Unpacking My Bags

I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to arrange what’s in my mind. On Thursday, September 2, 2016, the 20 year old Stanford student who raped a woman while she was passed-out drunk got out of prison after serving three months for his crime. Three months. During summer break, no less.

This young man spent an insulting 90-days behind bars after brutally imposing his predatory urge onto a helpless woman. She was targeted and victimized by a young man exploiting the power, he felt, was at his disposal. A power that in this case was marked by sex, but also a power that represents something far bigger than a one-sided sexual act behind a dumpster.

His bad decision was unconsciously influenced by culture. Not everyone’s culture, but his culture. He’s white. And white culture has historically categorized the other as different. Or at worst, something inhuman. The other, in this case, was his victim.

He, like many white people, has access. His white skin, his wealthy family, his Stanford status, his athletic prowess, his family connections, his friends in high places, his ability to land a good paying job, his health insurance, his car maintenance, his full belly—all these fine things are taken for granted. And I’d be lying if I said my life wasn’t rife with a similar list of accessible things that are, and will always be, at my disposal.

This rapist’s culture, with a few exceptions, is mine. And though I want to scream that he is not my people, that he is not part of my tribe, I’m sickened to admit that he is. People like him make me hate my people. Make me move through life with a constant flutter of public disdain. Which is basically me hating myself, too.

It’s not just guilt, it’s social dysfunction and shame. And, fact is, people are dying. This is pervasive in America. Aways has been. As a white male, I want to do something. But I’m not smart enough to know what to do. Or maybe I have a sense of what I should do but I don’t have the guts. There’s probably some truth to both.

His privilege is a step above white privilege. It’s white male privilege. Had he been a young black male who assaulted a white woman, the storyline would have played out differently. I won’t speculate, but I will take the leap and say that a lot of white people watching the coverage unfold would have been dropping the N-word like it was suddenly OK. They’d have assumed the stereotype. Let their anger and fear justify their language, their ugliness.

I heard the N-word growing up. Not at the dinner table, not around company, but it was said by various people, mostly males, old and young, always white, at Boy Scout meetings or church groups or neighborhood backyard football games. I don’t recall the N-word ever being used directly to an individual black person, not in-person anyhow. Shoot, I don’t think I even encountered a black person until I was nearly a teenager. The N-words I heard were used to reference something haphazard, something shoddy or illegal, something undesirable. My culture was defining something before I had any actual context.

Then there was Jesse. Jesse, my best friend in the 8th grade, was black. In hindsight, I don’t think of him as being black. In fact I don’t think of him as being anything except funny as hell and overweight. He was a messy eater, which used to gross me out. He also was one of those kids who didn’t wear his shoes right. His heels smashing the back end of his sneakers. Wasn’t so much that they didn’t fit as much as he just didn’t care. We went to an all-boys private school together. A Jesuit school. Teased other kids together, talked about girls together, even did a Nightmare on Elm Street sleepover marathon at his house with some other kids together. Made prank calls to random telephone numbers. Pissed off his folks. When I showed my grandparents Jesse’s photo in our yearbook, they looked at each other and didn’t say a word.

I don’t know how to write about this privilege, but I know it exists. My new understanding of this blatant inequality is enough to make me crazy. I see it every day. My ever-present opportunity to remain safe however, allows me to pretty much think about it only when it’s convenient for me. That, too, is part of my privilege. I don’t like to name this sort of opportunistic reflection as my default, but that’s exactly what it is.

I can say anything I want, dress however I want, drive how I choose, attend whatever events I want, visit fancy restaurants (and make a scene, even), get a loan, get another loan, get a job, get a Master’s degree, and take advantage of tons of other day-to-day luxuries to which I barely give more than a passing thought. My skin and hair affords this luxury.

