We Can't Help Being White

young white woman is much crying her eyes closed
young white woman is much crying her eyes closed

I've noticed a trend within the communities of liberal white activists that I frequent. No, not artisanal cheeses. It's the problem of our privilege. We don't know what to do with it. And the more we learn about it, the more uncomfortable we become.

"We're not the problem!" we grumble to ourselves. "And we can't help being white."

And it's true. None of us--barring profound public deception--got to pick our race, or our gender, or our sexual identity, or our family members, or the country we call home. We're stuck with all of it. And somehow, we're learning now, that's bringing other people down.

The history is complicated. We didn't create the system, and yet we are subject to its benefits and consequences. To that end, I have spent a great deal of time examining privilege and how it has affected me, a 30-something white woman. And through the exploration of my earlier, "less-evolved" self, I have made some startling discoveries.

September 20, 1999
Pulling into the gas station across the street from work, blue lights flashed behind me. I don't remember why he pulled me over. I'm sure I was doing something heinous, as was my practice. I had planned on going into the gas station, so I opened my car door and began to step out.

"GET BACK IN THE CAR!" The officer bellowed with such fear and force that I panicked. After ensuring I hadn't peed myself, I scurried back into my midnight blue Saturn and slammed the door.

"You don't do that!" he exclaimed. Then, approaching me cautiously, "You don't get out of the car when you get pulled over." I apologized profusely, feeling deeply embarrassed. This kind of thing, I thought to myself, is the reason people call me naive. This is the stuff you're supposed to know.

And that was the end of it. I don't remember the rest of the scene. I'm sure he told me why he had pulled me over. He must certainly have given me a warning. And bonus, I had learned something new.

December 30, 2014
The tone was casual at first. Officer Braheme Days calmly explained why he had pulled the men over. Leroy Tutt had run a stop sign. Seemingly out of nowhere, things got loud and tense. Officer Days saw what he thought was a weapon in the glove compartment, and recognized Jerame Reid--the passenger--from a prior arrest. As a teenager, Reid had shot three state police officers, and subsequently had spent 13 years in prison.

Everything was a blur after that. Days began screaming obscenities, and demanded that Reid stay put. At the same time, he forcefully instructed the driver to get out of the car. Despite the officer's warning, Reid tried to push open the passenger side door, and in the heat of the moment--Reid's hands raised in the air--Days fired seven shots, fatally wounding Jerame Reid.

July 14, 2004
My friend and I decided to hit up The Breakfast Club, an 80's themed bar in downtown Charlotte, NC. I had $36 on me. With it, I purchased a Red Stripe beer and two Long Island iced teas.

I have no recollection of what happened after my second drink--nor the six hours that followed. Either my drinks had been spiked, or they were much stronger than I thought. I came to in a parking lot on the opposite side of town. I was handcuffed and directed into the back of a police vehicle. At one point, I tried to light a cigarette, because I recognized, even in my stupor, that I would not be able to smoke wherever they were taking me. I argued with the officer when he told me to put it out, but eventually he got me into the car, and off we drove to the county jail.

My night in jail was remarkable--for me. From what I understand, I was manipulative and insolent. I tried to talk my way out. I attempted to show them that I was a good citizen by helping with the other detainees arrested that night. When that didn't work, I became irate and erratic. Eventually, they had to put me in a confined cell. In the morning, my parents paid my bail. I was supposed to be at work at 9am. Not shockingly, I lost my job.

June 24, 2014
Antoine Hunter had been spotted driving recklessly when the police tried to pull him over. He sped up, and eventually crashed into a parked car. According to the police report, he'd been in possession of a loaded gun, but never held it or pulled the trigger. 10 shots were fired, however, by the two deputies on the scene, and Antoine Hunter lost his life.

"I'm not going to sit here and say he's some angel, but I've never known my son to carry a gun. Never," Martha Willis lamented. "Take his little butt to jail if he was doing wrong; why did they have to kill my baby?" (CBS Los Angeles)

It might be argued that these are bad comparisons. I was a young girl without a record. Jerame Reid had broken the law in the past and Antoine Hunter was in the midst of law-breaking when he was shot. Fair point. But we didn't arrive here in a vacuum, and because I am a 34-old-year white woman, almost everything reminds me of a quote from the movie Ever After (actually a quote from Thomas More's Utopia, which predictably, I have not read):

"For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them."

Privilege manifests itself in many ways. Let's explore three of them, just for kicks.

The Second Chance Privilege
Let's be clear, I am no saint. Before the night I was arrested, I had definitely done things that would have warranted serious consequences. Notably, I have never owned a gun. But also notably, I did not grow up in an environment where I felt my life was in danger. It's not my place to speculate on the circumstances of others. I can only say this: for years I lied, cheated, and stole. I imbibed and fornicated. The moment I decided to stop, supportive family and friends showed up in droves.

The White School Privilege
In college one summer, I worked for a nonprofit temp agency. For one job, I was hired by DC public schools to help schedule high schoolers for the upcoming school year. There were a dozen of us, all given the daunting task of making sure that 10,000+ predominantly black students were placed in their correct classes.

In most cases, this had not been happening. Some kids had needlessly taken 9th grade English twice. Others somehow skipped algebra and went straight to geometry, which, predictably, they failed.

The DC public school dropout rate is nearly 40 percent--almost double the national average--and we began to see why. I was shocked. Growing up in my small, white town in Virginia, not once had I worried that the grown-ups in charge of my schedule would fail me.

The Implicit Bias Privilege
Depending on your gender, race, or sexual preference, you probably could detail various assumptions people have made about you. I've been labeled ditzy, overly perky, and smart with a wild streak. My white privilege dictates that, more often than not, those assumptions won't harm me. In fact, they often benefit me.

In the realm of police violence, it works two ways. The police's implicit biases have taught large pockets of the black community to be suspicious and combative. This creates a vicious cycle of fear and violence, and we have to talk about it if we want it to change. Even--or especially--if we're not directly affected by it. Because we can't be the beneficiaries in a system of oppression without facing the consequences eventually. That's built into the natural laws of the universe.

The Bottom Line
According to The Counted, a project created by The Guardian listing the names of every person killed by the police this year, over 300 black people were killed by police in 2015. MappingPoliceViolence.org estimates that 71% of them were unarmed, which means that Jerame Reid and Antoine Hunter were in the 29% minority. Though black people in the U.S. make up only about 13% of its population, a black person is three times more likely per capita to be killed by a police officer than a white person (http://mappingpoliceviolence.org).

The way our justice system is supposed to be set up, you are innocent until proven guilty. Honestly, that's been my experience. For many black people, it's the opposite. Their guilt is assumed; they have to prove their innocence.

White privilege is awkward for me. It's uncomfortable for well-meaning activists desperately trying to change the system we were born into. I'm not trying to don a cape and be the next White Savior. God, no. But a little humility goes a long way. Can we start with that?

Brandy is a freelance writer, teacher and speaker making light out of the dark stuff on brandyglows.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.