A cop followed me yesterday morning — not “morning” as in last night, as in 2 or 3 a.m., but yesterday “morning” as in the sun was up and it was breakfast time — as I drove 5 miles under the speed limit to reach my home in a predominately white suburb.
I don’t know if the cop was following me because I “fit the description,” or if I looked suspicious, or because I was indeed driving 5 miles under the speed limit (that’s a chicken or the egg thing though, because oddly enough my speed decreased as I noticed a boy in blue in my rearview) or because I was driving to a nice neighborhood where my parents happen to live. When I turned into the residential area, the officer kept driving straight.
This is as close to racial profiling as I’ve ever gotten. How lucky am I?
Really lucky, it turns out, as details from the case of Trayvon Martin keep filling up my Twitter feed. At least a fellow resident didn’t mistake my bag of pastries as a weapon and deliver a fatal shot to my torso.
Everyone, almost everyone, who I respect has already written brilliant insight on the shooting death of the 17-year old black male whose only crime seems to be brandishing Skittles and a can of iced tea. That’s not exactly why I’m here.
I’m here to talk about Martin’s death as a reminder to me and tokens everywhere that we’re plenty black enough. It seems to be a message lost on some of my well-meaning white friends.
Like those friends who work in social justice — God bless them — and really do understand and internalize the racial and socioeconomic disparities that result in so many of society’s highest hurdles. Believe me, I know how lucky I am. My parents rose to the middle class back when the American Dream was achievable. I had access to great schools and teachers who cared about me and I came from a family unit boringly intact, so intact in fact that it almost seems manufactured for a late ’80s sitcom. I grew up in safe neighborhoods where I rode my bike past dark without fear.
Some of these friends, whom I adore and have mentioned before, have a habit of fetishizing poverty. I don’t know where that comes from. I also don’t know why, if we grew up together, how all of the sudden me and my parents turned into the Koch Brothers or Mitt Romney or some other representation of capitalist greed. I like nice things. So does my mother. I have a job with a salary and benefits. I’m hardly Bill Gates. I’m not even Oprah.
I don’t know if this demonizing of wealth — or in my friends’ case, the perception of prosperity — is a result of devoting one’s life to helping people so far down on the economic ladder it seems that they’ll never reach the next rung. But I do know this; I get really annoyed when someone who is white, middle class and college educated tries to point out my privilege.
Someone tried to shame me the other day by mocking the fact that I own a MacBook. Well, yes I do. It’s four years old and I bought it to replace the Dell desktop whose keyboard didn’t work, but yes, I do indeed own a MacBook. Do you know what this friend owns? White skin. White skin, gorgeous hair, a conventionally attractive body and all the other things that make you less likely to be followed home by cops or tailed in a store by security guards. After all, as Louis CK says, “Being white is clearly better.”
This friend is a wonderful woman and she was just jabbing at me as she always does because she thinks I’m shallow and I think fetishizing poverty is just the new trend — the same way people pay hundreds of dollars for pre-ripped jeans but God forbid you actually wear jeans that ripped by themselves. She didn’t mean any harm. But what she awakened was something I’ve noticed previously: White privilege is really hard to see when you have it, even if you’ve spent the last three years in training to spot it.
Here’s the thing: My parents are both college educated. So am I. They live in a nice house in a good neighborhood. I drive a decently nice car and again, I have a job. I dress reasonably well. Good for me. But to bigots, even just to people who are small-minded and unaware, and sometimes to people with power, I’m just a black chick. They don’t know what my SAT verbal score is and nor do they care. To the cop I’m slowly passing, I’m just another black person in a white town and a white world.
Sure, owning a MacBook is its own white privilege, a status signal to all the other hipsters in the organic coffee shop that I’m totally one of them. But I’d much rather possess the real white privilege — of not having to educate my future son to not look suspicious as he grips his Skittles and iced tea in front of the wrong man, lest that person shoot him — over a four-year-old computer that’s more greyish-brown-yellow than white.
Maybe I am materialistic. Maybe it’s wrong to like nice things. Maybe I should make my own clothes and openly fret about money. But if I didn’t have nice things, wouldn’t I simply be fitting into a different description? You know, the black woman who doesn’t spend her money well, perching herself on society’s shoulders and sapping social programs because she can’t get it together. To me, there is no honor or valor in rejecting your privilege or pretending it doesn’t exist. I do have middle-class privilege. I do have two-parent family privilege. Those things have given me a lot and gotten me to some really great places.
Just not to a place where I can drive past a cop at 10 a.m. without fear.