I began to appreciate the reality of white privilege several years ago at about 2:30 am, on a long, straight stretch of interstate. I saw behind me the flashing lights of a state trooper. I pulled over. The trooper asked for my license and registration. He said, “You were doing 85 in a 70 zone. And I want to make sure that you get to your destination safely, so I’m giving you a ticket. Should be a good incentive to drive more carefully.” I thanked him, and he left.
But then, as he pulled back onto the highway with his lights flashing, it occurred to me: At no time did I feel at risk or in danger because of him. I automatically got the benefit of the doubt. And then I thought: What if I had been a black man? Or had spoken with a Latino accent? That’s when I suddenly recognized that I had been unaware of the depths of my own privilege.
But clearly in George Floyd’s encounter with police two weeks ago, he shared no such privilege.
Welcome to America: Now Leave
Today I am simply recognized as an American, and I carry with me all the manifestations of white privilege. But it wasn’t always so.
When I arrived from South America as a young child, I was different from the other kids. I was an easy mark. Scrawny. With an unpronounceable name, a heavy foreign accent, and a very weak command of the English language.
I was the Other. And I was a target. I was repeatedly told to go back to where I came from, and I was tormented for years by a pack of boys who saw me as easy prey to prove their superiority. What began with taunting and insult and name-calling metastasized into physical violence and sexual humiliation.
More than fifty years later I carry scars around my eyes where I was kicked with a heavy boot. Now that I no longer have hair, many other scars are noticeable, especially on the top and back of my head, where I was hit with sticks, with rocks, and in at least one instance, with a brick. I also have scars on my soul.
Covert, Overt, and Systemic Racism
I have a name that is uncommon in the U.S. and that sounds vaguely Latin. I have very light skin and blue eyes. And as an adult I have no trace of an accent, except the typical U.S. Broadcast Standard. For the past 40 years I’ve built a career working with some of the largest American companies.
I haven’t actually been physically attacked since I was eleven. I have experienced violence because of my being labeled the Other. But now I don’t. I can walk down the street with the full expectation that I will not be harmed by police or other citizens just because of my appearance.
And here’s a common experience I have when I walk into a scheduled meeting with people who have never seen me. I enter and then watch the people in the room. There’s a noticeable surprise by some people: Sometimes expressed in the eyes, sometimes in a slow exhalation of breath. They seem relieved that I don’t look or sound the way they had expected.
Initially I took this as evidence of embedded racism, of unconscious bias. Because I was focusing only on their expectation. But increasingly I also came to see this as a tangible experience of white privilege. Because I did not meet the stereotype, I was accepted. But what about those who meet the stereotype?
George Floyd is only the latest – and one of the unconscionable many – victims of a tradition of violence directed explicitly at people of color. His murder is a tragic reflection of the systemic racism that is embedded in our society.
It began 401 years ago through the introduction of chattel slavery, which itself continued for 250 years. And for more than a century after slavery ended, the nation had a legal, institutionalized system of apartheid, where black citizens were not allowed to share in public accommodation, equal rights to vote, or equality in employment. The Civil Rights movement arose to remedy these injustices. But more than fifty years later, it is clear that there is still much work to do to dismantle the system of white supremacy embedded into every facet of our society.
Take a Knee: Your Own Knee
As Black Lives Matter began to call attention to the disparate risks to African Americans in encounters with police, an NFL star began a silent protest: He chose to sit during the playing of the national anthem. A friend, a Green Beret veteran, made the football player aware that sitting during the anthem could be considered disrespectful. So, Colin Kaepernick chose a different mode: he took a knee.
Donald Trump intentionally mischaracterized Kaepernick’s silent vigil as an attack against the flag and the U.S. military. The NFL came under intense pressure to punish Kaepernick. When he became a free agent in 2017, no team signed with him. He left the NFL.
Because the public conversation shifted away from police violence against black Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement was not able to affect meaningful change, even as more and more black citizens became victims of arbitrary violence.
Now the knee takes on a deeper symbolism: It is now the symbol of institutionalized racism. Rev. Al Sharpton vocalized this in his eulogy for George Floyd: that the black community has been held back, not because they aren’t capable of success, but because they have a knee on their necks.
Naming Our Privilege
Dr. King reminded us that that evil exists when good people do nothing in the face of injustice. Silence is complicity in the face of oppression.
We will never reach a state when all lives matter until black lives matter too. For that to happen, we need to name the systemic oppression. And allies need to name our own white privilege. Publicly.