When I turned 16, one of my dad’s friends surprised me with a visit. He drove up in his sports car — it was a Corvette I think — and asked me if I wanted to take it for a drive.
He was a cop.
Years later, I chatted with a friend who is black about learning to drive. She explained how in her family, as she and each of her siblings started learning, the family sat down to talk about what to do if they got pulled over. Put your hands on the wheel. Don’t get out of the car. Tell the cop where your license is and ask for permission to get it. Return your hands to the wheel. Tell the cop where your registration is and ask for permission to get it. Never drive without your license, registration and proof of insurance.
I was baffled by this family ritual. I never had this conversation. Why did their family have this conversation? The few times I’d been pulled over I tried to act cute and flirt a little and I’d never even gotten a ticket.
She explained to me that cops kill black people.
My lovely friend with her lovely family who was just like mine — if you don’t see skin color — had to learn how to minimize her chance of being killed by the police. The police did not take her for a ride in a sports car. Other black friends have assured me that they also had these conversations in their families.
How lucky am I? I was in my twenties before I realized that police weren’t just nice guys who helped you when you locked your keys in your car, again. That’s white privilege. After the conversation with my friend I was forced to examine and continue to examine what advantages I have just because of the color of my skin. I can hail a taxi and it will stop and pick me up. I will make more money and I can get instant approval for a mortgage, a car loan, or a credit card.
I’m trying to learn and trying to see what advantages my white skin gives me. But while I am learning, I don’t need to worry that I’ll be shot while jogging, sleeping, or hanging out in my apartment just because of the color of my skin. White privilege.
Maybe you are just now seeing your white privilege for the first time. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unfathomable. It’s true. If you don’t like it, you have an obligation to inform yourself, call out injustice when you see it, and make improvements where you can.
I’m just beginning to understand how I might stand in the gap. When hiring I ask my team if we really need another white man, or if we should go back and look for more diverse candidates. That makes other people uncomfortable, and leads to hard conversations, but nothing will change without questioning the status quo.
Along the way I will make mistakes. I will say stupid things. I will apologize, and try to do better. I will realize horrible things about myself, my family, and my world. But I won’t avoid learning these things because change can’t happen if we hide from the truth.
My daughter? She’s learning along with me. She has heard me talk about what black lives matter means, and why it’s not all lives matter. She knows that there are good police and bad police. When I make donations, I tell her about the ACLU, the NAACP, and bail bond funds. I teach her why it’s important to see skin color. I am teaching her how to ask questions and how to respectfully take criticism when her white privilege is exposed. When she learns to drive, I’ll teach her what other families learn and help her see the injustice of racial inequality. She assures me, with the confidence of youth, that she and her generation will do better. I hope they do.
Photo by Zack Nichols on Unsplash