This will not be any easier to read than it was to write, but it will be honest. I may upset people, or make them proud. The last couple of weeks have forced me to think, remember, and think some more.
I noticed something on a Monday night a week or two back. Watching and listening to a Monday Night Football game, something was happening that just felt different. I’ve watched countless football games, years of Sunday on the couch. Many a Monday night anxiously awaiting the time when it’s ok, even expected to yell at the TV. (unlike watching Game of Thrones where apparently that’s a little too intense) This football game caused me to think, deeply think. Question my world level of thinking. I found myself once again thinking of privilege. It’s a thing right?
I have served in schools with students who had the proverbial deck stacked against them from birth. I know that zip codes and counties really do matter when it comes to access to education, health care and resources. I know what it is to live where you are in a grocery store desert. I’ve been on food stamps and WIC. I’ve seen Picasso’s sketch books in Toronto. I’ve shared a bottle of wine that cost more than a day laborer earns busting concrete for a day. I’ve shared family dinners that cost more than my first mortgage payment. I’ve traveled to far off places to watch the sunrise over the ocean and climb pyramids of Tikal. I have experienced disadvantage and struggle, but I am privileged.
I’ve been told that girls can’t do something that was meant for the boys. I’ve been told to wear the heels. I have been made uncomfortably aware of both my gender, age (teen mom here, but that’s a whole other issue) and skin color numerous times. For the longest time, I never cared. I accepted what I heard and moved on to be me…mostly. But I felt something so subtle watching a MNF game that should’ve been just another game day. I have oddly, unexpectedly been shaken and I can’t just shake it off, nor do I think I should.
My perspective on privilege began for me in Albuquerque, with a story very true and even harder to believe for many people. I have shared it with few, but it has shaped my world thinking so dramatically I can’t undo it. It seems like a story made up to serve a diabolical purpose, at least in the sociopolitical climate of today… because it revolves around race. It’s not made up. It’s not shared to divide. This day truly shaped my perception and understanding of what people call privilege.
The house we were living in was really a detached side garage in an alley, an after thought of an apartment. It was in the neighborhood with gunshots and homeless drunkards wearing stolen letterman jackets (that actually belonged to my friend…) stumbling down the alley to find a place to rest after they got kicked out of the park. We were the only folks on the block with a phone in the house, let alone the fact that we had a car. We were not in the white picket fence protected suburbs, this was teen pregnancy and Breaking Bad.
Frank was one of our neighbors in one of the other back alley apartments. A well over six foot, large black man who liked to tell the story of how he was going to be a famous boxer but had just fallen on hard times. He used our stove to cook chicken once because his stove didn’t work. I still remember the crispy skin on those cheap chicken leg quarters. All of these years and epic meals later, I remember loving Frank’s broiled chicken. I also think about how Frank probably saved my life.
Now this, this is where it gets hard…
Frank comes knocking on my door and asks for a ride to the liquor store for he and his friend. In the hood there is always a liquor store closer than any grocery store. We all pack into the tiny two door beat up Honda civic. Frank crammed into the back seat making him seem even larger than his over six feet. Seated next to him was his very short friend Juan. I’m driving and hubs is in the front seat. Though we actually weren’t even married yet it was that long ago. In this moment, I am a largely pregnant waddler with swollen feet, not even old enough to buy a beer and wouldn’t be for years to come, but on the way to the liquor store nonetheless.
This was a ride I had given before, probably a half dozen times. It always seemed like the right thing to do, to help out a neighbor with something so small. It wasn’t far. I would just drive to the liquor store, wait in the car with it still running and head home. It was a trip that would last all of maybe ten minutes. Not this time.
Turning a corner slowly, following all of the traffic rules to avoid getting pulled over because we couldn’t afford a ticket, I hit her. Yes, her. A person. She was running toward my car, assuming I imagine still, that I was coming to buy a rock. Told you it was a great neighborhood. I bumped her, really. She wasn’t injured, but it was most definitely enough to startle my very pregnant self, as well as her and her friends on the corner. All of them. It was a minor issue, a ditzy mistake no doubt. A situation any one of us has seen in the movies when a car pulls a bit too far out into an intersection and the guy in the crosswalk slams a fist on the hood of the car, yells a bit, and keeps walking. A near miss that for most of us would be simply something to apologize for, and be grateful that it could have been so much worse. Not this time though. There was not a sense of almost, there was not a sense of forgiveness for a careless mistake that could’ve been disastrous. They were angry.
Perspective is everything. As a teacher I taught the necessity of perspective. What was written in the history books was written by the winners. There is always another perspective that must be heard. The other perspective of this moment was that a young white girl hit a black woman with her car.
As I am stopped in the intersection, just past the stop sign with a car full of people you couldn’t quite see, they came. They came. They came at the car yelling. Within a moment my car was surrounded by people shouting and yelling and screaming. My pregnant body flooded with fear and adrenaline in the most unpleasant of ways. With my nerves on high alert, I could only make out one or two of the phrases. What I heard and saw shaped my life.
