I Am the Man: Pondering My Own Privilege

This essay originally appeared in the wake of the Ferguson decision in late 2014, in the Huffington Post.  It has since been published in the anthology, What Does It Mean to be White in America? Breaking the Code of Silence - A Collection of Personal Narratives

 

I am The Man.

I do not mean that in the “I’m the best, I’m the coolest” sense of the phrase.

I am The Man.

I mean that in the sense of the implication it has taken these last few decades.

I am The Man. I am The System. I am The Dominant Paradigm.

I did not build the system, did not create the dominant paradigm, but to try to claim that I am not of it — that I do not benefit from it — is to shut my eyes to self-evident truth. None of us became who we are on our own. We, all of us — are who we are specifically because of the words and deeds of everyone who came before us. Not just our families, but strangers too. Not just the heroes, but the villains too.

The world I inhabit was already deep in the throes of often-violent self-examination when I was born into white middle-class suburbia five decades ago. It had been 100 years since the end of the Civil War, but that war had never really ended, it simply moved behind a curtain. Our innate human suspicion of the “different” had controlled all civilization up to that point, and there was no reason to think that a few hundred thousand more dead people would change that. And it didn’t.

If you were to ask me if I am a racist I would say, “of course not,” and look at you with self-righteous indignation that you would even suggest such a thing. This is because, like most people in my particular demographic, when I think of a racist I think of a southerner in a sheet, not a CEO in a suit. I am a modestly successful businessman, and while I was born to a somewhat affluent family — it all depends on who we are compared to — I still worked my way up in my industry from dishwasher to restaurateur over the course of these last 35 years. I worked alongside people of all races and ethnicities and I learned from them all. I endeavored to treat everyone with the respect I expected for myself, admittedly with varying degrees of success.

From my current vantage point though, if I’m honest, I can look back at the various obstacles and turning points in my life and I can see people who were smarter than I was, more talented than I was, harder-working than I was, who were passed over for advancement, or had additional obstacles thrown in their paths. I had access to schooling other people could not access. I was never regarded with suspicion when I walked into a bank and asked for a loan. My neighbors wave as I drive up the street. The police do not tail me when I drive home.

They have pulled me over from time to time though, usually because I tend to drive just a little too fast, and when they do I do not get scared. I speak to the officer politely and with respect. Sometimes I get a ticket, and every once in a while they let me off. This feels normal to me, so normal in fact that I find it hard to imagine such a situation developing differently for another person. That’s because all my experiences with people in authority have been relatively fair. I did not grow up with family stories of persecution. I did not experience, save for a few bullies in Junior High, any form of judgment for anything accept the content of my character or the quality of my job performance.

There is no “stop and frisk” policy in the small, Midwestern college town where I live. If a cop approached me on the street, my reaction would be “good morning, officer, “ not “oh shit.” Nevertheless, I live in a state with the worst ratio of African-American incarceration relative to population. When I look further afield, and I see the plain numbers in America’s penal system, the privatization of prisons for profit, the ways the mandatory sentencing laws are plainly written to target “minorities,” whether that is an intended consequence or not is immaterial. It remains a fact. To claim that I am not immune to that particular form of prejudice - in its strictest sense, “to pre-judge” - is to be intellectually dishonest or blindly stupid, or both.

This awareness on my part may still be somewhat rare but it is hardly revelatory. Though they may not talk about it, there are many middle-aged, middle-class white men who are as blithely aware of these ideas as I am. We go on about our lives and rarely think about such things because in the backs of our minds we assume there is nothing we can do about it. We treat it like our own deaths - if it’s inevitable, best not to think about it too much.

What we fail to realize though is that it is not inevitable. Just because we do not know the answer does not mean that there is no answer, nor that we shouldn’t bother to look for one. I do not know the solution to the inherent inequalities in our system. I do not understand how it is that I never expect my son to be shot in the street or strangled by an officer of the law. I can’t comprehend why telling cops, or anyone in a position of power, to treat everyone fairly and equally does not simply work in each and every situation. I do not know what I, as one man, can possibly do about it. And that frustrates me, so I stop thinking about it.

I’ve lived most of my 50 years coping with my “white guilt” by invoking a line from an old favorite song:

“I was just a child then, now I’m only a man.”

It’s helpful, consoling really, because it lets me shed any sense of responsibility. I needn’t take the blame for the sins of the fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers who came before me. Hey, I wasn’t there, right? It’s not my fault.

Yet if I am willing to accept my inheritance of all the good they did, all the success they had, then I need to recognize the flip-side of that coin. No one succeeds on his own. No one gains privilege without it costing someone else.

In the end though, I do not know how to shed my privilege. I do not know how to return it to the sender. So I go about my business, I try to be kind, to make things grow, and make my tiny corner of the world a little bit better than how I found it. I shake my head when I see others who don’t do that, who let their fears guide their decisions — even though I know I’m guilty of that too. So I throw my hands up, because if I think about it too much, it suffocates me, and I can’t breathe.