I read a tweet last night, one of many associated with the #Ferguson verdict that went something like this: “”White Privilege’ is hearing the verdict and being outraged by it, rather than being terrified by it.”* This is, quite possibly, the best definition of white privilege that I’ve ever heard.
It is my prerogative to feel outraged (or not). This verdict (and others like it) does not change my life at all. It does not, for example, alter the way in which I interact with law enforcement officers or members of my community.
I can sit here and be outraged. That is certainly my prerogative. Or, I can do nothing. That, too, is my prerogative. Because I am white.
I am not in possession of all of the facts surrounding this case. I will not be rendering my own “verdict” here. What I do know for sure, though, is that Michael Brown’s death has had an effect on many people and brought to the forefront the role of law enforcement in the Black community.
And I do mean the Black community as a whole, not just the folks living in Ferguson, Missouri. Since the incident in Ferguson I have heard many, many stories from black people about how they have been and/or still are treated by police officers in what amounts to my own backyard.
I am not a naïve person, but I was a bit taken aback when they started to regale me with their stories about their frequent run-ins with the law. Truthfully, I was slightly uncomfortable with these conversations, as well — being a white person and all. Because these people are my co-workers and my friends, though, I listened. I felt I owed them at least that, my own discomfort notwithstanding.
What struck me most after hearing story after story after story — many of them involving being pulled over for what they termed “DWB” (Driving While Black) — was how these people, my friends and co-workers, just accept it as a fact of their existence. That made me sad. And angry. And a little embarrassed about the color of my own skin.
I don’t want to be embarrassed by the color of my skin. I want to be able to enter into a respectful dialogue with people whose skin tone is different than my own. My friends, thankfully, indulged me my questions and shared their experiences with me.
They didn’t roll their eyes at me. They didn’t get angry with me. We had several very enlightening conversations. I learned a great deal.
One of the things I learned is that I’ve had my blinders on for quite some time. I live in a place where I thought relations between white people and black people had moved forward. After speaking openly about it, I still think they have, just not enough.
Possibly the most important lesson that I learned is that this issue is not really about my relationship with a co-worker or a neighbor. It’s about changing the zeitgeist of law enforcement. I’d like to think some of the institutional racism that exists is generational, but given the fact that the police officer in the Ferguson case was a young man, that hypothesis doesn’t hold water. And, even if it did, that’s not an excuse.
I think it’s admirable for people to preach a peaceful coexistence. I do. I just wonder how, exactly, folks are supposed to peacefully coexist when so many of our black communities are treated like war zones. I have to wonder if the citizens living in some of these neighborhoods don’t feel like POWs. I think that’s how I would feel.
I would argue that there are ways to enforce laws without shooting people. I think that would be a pretty good start. What happened to tazers, anyway? And, if one must use a gun to subdue a perpetrator, why shoot to kill? It would seem to me that we are arming soldiers, rather than training peacekeepers.
I don’t know. Perhaps I AM naïve. I just can’t help but think that progress is incremental and that when an incident occurs, like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, we all take two steps back. Regardless of the color of our skin, I would like to think that we would all like to move forward.
I know that I’m privileged, though — privileged enough to be sitting here confident in the knowledge that when I leave my house or when I send my family out into the world I don’t have to worry that a traffic stop might end in tragedy. I know I’m privileged. Oddly enough, this is not a good feeling.
* This was tweeted by @ColleenLindsay: “Truest thing I’ve heard all night:’White privilege is the ability to be outraged by the #Ferguson decision, rather than terrified by it.'” (I’m not certain where she “heard” it.)