Privilege And The Police


I’m a fairly nondescript white lady with brown hair and no disabilities who tends to remind a lot of people of their daughters. Because of this, I’m treated a certain way by the world at large; I’m never scrutinized when I go into Walgreen’s and it’s generally assumed that I’m not going to H&M on my lunch hour to shoplift. I did no work to make myself white but I reap the benefits of being a harmless white lady every day. Regardless of how poor or rich I am, I am still viewed as a white person, and along with that comes the privilege of being seen as white by society at large. I’ve been aware of this for my entire life but never really internalized what, exactly, white privilege was until I was 22, and I found myself in an embarrassing situation.

I was an Americorps VISTA right after college, and my assignment was to run a public schools-focused community outreach program based out of a famous/nerdy university on the south side of Chicago. It was my first experience living in an American city on my own; before that I’d lived my first 18 years of life in Frederic, Wisconsin (population roughly 1,200), and 4 years in South Bend, Indiana mostly living in dorms or student-dominated apartments, interrupted by four months in Athens, Greece on the side of a ritzy hill covered with shoe stores and one-word night clubs and three months in Albuquerque, New Mexico living with a fairly wealthy host family across the street from a guy who bred a small flock of show chickens. When I moved to Hyde Park, I felt like I’d moved to an adult version of Sesame Street, especially since many of the students at the university looked and acted sort of like brilliant but misunderstood painfully shy Muppets and free vertical concrete surfaces were covered with the kind of vibrant graffiti that, on Sesame Street, would come alive and teach me about the number 7. Public transportation! Not being able to go certain places after dark! Avoiding public high schools around the end of the day because that’s when there are big fights outside! Double dutch!

I was in and out of Chicago Public Schools from South Shore up to North Kenwood/Oakland, from Martin Luther King Drive east to the Lake. Through Bronzeville and Woodlawn and Hyde Park and Washington Park. Over the course of that year, I’d quickly grown to understand that often the best thing for me to do, as a white person who spent most of her day trying to work with/alongside people of color who actually had a lifetime of knowledge about how their world worked, was to shut the fuck up and listen and do my best to avoid being an oblivious jerk. Thankfully, for most of the year, I avoided the awkwardness of the blank stare I was sure I’d get if I said something head-slappingly ignorant. Until one day.

As my year long term in my Americorps role was drawing to a close, I picked up some hours volunteering to help teach a class of high school juniors about writing personal essays and articulating their beliefs in writing. The kids in the program were all black except for one Latino boy, and all of them had upbringings about as different from mine as possible. I initially had mixed feelings about teaching the class, because I’m a little uncomfortable with the “URBAN CHILDREN! LISTEN TO ME! I AM A WHITE LADY AND I WILL SAVE YOU!” narrative, but it was a good group of kids and they needed someone to help teach and I’ve never had a problem getting up in front of a group of people and running my mouth.

On one of the first days of class, we were talking about establishing personal beliefs and being able to articulate why you hold those beliefs, and we did an exercise where a bunch of statements were written on the board and the kids were asked to raise their hands to show whether they agreed or disagreed with them as I read them off. I would randomly call kids out that seemed more emphatic and ask them to provide one reason as to why they agreed. They told me that it would only be fair if I also participated. Ok, fine. I’ll play.

The statements ranged from “I believe that the Chicago White Sox are the best baseball team” to “I believe that money buys happiness” to “I am beautiful.” And then I’d pick one of the hand raisers and say, “Marcus, why do you believe that you are beautiful?” and then Marcus would say “Because I’m the prettiest one in this whole room!” and then everyone would laugh because Marcus was kind of a clown, etc, etc, etc.

Finally, we got to one that read “I believe that police officers are looking out for my best interests.” Agree? One person raised her hand: me. The white lady with a college degree standing in front of a roomful of urban public high school students. I’m turning red again just thinking about it. If it were a Very Special Episode of Saved By The Bell, a sound of a record scratching would have been humorously interjected for effect. I tried to anecdotalize it- “Because my experiences with the police have all been positive”- but the unsaid subtext that inherent in what I was saying was- Because I’m white. Because I’m white. Because I’m white. Because even though I’d read about it, I’d never internalized the fact that maybe black teenagers in Woodlawn have been treated in a way that actually makes them fearful of police officers rather than reassured by them. That there was literally nothing they could do to avoid being a black teenager. You idiot. Fucking pay attention.

The good that came out of my embarrassing misstep, I suppose, was that I was smacked in the face with the notion that I was wearing blinders, that I’m massively privileged in ways that I had never confronted, and that if it hadn’t been shoved in my face like that, maybe I would have just kept going, blissfully ignorant. I still get it wrong from time to time; I’m in no way a paragon of racial understanding and I still have a lot to learn, but when I read about people- politicians or celebrities or anyone with a platform and the ability to make sounds- who say that we live in some kind of post racial utopia where now all social problems are caused by individual laziness or hard work rather than a deeply ingrained and deeply unfair system that still victimizes people of color on a daily basis, I kind of want to scoop them up and drop them in front of that class of high school juniors. Say it to them, asshole. I hope you’re not too far up your own ass to feel ashamed when they laugh at you; they will.

None of us come into the world fully aware of the ways in which we’re privileged; we discover these things as we live our lives and pay fucking attention to what’s going on around us.

How about you, readers? Have you had a similar experience wherein you suddenly realized your privilege or lack thereof? Do you feel like acknowledging and mulling over privilege is necessary?

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