I never quite understood white privilege until my husband and I got lost on a road trip to California one summer.
Halfway to our destination, our GPS gave out as we wound along a forest backroad, using the light bleeding in through the canopy of leaves overhead to navigate.
Dusk fell before we came across a dilapidated farm-house hidden in some trees. I pretended not to notice my husband’s shoulders tense, or the massive Confederate flag covering the chipped rust-red paint on the barn roof.
A man stood on the porch with a fresh pelt draped over his wrist. He shielded his eyes, then grabbed the shotgun propped beneath his window before heading towards us.
My husband squared his jaw as I exited the car with a smile, my hands raised and cleavage out. I didn’t argue when he stayed behind. The man gave me some vague, grunted directions leading us back the way we came. My husband watched in the rear view mirror as the man stared at our retreating dust cloud before shuffling off.
“Are you okay?” I asked, relaxing into the seat as the man shuffled away. “What in the hell was that place?”
“Yeah,” My husband said, taking a shaky breath before patting my knee. “I’m good.”
For hours, I sat staring out the window, allowing my husband to listen to his music on the radio in thoughtful silence.
What could I say?
We’ve all read the history books. We can name the names, we watch the movies and shake our heads at the injustice, meaning it with as much heart as we can. Still, the reality is, white and white-passing people have privilege.
Though I am Hispanic on my father’s side, my mother’s genes for red, curly hair and pale skin won out.
Sure, I faced my share of prejudice. The kids in school would ask me why I didn’t have brown skin. I almost got suspended for trying to punch my dick of an English teacher when he made a nasty joke about my last name.
But, I look white enough, so congratulations to me. I have a pigment recognized as the default around much of the world that doubles as a shield. There’s no way past it.
I had no answer for my husband because my mother didn’t teach me the same things his did. Yes, we both learned about the birds and the bees, talking to strangers. But my mother never told me there’s a chance I could bleed out in the street on my way home for looking suspicious. She didn’t have to.
There I sat, wearing a black man’s ring and I couldn’t have an open conversation with him not because I lacked care, but perception.
That’s when the shame would hit, a familiar sensation during our marriage. But losing face isn’t the appropriate response. If anything, it’s selfish. Whether we intend to or not, we make the moment about us. Privilege means we’re granted the ability to be ignorant of the world around us. We focus on our guilty conscious rather than learning from this sudden clarity. Black people don’t need white people to apologize for our whiteness.
Privilege should be about helping to challenge an unequal culture so everyone can feel safe asking for directions, at work, at home. It shouldn’t be about saying sorry, but moving forward. Still, society can’t progress far if we don’t notice we’ve slowed to a crawl.
The question on my mind then became, how can we as white people impact if we’ll never know what it’s like to wear black skin?
I had no solution, other than to place my hand on his and say, “talk to me”.
If this trip taught me one thing, it’s that our privilege may never go away, but we can still do something about it. Who knows what kind of change can happen if we can all sit down with a person of color and listen — really listen.
We shouldn’t be afraid to tell a person of color that we’ll never understand their plight, but we can still try. Fighting racism starts within our own conscious when we accept that it exists and we agree to stop ignoring it.
So, as we drove on through the night, we turned down the radio, and he spoke the rest of the way, because the first step toward transformation is education.
And we all have to start somewhere.