When I heard President Obama gave an unscheduled speech Thursday regarding the Zimmerman case, I dropped everything to listen to it. What piqued my interest most was the fact that I heard him offer an explanation of the African-American response to the whole case, but particularly Zimmerman's "not guilty" verdict. So in other words, Obama was talking to white people — to me.
You can watch (and read) President Obama's speech here. To summarize, he explained why this case causes "a lot of pain" in the African-American community and how their overall response has been informed through a long history of experiences white people cannot relate to.
He stated, "There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. That includes me.
"There are probably very few African-American men who have not had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars," he continued. "That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.
"There are very few African-Americans who have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off. That happens often."
President Obama also said that Trayvon Martin could have been his son, or even him, 35 years ago. He went on to say, "The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws... and that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case."
The president indicated that the African-American community believes the broader (white) American population does not see, admit or understand the context of the Martin killing, which "contributes... to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."
In other words, white people don't know what it's like to be black in America.
I knew the president would be dismissed
After I listened to the president, I started thinking about how many white people were going to dismiss his words immediately and entirely. I could hear them in my head: "Why do they still play the history card? The civil rights movement happened — we're all equal now. They're just using race as an excuse for their refusal to work hard."
"Oh, whatever. In this liberal world, white people are the ones who can't get jobs. We're the ones being discriminated against!"
"I've met a racist black person/Latino/Asian, so clearly, reverse racism exists. It's even on both sides."
"I grew up poor in an urban neighborhood, and I got myself out of it. So why can't they?"
And on and on and on and on.
I'm not going to address all that. No time. What I want to talk about is this: White people who claim there's perfect equality across the American plain, dismissing the words of their president, fail to realize that it is precisely the racial inequalities they claim don't exist that allow them to dismiss his words in the first place.
In other words, the ability to ignore Obama's call to consider American race relations is rooted in white privilege.
I'd like to talk to them for a moment, and here's what I want to say: The reason you don't have to care about race is because you are white.
The reason you don't have to care is because your son isn't Trayvon Martin, because your kid can most likely walk in his own neighborhood (whether or not he's armed with Skittles and a hoodie) without the risk of some whacko vigilante freak determining he's "suspicious" because other people of his race have committed burglaries recently in the same area.
Your son isn't representing all other white people, is he? When was the last time you walked through a neighborhood and thought to yourself, "Oh, no — I sure hope they don't think I'm like those white rapists and murderers and drug addicts."
Oh, yes. I know what you're going to say.
"But there's a disproportionate number of black people in jail (compared to whites) so obviously they're committing more crimes."
You are half right
Yes, there's a disproportionate number of African-Americans in jail, but are you sure it's because they're committing more crimes? In a country steeped in racism (Google "history of American immigration laws"); in a country founded on genocide, slavery and eventual Jim Crow laws; on white flight and redlining (which is how blacks became concentrated in urban areas to begin with, FYI); on the systematic exploitation of nonwhite human beings — in a country where a man like George Zimmerman can get away with the murder of an unarmed teen and where the white population feels sorry for the bastard because the kid he trailed and sought out attempted to defend himself; probably scared out of his mind (wouldn't you be if some dude were following you at night?); fully cognizant of the racism of his own country; of the racial profiling occurring every moment of his life — are you really surprised? Are you really shocked more African-Americans than white people end up in jail for their crimes?
And that's what's trying to be said here, folks. African-Americans are having a fundamentally different experience than white people, and the fact that whites don't have to care about that experience — the fact that that experience can be covered up, ignored, dismissed and brushed off completely — is a result of the very racism they claim doesn't exist.
I'm white, and I'm saying it does exist because I know it does. Not because I have experienced it myself (though I have witnessed it through African-American men I've dated), but rather because I realized one (very, very uncomfortable) day in graduate school that I have benefited from being white every day of my life. I finally read some American history based on fact rather than nostalgia — works by Tim Wise, bell hooks, Robin D.G. Kelley and David Roediger (among others). Suddenly, my whole understanding of the world and my position in it changed.
Yeah, did you catch that? I didn't learn about race until graduate school. I didn't learn about white privilege until I was 27 years old. And I only learned that because I had a professor willing to teach "radical" things and because I was willing to take an honest look at my own experience.
And that, my friends, is what white privilege looks like.
Every single day of my life, I enjoy certain privileges that I didn't even know were privileges until I understood that people of color don't have them. At the very least, it's a rare moment indeed when my skin color has worked against me (if it ever has). And don't give me that affirmative action crap. Yeah, yeah. Poor white people. I'm weeping. It's just so sad. Tell me something, though: If affirmative action is keeping the white man down, why the hell is he still in power?
So what now, parents?
So hey, white mothers and fathers of America, tell me this: Are you going to let your kids know about Trayvon Martin? Are you going to tell them what it means to be black in America? Even though race doesn't have to matter to you because you're among the privileged ones; even though you can shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh, those whiners — America is colorblind and everybody knows it;" even though race can be a non-issue to you; do you have the guts to ask yourself why you can dismiss racism so quickly?
Do you have the courage to wonder why the president of the United States of America felt compelled to speak of these things?
Are you going to talk to your kids about their own privilege, about the fact that they can walk down streets without worry of racial profiling? Are you going to call to their attention to the fact that they don't have to worry about getting pulled over because they're white, arrested because they're white or trailed around stores because they're white? Are you going to point out that they don't have to be afraid to start running through the streets because they're white?
Or are you going to let them grow up thinking we're the big, equal melting pot of love, all fixed up after the civil rights movement? Are you going to avoid these topics because they're uncomfortable — because it's really, really disturbing to realize you benefit from white supremacy even though you aren't a white supremacist?
Yeah, yeah, I know white people get "discriminated against." That fireman job your brother didn't get because they had to hire an African-American, even though your brother was way more qualified.
Yeah, I know you lived in that black neighborhood and they were rude and mean to you.
But tell me, what's your daily experience now? What's it like for you now?
You were able to walk away from that racism, were you not?
You were able to let that white privilege pour in as soon as you escaped that space.
And now, you can just look back at it. Maybe your kids have it better than you did because you worked so hard and made it. Maybe you've moved into a nice white neighborhood and all that past is gone.
Well, I'll tell you right now — the past is not gone.
Trayvon Martin, however, is gone.
And if he were your son, I bet you'd be asking why.