How the protests against police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement are helping me to confront my own White privilege.
- To a grocery store clerk in New Hampshire (2006):
- Me: “Look, I know you have a shit job. But you really should try to do your best.”
- At an Ice Cream vendor in Chicago’s Midway Airport (2010):
- Me: “This isn’t what I ordered.”
- Clerk: “I’m sorry, but that is what you ordered. See, right here.” She points to the menu, and I know that she is right.
- Me: “Well, what am I supposed to do with it; throw it out?” I made a scene. I may have asked for the manager.
Both scenarios are horrifying. And true. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to other outbursts in varying degrees of shamefulness. A few weeks ago, I drafted an essay called “Meltdowns,” and planned to make these confessions of callousness in the context of raging hormones and perimenopause.
In June of 2020, it is impossible to see my boorish behavior through any other lens but my White privilege.
Privilege is a middle-aged White woman driving her reliable car to the grocery store on her way home from a secure job. Privilege is credit cards not maxed out that enable her to buy cat food, avocados, wine, and gossip magazines without consulting the price tags. Privilege is swinging her foul mood like a wet cat at the minimum wage worker bagging her groceries.
I knew my behavior was abominable, but I didn’t consider for a second that someone might ask me to leave, tell me to “calm down,” or call security to enforce my compliance. It was privilege that enabled me to be mortified for a minute and convince myself that I was in the right for much longer than that.
I recall that the poorly trained young man distractedly putting cans of cat food on top of my ripe avocados was White. The young woman who politely and efficiently handed me a cone of Ben and Jerry’s “Imagine Whirled Peace,” I’m fairly sure was Black. At her, I flung my frustration and fears—of flying, of failing, of missing out.
Had our roles been reversed, had she been the one cutting to the front of the line, angry about her ice cream injustice, demanding her money back, slightly hysterical, would the TSA have been alerted? See something. Say something. A well-dressed White businesswoman losing her shit is an embarrassing meme. A young Black woman losing her shit is perilous.
Karen has become a popular derisive term for a middle-aged White woman who asserts her entitlement—who might demand her right to a manicure during a pandemic, or ask to speak to the manager, or dial 911 when a Black man asks her to follow the rules, as happened in New York’s Central Park last month.
If Karen is a synonym for White privilege, it is time to look in the mirror.
In the weeks before the murder of George Floyd catalyzed global protests against unchecked police brutality, I didn’t think about Sandra Bland.
I was afraid to put a Joe Biden 2020 sticker on my car. I didn’t want to get a dirty look while driving or have to defend my choice. I wasn’t afraid of getting pulled over for failing to signal a lane change and dying in police custody.
This is my White privilege.
In the days before the murder of George Floyd demanded we open our collective eyes to centuries of racist policies that feed exclusion, abuse, neglect, and hatred, I didn’t think about the disproportionate risk Black people face from Covid-19.
I was afraid no one would want to read my midlife reinvention story during a pandemic. I wasn’t afraid of making rent, losing my job, feeding my family, or dying.
This is my White privilege.
On the night the murder of George Floyd started an anti-racist revolution determined to burn down broken systems, I didn’t think about Breonna Taylor.
I was afraid to speak out. I quieted my social media posts. What if I sound stupid? What if I offend someone? I had trouble sleeping, but I wasn’t afraid of police breaking down my door and firing twenty times, killing me.
This is my White privilege.
In the essay I’d planned to write—the one about perimenopausal meltdowns— I would have told my grocery store and ice cream tantrums as light-hearted and self-deprecating stories. We’ve all been there, right ladies? I would have presumed.
Except, we haven’t all been there.
The morning after they laid George Floyd to rest in Houston, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and considered my reflection.
I thought that the wrinkles, and the gray hair, overdue for a cut, mattered.
I looked at my skin, spotted with acne scars, sun damage, and tiny broken capillaries around my nose. I thought that the physical signs of aging mattered.
I looked in the mirror and saw Karen looking back at me.
The color of my skin is what matters. Black lives matter.
Author’s note: I am a work in progress, but I commit to using my privilege to support those who have none. I welcome your comments. I am listening and learning.
Dear White Women, Rachel E. Cargle
So You Think You’re Not a White Feminist, Emma Coleman
Anti-Racism Resources, a comprehensive guide for parents and people, compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein in May 2020
In Her Words: Say Her Name, Alisha Haridasani Gupta
The Status of Black Women in the United States, Institute for Women’s Policy Research
Guide to Allyship, a project created by Amélie Lamont
How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion, Peggy McIntosh at TEDxTimberlaneSchools (18:26)
A Call for Racial Justice, Vermont Works for Women