If I were born a black male, I would probably be dead or in prison. I would be labeled a thug and a criminal. But, I am not. I am a petite white female with innocent looking blue eyes who has lived a life of white privilege. And so, I am known to many as an upstanding, self-made success story, although that is only a fraction of the truth.
I have not lived a privileged life by most American standards. It has been tough in many ways. I was raised relatively poor by a single, troubled mother and have endured my share of tragedy, dysfunction, neglect and abuse. But, I am white, and I have benefited greatly from that alone in ways that black men and boys (and girls for that matter) do not get to experience – often with grave consequence.
I’ve wanted to write about this for very long time, but I know that race and “white privilege” is such a heated topic that I have avoided stirring the pot. I also know that to be truly honest about my experience with white privilege I will have to out a few of the skeletons in my closet. I’ve already shared many of them with those who are closest to me, however, once my life is in writing I know it will no longer be my own. It will be available as ammunition and judgment at any time. By writing honestly, instead of just sticking to daily highlights and successes on my Facebook newsfeed, I could be kissing my future political career and positive public image goodbye.
After the recent news that nobody will be punished for murdering an unarmed 12-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun on a youth center playground, and then handcuffing his sister on the icy dirt next to his dying body as she tried to run to his aid – I am at my wits end.
Yes, 12-year-old Tamir Rice should not have been playing with a toy gun. Sandra Bland shouldn’t have gotten so pissed off at the cop who pulled her over. Michael Brown shouldn’t have been confrontational with the officer in Ferguson. Eric Garner shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes… and, I suppose that Freddie Gray shouldn’t have been carrying that legal pocket knife and Travon Martin shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie? The list goes on and on of black men getting killed for things that white people do every day with no consequence. And for some reason, a large number of people seem to think that the black people who are killed had it coming since they were being thugs or criminals or confrontational or their parents were unfit or whatever justification helps to rationalize murder.
Here’s the thing. Many, if not most, of those who get killed by police, are in their teens and twenties. I don’t know about you, but I am glad to have those younger days behind me! I'm embarrassed when I think back to the stupid things in my youth, and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from those experiences. They helped shape who I am, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I am lucky.
Many kids who get shot are out on the streets because they have a single mother who is working long hours to support them and/or there is dysfunction or violence at home that they are staying away from, or they were simply out being a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was that kid who didn’t want to go home. My mother worked a lot, and when she was home, there was usually fighting and chaos. So, I spent much of my early and mid-teens alone on the basketball court or hanging out around the neighborhood with my dog. It was pure luck that we lived in a pretty safe, middle-class neighborhood where I had neighbors ready to help me with my homework, teach me valuable life skills and keep an eye on me. Unfortunately, many black teens are not so privileged. The “street” is not a safe refuge like it was for me. For them, it is full of gangs, mischief, and police ready to pounce when they make a wrong move.
Even with people looking out for me I felt lost and angry for much of my teen years. I was a good kid who worked hard and was determined to have a good education and live a better life. But, in my young head, the ends often justified the means for many of the mistakes I made.
I began stealing in my early teens from the Walmart Supercenter that opened up down the street. It started small, and I just took things I thought I “needed.” In my mind, Walmart was a big bad organization that came into my town. I was simply a young activist fighting for the mom and pop stores and the desert landscape… seriously. I was Robin Hood, taking from the rich to help the poor. This is what I told myself. So, the stealing got bigger and bolder and the more I got away with, the more emboldened I felt. A kid who had no power and control in life was now doing something about it.
It started when I was blackmailed into taking something small. A “take this for me or I’ll get you in trouble” type of thing when I was 9 or 10. I was petrified! But, decided that possibly not getting in trouble if I got away with stealing was better than definitely getting in trouble if I got ratted out to my mom for whatever it was that was being used against me.
I walked out of the store with the item, heart racing, and stomach flipping… then, nothing. I walked out, and that was it. Wow. That was kind of exhilarating. So, I did it again, but this time with stuff for me. Then I did it again, but this time with stuff for my mom. And, again, with stuff for the house, and our pets, and Christmas presents. And, again, with expensive electronics that I’d take back the next day saying that they were a gift I didn’t want, and get handed hundreds of dollars in cash for the return. I got so bold that I would fill up an entire shopping cart, grabbing some plastic bags on my way into the store so it looked like the items were purchased, and then walking right out the front door past the security guards and door greeters, smiling and wishing them a great afternoon.
This happened on and off for about a year or two in which time I was able to afford new flooring for my bedroom that was so old it was rotting and moldy. I bought a dishwasher for my mom so she wouldn’t have to spend her evenings washing dishes after being on her feet all day working as a waitress. I installed new speakers in our family truck to replace the old ones that had blown. I got a computer desk for doing homework, and spoiled our pets with fancy toys and treats. When my mom asked how I could afford the all of these things I said that it was money saved from neighborhood lawn mowing, housesitting, etc., and that was the end of the discussion.
My heart is racing just telling this story. It is something that I am so ashamed of in hindsight, but it has taught me so much about the world. For starters, if you do something with confidence people tend to believe you. And, it has clearly illustrated the advantage that I have in a world that does not see a petite white girl as suspicious no matter how blatant the offense.
I could give countless examples from my youth, like the time a friend and I were literally playing with fire in the alley behind our school. It got out of control, and we tried to stomp it out, but as the flames grew higher and the sirens got closer we ran. Later that day, my clothes still smelling like smoke, the police called our house saying that someone had seen me earlier in the day with a lighter, and then fleeing the scene of the fire. My mom came in my room to ask if I knew anything about it. I said no. She told the police that I didn’t do it and hung up the phone. End of discussion.
Fast forward to my adult life: I would like to think that I am a law abiding citizen with a strong moral compass. However, the lessons of my youth have stuck with me. So, when I went on my 6000-mile road trip a couple of summers ago I had to make a decision – drive across many state lines with a loaded handgun knowing that several states don’t allow it. Or, go unarmed and risk being vulnerable to a predator as I travel the country alone. Experience has taught me that I am much more likely to be a target for the men on the street rather than the ones in uniform. I chose to travel with a gun, sometimes stuffed into the back of my pants when I went inside to pay for gas late at night.
I made a conscious decision to put my own safety above the law, knowing that the risk of being abducted or assaulted by a stranger was much higher than being shot or arrested by police. It is very unlikely that I would even be stopped by police much less have my car searched or be arrested. And, I would be more likely seen as a naïve damsel in distress rather than a dangerous criminal. At the end of the day, I chose to break the law because trusting myself seemed like a safer option than trusting the police or anyone else that I might encounter on the road.
I wonder how many black kids have lost their lives with this same line of thought?
Just like when I was young, I knew that I’d fly under the radar and that the consequences of getting caught were worth the risk. I learned at a very early age that it is usually better to ask forgiveness rather than permission. And, because I’m a white female, I get the luxury to do so.
I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask forgiveness, to learn from my mistakes, to allow life lessons and experiences to mold me into a better, more mature person. But, there are hundreds of black people killed by police this year who are not so lucky. They will not get that chance to ask for forgiveness or learn from their mistakes. They were not born with white privilege, and because of that, they are dead.