I experienced white privilege this morning.
It came to me without my seeking it, just as it will come to you if you are white, and you will benefit from it whether you want to or not. White privilege is the air we breathe.
Here's what happened to me today...
I went downtown this morning to have breakfast with a friend in the restaurant of a fancy hotel. There are many such here in my hometown, a Gulf Coast resort popular with older Northerners and conservative to the core. I work in jeans, so this day off I decided to look sharp. Cleaned up and well dressed, I blended easily with the (white) locals. A quarter mile or so from the hotel, I was stopped by the police ostensibly for ignoring a stop sign.
I'd been through that intersection well over a thousand times on the way to and from work for six years. Everyone who lives or works in the neighborhood knows the city police hang out there waiting to pounce on drivers who ignore that stop sign. It's not a dangerous intersection; you can only turn right from where I was, and with no traffic coming from the left, the utility of a stop sign (for reasons of safety, anyhow) is questionable at best.
More to the point, I stopped at the sign. Only out-of-towners and drunks get popped at that intersection, and it happens many times a week. The cops wouldn't be waiting there if it didn't.
The cop pulled me over maybe 100 feet away and explained why he was stopping me. I knew I had stopped and told him so, firmly. As he went off to check my license and registration I started shaking with rage. A vast overreaction, to be sure, but not a voluntary reaction, either. I don't like the cops, don't trust the cops, and my respect for authority of any kind has always been...let's call it "contingent".
He returned with my ID and told me he was going to write a citation. I told him he was mistaken and did so with the coldest courtesy I could summon, not particularly caring whether he liked my tone. I was still shaking with anger at his dishonesty, at his casual assumption that I could be shaken down for the cost of a ticket with no recourse.
"Sir, I was sitting right there [pointing to a spot near the intersection] and observed you rolling past the sign. If you stopped, it must have been twenty feet behind the line where I couldn't see you."
"That's not correct, officer. I've been though this intersection countless times, and I know the police watch it. And I've walked this street enough to know you CAN see at least 50 feet behind the line. So there's no way you could have missed it. And if you want to take it to court, I can take pictures of the intersection and prove it."
I had him, on that fact anyway. Maybe he wasn't used to being resisted? Either way, he backed down after a couple more yes-you-did-no-I-didn't exchanges. And still very angry, I drove away to meet my friend.
The point of all this? I didn't spend a moment worrying that I would be shaken down for worse than a ticket, taken to jail, beaten, or shot dead for challenging a police officer, and for doing so with obvious anger and indignation. Not only did I not worry about challenging him, I called him on his lie and drove away clean, a privilege an African-American, Latino, or immigrant does not enjoy on any day of the week. A brief look at the Police Beat column in anyone's local media will confirm who gets arrested and who doesn't.
This is radically contrary to the lived experience of tens of millions of my fellow citizens. Simple decency demands that I recognize that fact, think about it, discuss it, and commit myself to working against it, not as an academic exercise, but in the context of the lived experience of those fellow citizens who don't share my privilege.
This critical process does not require me to beat my breast and call myself a racist. It does not demand that I back off from vigorously criticizing the Democratic Party for its decisive role in enforcing corporate rule or its promotion of the cancerous surveillance state. But it does require me to keep these issues in proportion, and as one of the privileged, I believe it my duty to give at least as much attention to the long-standing war against people of color as to any other issue I discuss. What happened to me today, as angry as it made me, was NOTHING next to what millions of people of color live with every day.
In a nation where unarmed black teenagers like Trayvon Martin, and now Jordan Davis, are shot to death by white maniacs and a confused, injured black woman, Renisha McBride, is killed for knocking on a white man's door, how can we do any other?
Where hundreds of thousands people of color are fodder for a GULAG of for-profit prisons and are effectively denied an equal right to vote by the highest court in the land, how can we do any other?
Until the day when an angry black motorist can call a lying cop a liar and walk away clean, how can we do any other?