My privilege is invisible. It’s similar to the problems we had as a family growing up—ignore it and it will go away. My privilege is on my radar now, but had it not been put there (and exactly how it got there, I cannot honestly say, but I am grateful), I’d most likely go through life following my family’s lead. Something I’ve come to understand as a very cultural white thing. Don’t show emotion. Keep problems to yourself. Love thy neighbor but don’t meddle in their problems. Fear thy neighbor if they are different.

Without this awareness, I would continue to assume that hard work is what gets people places. I used to tell my classroom of special education middle schoolers as much and they’d laugh at me (they were all African American). Though I still think there’s something to the sentiment about personal effort and achievement, until recently I believed it was 100% true. Maybe it’s true for me and my white-skinned male friends. But it’s not true to the same degree for anyone else (including white women). This is unnatural and wrong. If we think otherwise it’s probably because that’s what was modeled to us as impressionable kids. We didn’t know better then, but we can now.

Had my recent acquaintances and relationships been different, I might be one of those white folks who claim “all lives matter,” or continue to say such things like, “I’m not racist. I’m colorblind.” I want to take back all the times I said or even implied such things. Because I now know I am complicit in my privilege, which is to say that yes, I am participating in and benefitting from a racist culture, a racist society. And as much as it makes me sick to think about it, let along type such words exclaiming this truth, I am a racist. That’s where (I think) I need to begin my own personal unpacking.

I sit back and watch America deal with alarming events and gasp where a gasp is expected—I watch men and women with skin that’s not white being singled out, denied access, feared for no reason, verbally abused (in whispers and in screams), assaulted, exploited, and often outright destroyed. I find myself struggling for a foothold. And yeah, I know—poor, poor me. A white man who doesn’t get it. But I want to do something, I just don’t know where to place my efforts. Or where to start, anyhow.

I know how useless most of my actions are, actions like shaking my fist on social media, talking amongst my like-minded white friends about how goddamned terrible “things” are. That America’s going to hell in a hand basket. But then I just go about my day, buying an americano at my favorite specialty café and loitering for six hours with an empty cup beside my laptop. My actions prove I am comfortable in my world, maybe even in my skin. My actions are privileged and unfair. Aren’t they?

I too am angry. I really am. But what course of action will make me less deceitful? Do I cut cords that link me to opportunity? Do I try to topple the structure of my comfortable life so as to experience one without them? Do I try to embody my empathy? I know change starts with small shifts in behavior, but these shifts are elusive to me—a white male whose life and success has essentially been handed to him.

My partner and I used to set up a card table on the street corner and hand out free fudge to passers by. Folks thought we were pushing a religion. We weren’t. Folks thought we were angling to sell them something. We weren’t. Folks thought we had some sort of political agenda. We didn’t. Often we heard, “Nothing is free in this life!” But on those days it was. It really was. The fudge was free. We passed it out with one intention — to spread some love. Simple as that.

Even though we didn’t ask for anything in return, many, many people gave us something back: a smile, a big hug, a deep word of thanks. “We need more of this,” most everyone either said or implied with gestures. “We need more of this in the world.”

Isn’t giving out free fudge a white, privileged thing to do? Self-serving and arguably ridiculous, too? But maybe my starting point is jumbled up somewhere in there. Maybe I can use my fucked-up privilege to draw awareness to this problem of justice. This problem of overwhelming unfairness. I ought to exploit my privilege and publicly unpack my racism while maybe drawing awareness to others (like me) still blanketed by the safety of white culture.

So I suppose that’s what I’m doing today. Using my privilege as a white male blogger with a handful of readers to call out both myself and my white male readers who still think it’s OK to drop the N-word in jest, or mistreat or disrespect someone of color (even behind their backs), or exploit women as sexual objects. We need to quit this. It’s not OK.

And even if it’s in our bones to do it, even if we mean no harm while doing it, even if it’s what all our buddies do and we’ll seem out of place if we don’t participate—WE NEED TO STOP. We are doing harm. We’re numbing ourselves from reality and making it easier for more terrible things to happen.

 

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