Since Jen Johnson challenged us to tell some stories this week, and Steve Fuller weighed in too, I’ve got a few. I usually don’t cave into peer pressure, but the pressure to tell and hear stories is the good kind.
“Privilege” is a word that gets used a lot these days. It usually describes the way white skin can serve as a shield from certain dangers and can serve as a pass through certain doors.
But for years, I understood Privilege differently. I grew up in Columbus Public Schools and considered it a great privilege to go to school with a whole lot of people who didn’t look like me.
I realized what a privilege it was that many of my teachers were not white. I figured it was a great gift that I got to learn history from a black Vietnam Veteran and I was often taught English by black mothers. The reading canon was different. The conversations were different. Nearly every subject contained some element about how Race factored into our world. Every time we sang the National Anthem, we also sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (If you don’t know this song, you should.) I got to be the minority in some rooms and because of that, I got to learn more than the curriculum offered.
I got to learn the difference between going to the mall by myself and going to the mall with black friends. With my friends, there were a lot more security guys and police present and watching. They never followed me when I was alone, or even with white friends, but add in some black friends, and they were very present and alert. This never surprised my friends. They were used to being watched. They even laughed at it, occasionally pretending they were kidnapping me—just to affirm everybody’s suspicions.
I was driving around one time when I was young and caused a ridiculous accident. In my mind, the light had turned green so I pressed hard on the accelerator. The problem was that the light was still red and I rammed my car as hard as I could into the back of a dump truck. When the police officer showed up, he invited me to sit in the back seat of his car, not because I was guilty, which I was, but “to protect me.” I, the criminal on this day, had hit the back of an innocent black man doing his job and driving responsibility. Yet I was protected.
So I believe in that other kind of Privilege too. I believe it because it’s protected me. I believe it because after graduation, I learned about the awful things white people say in rooms that are not diverse.
I don’t have answers either. But if I know anything, it’s that my story is never the only one.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Matthew Berggren
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