I experienced a little white privilege today.
I have this new used car, and there is only one door lock. It is broken. I can’t get into the car. So I had to climb in through the trunk, push down the back seat and unlock the car from within.
Doing this told the car that it was being stolen. The alarm rang like crazy. The only way to stop it would be to put the key in the lock and open the door, but the lock is broken. So the alarm blares and blares and I’m standing there next to the car with a blank look on my face. The alarm quits after ten solid blaring minutes.
I leave the door unlocked all night, because I’m taking the car to the mechanic this morning. But when I open the door, the alarm goes off again. At 8:30 in the morning. On a quiet residential street.
So I do what I had to do – get in the car and start driving. I’m driving through Atwater Village and Glendale, suburban-ish areas of Los Angeles, with the horn blasting and the lights flashing. I drive a mile and a half like this.
People are looking at me, craning their necks to see what the heck is happening, who is driving this car, why it’s making all this noise. I feel like such an asshole.
Here’s the thing: I’m a white guy driving this car. I am fully aware that if I were a black guy behind the wheel, this probably wouldn’t be a funny story of embarrassment, it would probably be a story of being very afraid and maybe even having a deeply negative experience with the neighbors and the police. Perhaps even a deadly experience.
This doesn’t mean I should feel bad that I made it to the mechanic safely. This doesn’t mean I should demand that the cops hassle me as much as they would hassle a black person having this experience. I don’t think anybody should be hassled, or be afraid for their lives because they have a problem with the alarm on their own car.
It just means I should be paying attention to this small moments and being aware of them, because they help me understand the small ways that my life as a white person is different from the life of a person of another race. And that helps me, as a white person, maintain mindfulness of the stresses and problems facing other people, and to thus maintain mindfulness of the ways I can help fix the situation. By being aware of where I benefit, I can be aware of where others don’t, and thus the places where inequality can be confronted.
Again, this isn’t about guilt. The use of privilege to silence or shame people is, I think, foolish and counterproductive. Everybody’s life is hard, and to tell someone that their life isn’t hard because of their race or gender minimizes human experience. But to explain to people that certain lives are harder for certain reasons – usually stupid ones like race, color or accent – is meaningful. Being white doesn’t minimize the personal challenges I face, but it does spare me from challenges that other people face, and it’s vital that I remember that.