“Kill whitey” “Kill that white bitch”. I. Heard. It.
At this moment for no obvious reason, a homeless man walks up to my car window and stands there. My hubs, Frank and Juan had already gotten out of the car quickly to move people away. The voices are loud and clear enough that someone, somewhere calls the police but I don’t know that yet. I just know I am scared. Really, really I think I may die scared. The homeless guy leans toward my car window and asks for a smoke. He then says he will keep standing by my window for the rest of the pack. I hand over the pack and a lighter, and he says to roll up the window. He stood there as my shambling guard and smoked until the police showed up.
While I am negotiating with a homeless man, Frank is out of the car, heading toward the crowd and I can hear him yelling. With force and calm in his voice I can hear him say-Nah, it’s cool. She’s cool. Leave her be… You’re fine, Where’s your pride, You don’t want to be here when the police come so y’all better go. (My hubs and Juan standing near the car knowing that they can’t help in this situation, that they too are not welcomed here.) An ambulance approaches from a distance and Frank convinces the woman that she’s fine and she tells the ambulance to leave. Police officers show up and people scatter. All I hear in my head is “kill whitey” over an over in my head on a repeater loop as an officer eventually gives me a ticket for failure to keep a proper lookout. The details are there somewhere from all those decades ago, but it doesn’t really matter now. For me the details were not the lesson. The lesson of the story for me does not lie in the perfect sequence of events. What I remember, and felt for years was that my life was threatened because of the color of my white skin. But the lesson…
I tell that story now in a big out loud way, not for sympathy. Not to anger, or for shock value though I suppose it could generate any of that. I tell that story now because it gave me a perspective most of the people in my world simply can not relate to. It could have made me angry. It could have made me hate a whole lot of people. But it didn’t. I understand that there are places I can go where my skin color isn’t an issue. I’ve taken plenty of check your privilege classes, even taught them. I get that because I was a white girl, that may have been the reason I only got a minor ticket instead of something worse.
What’s different though, and so very important is that because of that day, I truly understand what it is like on the other side of the privilege coin. That is what surprises people. It surprises people that a white, educated, middle class girl has experienced something like that, that I could possibly know what it’s like to be the other. I do. That day shaped my world to understand what it is like to be afraid simply for being who you are. Those few minutes taught me without a shadow of doubt that sometimes people really, really suck. It cemented how much perspective matters. That day also shaped my world in that sometimes the most unlikely of people will literally have your back when you least expect it, in an act of heroism so it really is best not to judge a book by it’s cover. All good lessons.
So why now? Why that story? Because I would once defensively argue against the concepts of privilege when people would see me and assume that I have no idea what it could possibly be like to feel like a minority or to understand a lack of privilege. I do you see. I do, and it sucks.
Hold that thought and maybe judgement, and go back to the MNF game a while ago…
Something was odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it for much of the first quarter watching the Broncos play. It was like the first time you tried pop rocks and your eyes popped open and it scared you just a bit. It was more of a pop than a switch flicking on when I finally realized what it was that seemed weird…it was a female voice. I was hearing a woman as the announcer on a highly televised sport event. A game I have watched and loved for most of my life. I was hearing a voice like…my own. This was one of those unexpected moments of emotion, where you are caught off guard completely by the intensity of the reaction. I heard a female voice and actually welled up with tears.
I am by all means an emoter, but this was unexpected. Something had struck a dissonant chord. I realized slowly over the next few, ever slow football clock minutes that I had never heard this before. This was a first. This was actually the first ever, I learned later. My immediate thoughts were of pride, frustration and a sad knowing that she would be eaten alive in media the following day. (To which I can sadly say, I was right.)
Reflective racing mind (not the chipper Monkey) got to me. Throughout the game I was forced by something I couldn’t control to wonder with true intention what it’s like to see only negative or no representations of you, your whole life. This relatively unimportant moment had meant so much to me that I was in fact realizing what the other side of the coin feels like, again years later. I got checked. Hard.
There are no doubt countless other moments that shaped media and our future that I don’t remember or know about because I am culturally inadequate. I sat during that game knowing that as a highly educated and experienced woman that these moments are important, but for me this was the first one my brain forced me to acknowledge whether I wanted to or not. I know, I know it’s important, but dammit, it shouldn’t be. There are these watershed moments in time for a trailblazer whether intended or otherwise that shape us all. Historically, I know the importance of Iron Man and his admitting his alcoholism in a comic, or Ellen coming out on TV which meant nothing to me at the time, or Oprah on TV with her own show which also meant nothing to me at the time. But again, I don’t know many of the moments and somehow I feel that I am supposed to now. My mind generates a ton of questions about moments and trailblazers, representation and perceptions of privilege. How is it that a moment of hearing a woman’s voice on the TV has caused me to question so many things that seemed so unimportant before? I mean I’m not thinking about anything big like legislation or anything important…right? Right.
For a bitter moment, I felt a mental schism. A split between my anger at the world for needing feminism though I still can’t identify as one, while simultaneously realizing my whiteness and the opportunities it has provided me or not. I am cracked, I am checked. I know how far we still have to go. It is pretty f’n far. I know that as a woman I have had to deal with tons of shit most men just don’t have to deal with. Privilege? The questions about daycare v.s. career, the comments on my physical appearance at work, assumptions about riding on the back of a moto instead of my own, mansplaining, the blatant almost daily sexual harassment that I just got used to and rose above. But for some reason, for some crack in the framework, I thought of the story I just shared. I reflected on my understanding of privilege, of knowing and feeling what it means to be a minority as I was in ABQ. Of all the unlikely deliveries, how the Hell does Monday Night Football make me suddenly feel oddly aware of my whiteness and privilege (despite experiences too many to count as a minority) and simultaneously angry for reminding me of my less than status as a woman. Wait, what?
I was listening to a woman calling a game I love, and the knew there would be backlash simply because she’s not a boy and it made me angry. A momma like instinct (maybe a sisterhood?) kicked in and I felt the need to defend how she was better than other announcers immediately. That was new and to be honest, irrational. I reflected and thought well at least it’s a start, to have a woman announcer… finally. I became aware again of how in many ways that my gender is an issue still, but at least now my skin color isn’t and I felt a strange comfort that isn’t really comfortable. (white privilege, white guilt at the same damn time…thanks Macklemore)
I get it. I am racially/economically/gender/sexuality/religiously… aware because I choose to be. Fine. This one football game was not a social justice warrior moment for me, where I want to raise a call to activism or call for protests in the streets. This was just a moment. A moment where I realized again that we have a long way to go before we can claim equality. Any of us. A moment where I remembered how hard it was to be poor. A moment where I remembered what it was like to be threatened for something you legitimately have no control over. A moment where I remembered that most people, most damn people don’t feel like I do. (Do you?) Unfortunately, I was reminded people do care that a girl called a game. That shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately I was reminded on a deeply personal level that some times you skin color matters. It shouldn’t. This was just another moment that I realized that I have surrounded myself in the mostly woke bubble of Colorado and that I was taking it for granted and it was pointed out…by a football game. Woah.
And yet, as I write and walk away and come back to write again, football has placed the concept of privilege in the forefront but now in a major and totally unavoidable way. A simple gesture of posture, really. The choice to sit, stand, or kneel has pulled our collective into an ugly battle that I see on the news, in fact I can’t actually avoid it unless I put myself in a media black hole (which I have considered). It has forced open a discussion on privilege and race to people who may have never heard it before. I think that’s a good thing. It has invaded their Sunday funday and some people are…pissed. But I get it. Not everyone has a perspective to understand privilege and it is scary at first.
Not everyone understands that acknowledging the struggle of others does not minimize your own.
Not everyone knows what it feels like to be afraid for just being. Not everyone can relate, and in many ways that’s a damned good thing. I am grateful that not everyone has had to understand what a lack of privilege is (be it racial, money, gender, orientation, religion etc) because learning that lesson sticks with you even when you move forward. Trust me.
Admitting we are all different is easy and obvious. We look different. We have bigger or smaller bank accounts, fall in love with different people, live in different neighborhoods, and put our faith in all sorts of different places…or not. Admitting that just being different makes life harder for some people than others who have privilege isn’t as easy. Admitting and understanding that you have benefitted from a privilege you didn’t know you have is actually hard.
Nerd with me if you will…imagine being the soldier who wakes up from cryofreeze years later than you were supposed to, and suddenly the world is different. It’s a lot to take in. I feel like that is what has happened for a lot of people over the last couple of weeks. A forced wake up call where you puke your guts out and choke for a minute or to with a profound disorientation thrust into a world that is different. Some of us are excited about a new world. But some of us (Yes, us, because we gotta be in this together.) are scared and just don’t understand this new world and want it to go back to the old days that made sense… but we know we can’t.
Be it my personal background or my educational one, I get it. I understand privilege but I’m realizing that many people just don’t want to. UG just an UG out loud and and understanding that we got a whole lot of work to do.
So what next to help alleviate the dissonance and frustration that has struck me as I know it has others? Write about it? Obviously.
Listen to disagreements? Absolutely, with the intent to learn a new perspective.
Respect that people are afraid and angry and understand that fear and anger make people do stupid shit…depending on your perspective. Yep.
Articulate calmly and compassionately differing perspectives. Yep.
Remind people that we all have experiences that have shaped us in the most amazing and unexpected ways, and that the human story is one we share.
Remember that there is no point in being competitive about misfortune, it doesn’t make anyone better but offering compassion and understanding does.
We have far more in common than not, if we give each other a chance. Remember that we are all moms or dads, brothers or sisters, struggling or smiling. We have all lost someone we love and had broken hearts. We have all laughed so hard we had tears in our eyes too. We all have something to offer up to the world to make it a better place.
We can and will all learn from each other when we try. It is time to try.
That’s true privilege.