(Parts of this post were published on groupthink.kinja.com some weeks ago.)
I was in New Haven a month or so ago and it was 87F and humid. I had to dress up because I was going to an event in the federal courthouse that afternoon, but it was hotter than hell out there. On a day like that I would normally be wearing a T-shirt, shorts (yes, cargo shorts), and sandals if I didn’t have to go to court. But that day…well, at least I could leave my jacket in the car until later. And so it was that, looking like this (see below), I got a lesson in white privilege.
I needed to meet a marshal to drop off a subpoena, and the marshal’s office happened to be in a rather nice office building downtown. I strolled in off the sidewalk, slid on through the lobby, saw the sign that said “All Visitors Must Sign In” just as I was reaching the elevator, and went “awe, fuck it” and went up. No questions asked then, or when I walked past the guard in the elevator lobby on my way out a few minutes later.
That’s when I realized that being white and wearing a suit made me invisible. The guard was looking for people to talk to, but not for people like me. Had I been wearing flip flops, or had my skin not been white, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts I would have been stopped.
White privilege isn’t like a credit card. It isn’t something you pull out of your pocket when you want to use it. It’s always there, and it’s as invisible as I was to that guard. It’s a shield that permits some people to see you (you have priority with sales assistance in stores, for example) and some not to (police generally won’t bug you if you’re white and halfway reasonably groomed). It shielded me from that guard’s attention. It shields you, if you’re light-skinned.
Now, briefly, think about what life would be like if you didn’t have white privilege. If it went away, and suddenly you were confronted with police who noticed you, guards who noticed you, sales assistants who didn’t notice you. Police who assumed that you were not terribly valuable and who thus were more inclined than they might otherwise be to shoot you. Imagine if your neighborhood lost white privilege. Imagine if your children did. And if you’re white, you realize, deep down, that the odds of what happened to Trayvon Martin, et al. happening to your child are pretty close to zero, thanks to that invisible shield. And that the odds of it happening to any given kid who isn’t white are so much greater that the event isn’t even surprising when you hear it or read about it on the news.
That should make you angry. It really, really should.