White Privilege is a concept that is really difficult to define to white people who do not see it. It’s a good thing that the privilege isn’t obvious, right? I don’t want my son to see glaring examples that show him every day that he is treated better than black and brown peers because he was born to two white parents. At the same time, I most definitely want him to understand that truth. A pair of honest questions about the events that transpired before Trayvon Martin’s murder (morally, I define his killing as murder, regardless of the legal status) gave me a golden opportunity to illustrate that privilege.
“Why didn’t he call the police?”
It had never occurred to me that Martin might have hung up with his girlfriend and called the police to report that he was being stalked and ask for help.
“Isn’t that what you would do?”
Yes. It’s exactly what I would do. What is white privilege? My instinct to find the police, that they will keep me safe is a privilege that Americans with black and brown skin do not share.
In fact, I did go to the police after a stranger had begun talking to me while I walked past the park in my neighborhood and continued talking to me until we were within sight of my building. Let me be clear: I’m not making any kind of parallel between that and what Trayvon Martin experienced. I was not stalked. This guy was relatively polite. He was just a little too interested in me, and I was afraid he had seen where I lived. I was living by myself, and I wanted it on record that he was a very tall white guy with maybe, I can’t quite remember, sandy hair, who liked to hang out at the handball courts across from the Catholic school track (I know–narrows it down a lot, right?). I wanted some kind of record that something had happened, just in case something else happened. I saw all kinds of sexism at the police station, including sexual harassment of the clerk who was recording my complaint about sexual harassment, but neither sexism nor irony is the point, here. The point is that I felt safe going to the police.
Let me take a moment to say that I don’t know the timeline of that horrible night, and I cannot bear to go over it again. I don’t know if that boy had the time to call anyone. I do know that his stalked had called the police. I doubt that yelling out “I’m on the phone with the cops!” like I was taught to do, if I felt afraid of someone, would have helped him, much. Yelling those words, I learned, might scare a criminal away. It has never occurred to me that my stalker might be on the phone with the cops, as well, and that I would be their last priority.
Contrast my lessons in how to walk home, safely, with a recent post by my friend and incredible artist/writer “addyeb” in which she expresses pain about the lessons she must teach her (African-American) son. She explains that, “I have to teach him how to carry himself, talk and express who he is in a certain way so that he’s not viewed as ‘threatening,’ ‘a thug’ ‘a criminal’….’an animal’ even.”
Over the weekend, journalist Melissa Harris-Perry said, on her show on MSNBC, “I will never forget… the relief I felt at my 20 week ultrasound when they told me it was a girl. … And last night, I thought, I live in a country that makes me wish my sons away, wish that they don’t exist, because it’s not safe.” I was watching, and tearing up.
I have no interest in “what if” speculation regarding the guy who creeped me out, on the small scale, or the night Martin was murdered, or race relations and police departments, on a much larger scale. But this is what I can do: illustrate white privilege. It’s not often that privilege is so easy to demonstrate. I’m not grateful that I have such a clear example to show. It just is what it is. This is what I can contribute. I know that not talking about race is just about the worst thing a white mother can do, if her goal is to raise an aware white male who embraces diversity without thinking of peers with different skin tones as “other.” So I’m talking. This is what I can say, right now.