I flirted my way out of a well-deserved traffic ticket.
In our current political and cultural climate, I keep butting up against two conflicting thoughts. The first is that this is not the time for white people to espouse opinions and pen essays about the state of our country. If ever there was a time for white people to stand down and give people of color the spotlight, this is it. Now is the time for us to listen.
At the same time, I think that keeping quiet may also cause harm. When we say nothing, it is as if we as white people are throwing up our arms and saying, “This isn’t our problem.” Unchecked white privilege can be its own form of racism, which grows more sinister the longer we remain silent about it. It feels inappropriate not to take a moment to acknowledge and reflect on these facts: We live in system stacked against people of color and I, as a white person, have reaped the benefits.
The privileges, perks, safety, comfort, and ease of living I’ve experienced as a white person in this society are too numerous to count, but here’s a start:
1.) I flirted my way out of a well-deserved traffic ticket. As a white woman pulled over by a white man, this was not a difficult feat to pull off. For many POC, this tactic is not an option. Ijeoma Oluo writes for the Guardian about a time she and her two brothers were pulled over. She describes her brother Ahamefule as “a gentle man, but to the cops he’s a black man who is 6ft 6in.” Her brother Basil was “smaller, less intimidating to most—but he had just arrived from Nigeria and had had no contact with American police. We worried about him the most—he didn’t know the drill.” Ijeoma and Ahamefule told Basil what to do: “‘Stay calm,’ my brother said with authority, ‘Do not say a word. Keep your hands still. Do. Not. Move.’”
2.) I have no idea how it feels to have a skin color or appearance that differs from the majority. I have easily blended in everywhere I’ve ever gone. I’ve never entered a party as a POC surrounded by mostly white people, only to have one of them touch my hair after proclaiming, “Now I’m going to do that racist thing where I touch your hair.” This is what happened to Saeed Jones, an experience he recounts in this Buzzfeed essay. “I smiled like it was an affliction because somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that when you’re a young black writer among the literary elite you can’t be both grateful and angry, or proud and humiliated—though, of course, I was,” he writes.
3.) I attended two expensive liberal arts colleges and one equally expensive graduate school. Loans and grants supplemented my family’s contribution to my schooling. I used the money I inherited after my grandma’s death to pay off my student loans in full. Though it seemed like a stretch on the family budget, the possibility of not attending college was never discussed. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “Students who do not attend college or who drop out quickly are predominantly persons from low-income families…” This puts minorities hoping to attend college at a serious disadvantage since “America’s racial and ethnic minorities…make up a disproportionally large segment of the economically poor population.”
4.) Thanks to a study-abroad program and internships, I lived in four different cities (Portland, London, Boston, Los Angeles) during four years of college. I felt safe and welcome everywhere I went. I have never gone into a Best Buy and made a few purchases only to be questioned by a cashier who didn’t think a receipt was reliable proof of purchase. This is what happened to Roxane Gay, which she chronicled on her Tumblr blog. “The young man studied my receipt like it was the most important document he had ever seen,” she writes. “My skin started prickling because I knew something really frustrating was about to happen. I just knew. Anyone who has been racially profiled knows the feeling.”
5.) I have been offered nearly every job I’ve ever applied for. My name is as Caucasian as they come, a fact that may have helped me more than I initially realized. This Upworthy video and its accompanying post show that “black-sounding names were 50% less likely to be called back” for job interviews.
6.) I have never experienced poverty or homelessness. The few times I was in danger of missing a rent payment in my 20s, my parents stepped in to help. According to the Institute for Research on Poverty, “Blacks and Hispanics have poverty rates that greatly exceed the average.” Poverty impacts income equality, high school graduation rates, teen birth rates, hunger, homelessness, health care, and more.
7.) Though I’ve experienced discomfort as a result of sexism, I have never felt like my life was truly in danger. I have never paced a parking lot, repeating the phrase “I don’t feel safe” like J. Brian Charles did after the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014. For Medium he writes, “It wasn’t the first time, and regretfully, I say it won’t be the last time I and other black males will be reminded of how unsafe we are in America.”
8.) I do not worry about my husband being perceived as a threat when he is out drinking beers with his friends. My experience contrasts sharply with the fears described by LaToya Jordan in her poem “Prayer for My Fiancé Before His Bachelor Party” for Splinter Generation. “Deliver him from the shape-shifting gene that lies in all Black men,” she writes. “Let him remain bald, dark, and 6’3. Lead him not toward the ability to stretch taller, shrink shorter, glamour his skin lighter, or insta-grow a full head of dreads.”
9.) I was in the car when my dad offered a police officer a little sass after being pulled over for speeding. The reaction on the officer’s part was mild annoyance and a small chuckle. If my dad was not white, this story could have gone very differently. According to DoSomething.org, African-Americans make up only 14% of the U.S. population but are more likely to be pulled over and frisked than whites. Eighty percent of stops made in New York City were for blacks and Latinos, of which 85% were frisked. Eight percent of the stops were for white people.
10.) Several years ago when cops received the wrong apartment number and mistakenly knocked on my door at 4am with guns drawn, they briefly looked around and left quickly. I spent a few sleepless nights wondering what would have happened if I had said or done the wrong thing, if one of the cops had panicked and accidentally pulled a trigger. I pictured it again and again, but ultimately there was no scenario I could visualize in which I opened that door as a nerdy white woman and was met with any outcome other than an apology for the disturbance.
I do not know the solution to racial tensions and violence in the U.S. I only know that I’ve lived a very privileged life and because of that, I am part of the problem of race in America. Denying this fact only makes the problem bigger.
Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published in Verily Magazine, Fitness Republic, The Rumpus, Role/Reboot, Medium: Human Parts, Bleed, and other publications.