Another white girl talking about race relations? You’re welcome, internet.
Up to this point, I’ve stayed pretty quiet about the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO to decline indicting Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown. Mostly because a lot of what I’ve been reading on Facebook and Twitter (and oh god, Reddit, what have you become?) has been sickening and incredibly frustrating. The grand jury’s decision is a bitter pill on its own. That combined with people’s reactions . . . at best, some people’s comments are insensitive and uninformed. At worst, they’re racist. They just are. The comments, that is. I would not presume to make judgments on someone’s character based on some ridiculous shit they said on Twitter. Maybe you’re racist, maybe not, but that shit you said certainly is.
So, white privilege. I’m white, my family’s white, most of my friends are white, so chances are, if you’re reading this, you have privilege. Being white, having white privilege, does not automatically mean that you’re racist. Acknowledging that you have white privilege does not automatically mean that you’re racist. Being white DOES automatically mean you benefit from white privilege and, by extension, racism. Racism is damaging to everyone, regardless of race, but you can benefit from a racism system without being racist.
One of the sticky things about white privilege is that when you’re on the side of privilege, it can be difficult to detect. What you’re experiencing is the absence of discrimination, so it’s no wonder you might not know (or agree) that that’s what it is. But when you walk into a store with a group of friends and none of the clerks follow you to make sure you’re not stealing anything, that’s privilege. When you get pulled over for speeding and don’t have to worry if your life might be in danger, that’s privilege. When your differently-colored friends don’t ask you about how you care for your hair, or why you don’t talk a certain way, or where your “people” come from, or what your obviously-representative-of-your-entire-cultural-group perspective on a racial issue is. When you don’t have to have conversations with your young son about what to do if he’s approached by the police. That’s white privilege. There is a disparity of power in America that favors white people. If you’re a white person, you benefit from that disparity.
Some of the reactions to the Ferguson news that I’ve seen frequently are “this black man shot another black man and no one is rioting!” or “this police officer shot this white man and no one is rioting!” Well, yeah. You’ve hit the nail on the head. There is a history of oppression and discrimination of black people by white people because of their race. Even if you think we’ve solved racism in America, you can’t deny that. That history has led to systemic and continued discrimination that results in an unbalanced power dynamic that still exists. When you bring up a case where the races are flipped as comparison, the history of white people discriminating against black people isn’t a factor anymore, and so you’ve created a false equivalence. It might seem like the same thing on the surface, but you’re ignoring undeniable contextual information and it’s a gross oversimplification.
The last thing I want to bring up is for the group of people that I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt by calling “the skeptics.” Normally, I’d applaud your refusal to take media hype at face value, your bravery at voicing an unpopular opinion, or presenting glossed-over facts that paint a different, more complicated and nuanced story. I’m sure your intentions are good. Maybe it’s because I’m overly sensitive that when I see your posts suggesting (however gently) that the national wave of anger is an over-reaction, I get a flush of rage. Maybe you’re just trying to offer a rational, balanced perspective.
[Let’s take a sidebar here, while we’re talking about balanced perspectives. I think the whole notion of “balanced perspectives” has been overblown. Sometimes the issue doesn’t warrant a balanced perspective. Sometimes the evidence or the science is clear and we’re diluting the importance of the issue by allowing nutjobs, and climate change deniers, and racists, and homophobes, and bigots to present “their side” in the name of providing a balanced perspective. It’s not balanced. Climate change is real. White privilege exists. Police officers disproportionately target black men. Giving a platform for the crazies and the bigots doesn’t advance the dialogue and it certainly doesn’t help anyone.]
Assuming the best of intentions, I think the skeptics are trying to offer some rational voices and information into a heated, emotional debate. I get where you’re coming from, but I think it’s misplaced. Because in a 2013 poll, 1 in 4 black men said they’d been treated unfairly by a police officer in the last 30 days. Because police officers are historically not held accountable for their bad decisions, even when those bad decisions result in someone’s death. Because systemic racism does exist. It seems like you’re arguing for a fair, rational, balanced assessment of the facts, but the truth is, this is not a level playing field. It is not fair. It is not balanced. Adding your voice in opposition to those of us who are hurt, angry, and looking for justice is not getting us anywhere. You’re resisting. You’re taking us backwards. Believe me, our country does not need another white person questioning if racism is really that big of a deal, in this or in any other case. The world is already tilted way in your favor.
Pretending like this is an isolated incident without wider implications about our criminal justice system and race in America is short-sighted. Darren Wilson didn’t shoot Michael Brown in a vacuum, in some idyllic alternate universe where racism and abuse of power don’t exist. This happened, and it’s meaningful. People are devastated and enraged that a boy was killed, and that the man who killed him won’t face charges, but it’s also much, MUCH more than that. If you’re playing devil’s advocate about this one incident, instead of fighting for justice on a larger scale, you’re missing the point. Presenting a counter-argument for the sake of a balanced perspective right now – when people are grieving and feeling hopeless and ignored – suggests that you can’t see, or don’t agree, that racism is a deadly serious problem.
And I sincerely hope that’s not the case because it really, really is.