Today is white privilege Wednesday… It is a day to encourage white people to look inward and outward to identify and confront a way in which they benefit from white supremacy. #WPW is important because there is so much work to do. My #whiteprivilegewednesday contribution is going to be about Ferguson, MO. There has been a lot of writing about Ferguson so I want to share with you some thoughts about #Ferguson that haven’t been shared… or at least haven’t been presented to me.
The tricky thing about privilege is, the benefits are great, but it comes at great human cost– and no one wants to admit to it. Think about how America has benefited from international conflict… most Americans benefit in many ways from the many times the United States has involved itself in… well, everything. No one wants to relish in it, because to do so would be a slap in the face to American soldiers who have lost their lives, or to the millions abroad who have been raped, murdered, made homeless— by acts of war and international conflict. But- what happens when we stand idly by and say, we are not privileged here in America because look! 9-11!
September 11th was a horrible horrible thing. White people being killed, is a horrible horrible thing. But challenging the US to think about foreign policy doesn’t absolve the perpetrators of 9-11. It doesn’t make what they did ok. It doesn’t devalue the lives of the many heroes and innocent lives lost– and it certainly doesn’t lessen the sting. But– it also doesn’t negate the privilege we have, that makes such an awful occurrence a rare thing. The thing about privilege is, it’s an unwarranted gift that comes with great responsibility.
We owe it to those who have died, who have lost, who have been lost– to challenge our privilege at every turn. We owe it to the soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam to ask Obama hard questions about sending troops into Iraq. We owe it to the Black lives lost as a direct result of white supremacy to ask critical questions about how white people benefit from privilege in very real, tangible ways.
But– this isn’t about foreign policy. This is about Ferguson. I hear a lot about waiting for facts, not knowing what happened the day Michael Brown died, and “allowing justice to take it’s course.” And if you have said any of those things, you know that someone will follow with that is white privilege! And you will say something about how you were robbed once on your way to donate blood to poor Black people… or something like that.
I’m not interested in educating you about things you ought to go out and learn yourself. And if you’d like me to teach you, pay me… but I want to talk to you in terms I understand, because one thing that white privilege does that makes this conversation so hard, is eliminate the “what if.” #Whiteprivilege is the ability to experience a situation absent of the “what if.” What if is an ugly ugly thing. What if is the thought that, when something happens to you, you have to fathom the idea that it could be happening to you based on your Blackness…. or Gayness…. or Woman-ness. What if’s can be good things and can be bad things too. But what if’s are so dangerous because they can produce a number of negative emotions— despair, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, guilt-tinged relief… When you see people protesting, exasperated, tearful, confused, and hurt by Ferguson– we are really experiencing the most traumatic of what ifs. And the scariest, most traumatizing aspect of what if’s is, the possibility of that “what if” being confirmed as a what is.
What if I was stopped by this police officer because I was Black? What if he killed me? What if I didn’t have a clean driving record? What if I went to jail? What if I had to pay for a lawyer? What if my job fired me for getting arrested? What if because I lost my job, I had no money for a lawyer? What if I have to….. This series of questions could go through your mind in a matter of seconds for what COULD have been an arbitrary stop. Then you might say, “you were speeding– you deserved a ticket.” And I reply, “yes I was over by 10 mph….,” but WHAT IF I was still only stopped in the first place because I was Black? #Whiteprivilege is being able to accept the what is, without concern for the “what if?”
There is a practice in my line of work where we say, assuming everything this person alleges is true, could we find relief anyway? So while I submit we don’t know many of the facts of Ferguson, we know some. We also know a number of things alleged. And if we assume everything we hear is true, can their be relief? Black people are paralyzed with fear, hopelessness, frustration and exasperation because of the what if. What if, Michael Brown had his hands up and the officer shot anyway? What if they left his dead body on the ground for four hours? What if the officer who shot someone dead never had to write a police report? What if the police department knew they had messed up and tried to cover it up? What if Michael Brown stole cigars? What if the officer never knew he did? What if the officer had a chance to spare or save his life and didn’t?
If we assume all these things are true… can their be relief? What can we do for Michael Brown’s parents, and siblings, and friends to relieve them? What can we do when we are pulled over and get a bout of the “what ifs?” What can we do if we have bosses who think we are dangerous? Neighbors? Teachers? Doctors? What can we do if all of these things are true? Can their be relief?
Black people are devastated about Ferguson because we know the answers to these questions. We’ve known them for centuries. We know that their is much relief and also no relief. There are many things we can do and there is also nothing we can do. #Whiteprivilege is about being a beneficiary of the obliteration of #whatif– not a proponent of it. It’s about not having to question the things you benefit from. #WhitePrivilege is never having to ask, what if the decision I am making– as a police officer or judge or social worker or doctor is based on some idea I have about who a person is based on their race…. privilege is assuming that there has to be ill intent or hatred in unconscious bias. It’s about being able to watch Ferguson like you would footage from Gaza, or Afghanistan, or Haiti, or Brazil… and think, these poor people, or these dangerous people, or these OTHER people. They are not like us. They are not one of us… and their salvation is not my responsibility, or fault.
To acknowledge how we benefit from the suffering of others, even when we don’t commit the suffering ourselves… is a human necessity. It is the truest expression of empathy. To challenge ourselves and the institutions that allow for the suffering of others is a human responsibility.