“I’M WHITE. I have white privilege. I’m ashamed of it.”
I received this e-mail from a woman in Oregon, and its pained tone didn’t surprise me at all. It was a response to my column about the destructive toll of white fear on black lives after two men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for no other reason than being black.
Whenever I write about racism, I get responses that fall into distinct categories — recognition, racist, or rueful. That last one is filled with white readers who say they not only abhor racism, but also the white privilege that mostly inoculates them from its venom.
Recalling her own trips to Starbucks, the woman wrote about using its restrooms without buying anything, something those two black men weren’t allowed to do. She called what happened to them “horrific,” and expressed how “sick and . . . tired” she is of such disturbing incidents.
As I occasionally do with readers, I hit reply.
“If I had white privilege, I don’t think I’d be ashamed of it,” I wrote. “I’d use it to expose injustice and work to make things better.”
It’s not hard to do. Using white privilege for the greater good was on display in that Philadelphia Starbucks. Melissa DePino filmed and tweeted the video showing Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson being questioned, handcuffed, and perp-walked out of the coffee shop. DePino knew they did nothing wrong, and she verbally challenged the police.
So did Andrew Yaffe, who arrived at the coffee shop just as two men with whom he planned to have a business meeting were being arrested. “What did [the police] get called for?” he asked. “Because there are two black guys sitting here meeting me?”
In a CNN essay, DePino wrote, “Things like this happen to black and brown people in this country every single day, and they talk about it, tweet about it, and write about it, but for more reasons than I can discuss intelligently in this small space, people who look like me — white people — often don’t see, hear, or believe their stories.”
If you want to be an ally, you must believe our stories.
You must be able to see the racism that drove what happened to a group of black women last weekend at a Pennsylvania golf club. Police were called after the club’s white co-owner and his father accused the women of playing too slow and refusing to leave. The women, all club members, weren’t arrested. Still, add “golfing while black” to the ever-growing list of things black people aren’t allowed to do in peace.
Longtime civil rights activist and scholar Angela Davis once said, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be nonracist — we must be anti-racist.” Claiming you aren’t racist is meaningless; what matters is recognizing racism, calling it by its name, and working to eradicate it. A person who complains about their privilege is like a lottery winner grumbling about the burdens of money to a someone making minimum wage. Expect more eye rolls than sympathy.
These are days when racism is so blatant that a neo-Nazi group held a swastika burning — like a Klan cross-burning — last weekend in Georgia, and it generated scant attention. Racism is both emboldened and normalized; to push back is to defy and alter the status quo.
If someone is drowning, do you stand on the shore and ask what that person, who has more than enough to contend with, what you should do? Or, out of a sense of common decency and humanity, do you reach out to help?
People of color challenge racism everyday; we’ve never had a choice. Yet since we did not build, and fortify for centuries, a system of white supremacy as American as the Constitution, and as old as Plymouth Rock, we alone cannot be expected to undo it.
That, white people, is on you — and your privilege.