I was introduced to the concept of white privilege in 1984, when I was 19, in college. I was having lunch with my first love, a black man, in a diner in central Ohio. Some friends were with us, and we were waiting for them afterwards outside the diner on the sidewalk, and we were joking around about something. I went to hug him and he took a step back and said, "Not here," his mood instantly altered from humorous to one too serious for outward expression. He explained later that he had rejected my attempt at affection because he was keenly aware of the history of the Klan in the area.
I wasn't. Because I didn't have to be.
I was shocked, not just by the disparity between his experience of the world and mine, but also by the depths of my own ignorance that such a disparity existed. And also that his always-present awareness of the possibility of racist violence was so deeply ingrained in his life that his body had recoiled from potential public contact with my white-girl skin as automatically as if it had been fire.
This sweet soul -- a man who had taught me the meaning of the word "cacophony" by reciting, laughing, a poem he had once written about birds -- had responded to public contact with me as if it could get him killed.
This fear was so outside my experience that I had nowhere to put it in my imagination. Oh, like everyone else, I had read To Kill a Mockingbird and cried, but that story had presented itself to my mind as ancient history. Or, if not ancient, then having to do with my grandparents' generation, not mine. But ever since Trayvon Martin was killed, and particularly since the verdict that somehow let his killer go free, I have been asking myself what it means to be white in a society still so embroiled in racism.
My boyfriend and I didn't talk about race much; we were poetry nerds and liked to talk about words and books. Once we were lying on my bed chatting and he looked over and said, "Look at that." I looked -- at what? "That," he said, pointing to our arms. He had his arm around me and it lay against my arm on that side. His dark arm and my pale one. He said, "It doesn't matter at all, does it?" I said, "Nope," and grinned at him. We were so stupidly young, we thought we had, at least momentarily, fixed something long broken.
Or, at least, that's what I thought. When my father came to collect me at the end of the year, my boyfriend helped me pack up my trunk. We were tired, having stayed up too late smooching, and we weren't being very efficient. My father sat at my desk, typing something on my typewriter while he waited. At some point, my boyfriend and I had collapsed, tired, on the bed behind my father's back. When my father turned around to check on progress and saw us sprawled as if about to take a nice long nap together, he laughed. "Uh-oh, progress has stalled," he teased us, and we laughed too and got up to finish packing. I didn't think anything of it, but my boyfriend told me later that he had clenched up as my father turned around. It's one thing, he explained to me, to know that your daughter has a black boyfriend. It's another to see them sprawled together on a bed. He relaxed when my father just laughed at us.
I liked these moments. So naïve was I, so desperately did I want to be believe that the fears leftover from a different time were groundless, that I thought my not-particularly-racist white father and I had something to teach my boyfriend about safety. See, I wanted to say to him, it's all right. Nobody is going to get violent here. We're just going to laugh about inefficient packing and then go out to dinner. Maybe it's all OK now, or starting to be. I was young and naïve and possibly even stupid, because here we are, nearly 30 years later, and it's not OK. Black children are being killed, and their killers are acquitted of all charges. In those days I had, unconsciously, wanted to make the outside world match my internal idealism -- instead of paying attention to the actual world, the world of reality.
The point I had missed, the crucial point, the point I still struggle to remain aware of, is that, in my own life, the choice of whether to live in idealism or reality was mine to make. And that is privilege.
I look back at that time and all I can think about is how young we were. In particular, how much younger I was than my boyfriend, who knew that life outside our dorm rooms was more complicated than it was on that day inside them, when we had admired the contrast in our two arms. He knew, so much more deeply than I did, on a cellular level, how limited that peace was, how much more careful we would have to be in public. It was not his job to educate me, but I needed to be educated.
I still do. Anyone who was surprised by the verdict in Trayvon Martin's case still does.