move forward, how I can help. How I can reassure young black men – and all my students — that their lives matter, that they have wide open futures, that they live in world that values who they are.
There is a Buddhist lineage called Shambhala, which I study; in this tradition, the time we are living in is known as the Dark Age – an age in which aggression, materialism, and ignorance abound. However, this is also a time in which the seeds of great change can be planted. A time in which Basic Goodness of humanity can be awakened so that we can create a society based on compassion and kindness.
I wish I could say something to the Martin family that would ease their pain. I am grateful for this opportunity to give them my condolences and to reach out to other people across the country who are as pained as I am about this young man’s death.
I am going to talk to my students about Trayvon’s death when schools starts in August. How that conversation will go, I can’t begin to guess. But it is a conversation that has to happen, and it has to keep happening all over our country.
A friend posted this from a friend’s blog (www.calvinsstory.com). It is from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Atticus Finch, a lawyer, speaks to his son, Jem, about the jury’s conviction of a young African America man who has just been found guilty of a crime he did not commit:
“Atticus—” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep. Good night.
Our tears can water the seeds of change.
Amen, sister, to everything you wrote.
And, if you are one of those folks who is struggling with the idea that you–as a White person–have benefited from White privilege, here’s a quick intro video for you from my favorite guy Louis CK: