I think the first time I truly noticed white privilege was around 19 when I was working at a sports bar in the South Loop. I saw it in the way that my fellow SWF* coworkers got away with the same words, actions, and attitudes that once expressed by me became an angry black woman label.
I remember a fellow black waitress who was a little older than me taking me under her wing and telling me the “rules”. She was from Chicago and had worked in several places like that bar owned by a white male and staffed primarily with SWF.
She told me about the inevitable code-switching, about who I could joke with, about what was okay for me to do on certain shifts with different managers. I became angry the longer I worked there and I’m sad to say that I ultimately began to resent her for opening my eyes to the realities of that work place (and eventually many others).
How could there be so many worlds? How did she wake up every morning and remember all those rules?
I never tried to get away with anything outlandish. I am a pretty hard worker. And I respect most authority unless I am so inclined to question it.
But that was the whole point she tried to teach me then and I understand now more than ever. There were too many reasons to explain why the rules existed and yet there were so many reasons why they didn’t make any sense. What she really made clear in the end was that it was imperative I know them and try to operate within them because one day it could be a matter of life and death.
I recall reading recently about how Sandra Bland asked several times why she was being pulled over, a question which was entirely within her rights to ask, but ended up costing her life.
My parents impressed upon me the importance of speaking up if something didn’t seem right. I was encouraged to question authority, if only for clarification. But it wasn’t until much later when I left their suburban bubble that I would learn how that advice had some fine print attached because of the color of my skin.
A lot of folks think white privilege is limited to certain spheres of life but in actuality it bleeds into every inch of our world. I remember working in that bar and being confused about why I always had to close most shifts or why a certain manager actually looked through me when we spoke. Or why I had to think twice before I moved past certain people or why I had to take care to be extra pleasant in case someone misread my tone.
My coworker who shared the rules with me was looking out for me long before I even knew I needed it and for that I will always be grateful. But Lord, sometimes I wish I could just stop all the placating and code-switching and second-guessing myself in primarily white spaces.
You know, the way I see it, white privilege has got to be like a lifetime vacation one doesn’t really earn and most never seem to question the legitimacy of. But I urge you to try and at least acknowledge while y’all are on that beach that some of us are putting in work just to exist. That we are constantly doing the calculations of how our words and actions might be misinterpreted by the wrong person at the wrong moment.
That white privilege comes at great cost to black freedom.
*SWF = Single White Female
An Essay I wrote last Fall
One of the things I struggle with as a writer is watering down my experiences in an effort to make them more palatable for the reader. I omit certain parts of my life that may not be as interesting or likable or glamorous. And even sometimes I leave out parts because I am ashamed of the choices I have made or how I have behaved in some situations. But then that begs the question of whether or not what I am writing is authentic; can one write effectively while simultaneously holding back in an effort to appear less controversial? I want you to like me, more than that I want you to respect me.
I’ve never been one to hold back with family or peers. I am notorious for sharing precisely what’s on my mind at precisely the moment I think of it. But as I craft these essays I find that perhaps my natural inclination isn’t the best. I start to think of the people who might be hurt by these stories. I start to second-guess the validity of my point of view. And some days, I just can’t bear to think of what happens after I send my life (thus far) out into the universe. If I give you everything I have, where does that leave me?
Dave Eggers talks briefly about this in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, where he simply states that he can afford to give all of the moments from his life to the reader because he loses nothing in the exchange. The voyeuristic society we’ve grown up in is nothing without the audience gawking away but if the person sharing a piece of themselves doesn’t mind the sharing…then it’s just literary currency. Right? My sharing the weird uncomfortable embarrassing sometimes perfectly wonderful moments of my life does not cost me a single thing. Nor does it mean I am left with nothing. I don’t want to water down anything for my audience, because like I said, it’s never been in my nature to do so.
I want to deliver all of these moments from my life just as they happened, obviously a lot of it will be through the lens of who I am now but I believe I can still share authentically. I think the only way any of this can truly have any meaning is by nixing the water and focusing on why it’s all so damn important to begin with. I suppose that means some people won’t like me by the end of this. Shit, I might not even like myself at the end of this. But at least I will have been honest.
It’s easy to write a love letter with endless declarations of undying affection but I want the kind of love that holds up a mirror and tells me the truth. And I can only hope by the end of this I have shared a few truths I have learned this last quarter century of living.
Was it weird? Yes.
Was it perfect? Yes-ish.
Was it honest? God, I hope so.
I am in a very committed and long term relationship with my depression, or more accurately, my sadness. And this is our song.
words by charles bukowski
there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled
and even during the
we will know it
we will know it
more than ever
there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled
we will wait
Am I the only one who still loves Coldplay?
Well, okay, everything before 2009.
How are you? I’m sure you’re better than I am. Or maybe you’re not but I may never know. But more than likely you’re waking up every morning, showing up to your job, eating your three square meals a day and seeing a few casual acquaintances without thinking twice about it. I bet you laugh without wondering why. I bet you read the news without feeling the whole weight of the world on your shoulders.
I bet you’re happy more days than you are sad.
I bet we have met or we will one day meet and I will tell you of how my life thus far has been spent drinking copious amounts of alcohol and crying and having anxiety attacks. I will tell you about my multitude of inappropriate relationships with inappropriate men and you will nod slowly, perhaps contemplating how your life is slightly boring in comparison but certainly and undeniably more reasonable and safe.
I bet that you are who I wanted to be and I bet that I am who you vowed never to become.
But more than anything, I bet that I am you and you are me and we are just hanging on by the skin of our teeth. I bet that I cry for my reasons and you cry for yours. I bet that at the end of the day, my skin and your skin are just as oversized and undersized in the same way.
I bet that I am just as inadequate in my own way as you are in yours.
I bet that I am you and you are me.