“Thank You, Officer:” The Everyday Privilege of Whiteness

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me when I first became aware of my white privilege. Caught somewhat off-balance by the question, I answered that I would need to give it some thought in order to respond to this inquiry with the complexity and deliberation that it deserved. However, try as I might, I could not for the life of me think of a single, particular moment in which I became aware of my white privilege.

What I found most disconcerting about this exchange was the fact that I could not actually think of a singular incident that produced an enhanced awareness.  For an academic who remains committed to political and social justice, this was a startling realization, and I spent many an hour scouring my memory for that elusive moment that I could point to where this consciousness first became viscerally present to me.

Well, as it happened, a few nights later I was pulled over due to turning right on red (when there was a sign forbidding it) and making an illegal U-Turn. I fully expected that the combination of two traffic violations, in addition to the fact that it was 1:30 in the morning, would almost certainly lead to me getting a rather expensive ticket. To my great surprise, however, the cop waved me through without even giving me so much as a written warning. I went on my way, none the worse for the experience.

Now, of course there wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about this traffic violation. What was extraordinary, at least to me in hindsight, was how much privilege explained the dynamics of this situation and my feelings during it. I could not help thinking:  what if instead of a fairly nondescript white guy I had been a young man of color? Would I have been given such a cursory pass? Would I have even made it out of this encounter alive? I was and am haunted by these questions, precisely because recent events have shown us in no uncertain terms the way(s) in which the legal and justice system implicated in systems of oppression.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you cannot avoid the fact that people of color are exponentially more likely to be murdered by police in the course of routine traffic stops than their white counterparts. Their names are a litany of our collective national shame, and a call to arms for all of those who would like to see this world made safer and more justice for everyone, regardless of skin color:  Sandra Bland was pulled over for failure to signal while changing lanes, was arrested, thrown in jail and ended up dead under mysterious circumstances; Philando Castile was shot in his car while reaching for his identifying information; the list goes on and on.

Even now, weeks later, I am disturbed by the fact that the awareness of my inherent privilege in this incident never even occurred to me until a day later and even then it only happened because my friend had inquired when I became conscious of it. So pervasive was my experience and feeling of privilege that my first response to not getting a ticket was:  “thank goodness I didn’t get an expensive ticket!” rather than “thank goodness I didn’t get shot.” I was not was raised to believe that my life was subject to the whims of a police state intended to continually monitor and discipline bodies that looked like mine. As a young white man, I was never given “the talk” by my parents warning me never to speak back to the police or those in power, to protect myself through silence and docility.

Realizing this was something like a punch in the stomach, one of those deeply unsettling moments when you realize just how much you are embedded in the very systems of oppression and injustice that you have committed your life to ending. (H0w) can one fight against the system from which one stands so much to consciously (and unconsciously) materially benefit?

I can hear some of you asking:  what do we do now with this knowledge that you inhabit a body that has encoded on it certain forms of legal and social privilege? How do we take this kind of self-reflexion and turn it into something politically effective?

Well, for one thing, we should all be more self-aware of the various types of privilege that we occupy and how this affects the way that we live in the world and engage with other bodies in space. By becoming more aware of your own position(s) of privilege, it becomes more possible to view the ways in which other bodies are not granted that kind of power merely by the way that they appear in the world.

For another, we should all be supporting Black Lives Matter. This is one of the most crucial and needed political movements of our era, and when some attempt to mitigate its effectiveness by shouting “All Lives Matter” in response, we need to explain to them why such a gesture effaces the real-life disparities in power, in violence, and in lived experience that black and brown bodies face on a daily basis. We cannot afford to let vital political movements and gestures be drowned out by the power that seeks to silence them.

It’s all too easy to pay lip service to an increased awareness of privilege and how it works in the world. It’s substantially harder, though, to really take a hard look in the mirror and recognize, despite how difficult your life may seem, the systems of privilege that allow you to take certain aspects of life for granted. And it’s even harder to actually begin to change our everyday lived realities in order to effect larger political and social change. However, if we want to make this world a better place, if we truly believe in a future that is better than the present, then recognizing and deconstructing our own privilege is an important, nay a vital, first step.

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