A week or so ago, a good friend of mine made a solid suggestion: re-read Peggy McIntosh’s “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The article contains a list of conditions that white people can count on but that people of color in otherwise similar circumstances cannot.
Following McIntosh, here are a few benefits I enjoy by virtue of my race.
As a white man, I am surrounded by people of my own race almost all the time.
If approached by a sales clerk, I can be sure that they want to help and that they do not suspect me of shoplifting.
I need not worry about being singled out by law enforcement because of my race.
I need not fear that I or my children will one day be killed by a police officer.
Not all people, not all communities, have this luxury. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are painful reminders of this reality. A reminder, at least, for those of us who can afford to forget.
After all, forgetting is a luxury that I have: I can ignore the constant political and social challenges faced by people of color, since I benefit from the system that disadvantages them. I can live my life in relative peace, unaffected by the violence produced and exonerated by that system. I can choose whether or not I even hear about it.
Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner could not. The world they lived in is fundamentally different than mine.
Michael Brown lived in a world where conflicting witness testimony and ambiguous physical evidence mean that a violent death does not merit further investigation.
Tamir Rice lived in a world where a twelve-year-old boy can be identified as a lethal threat then shot to death in under two seconds.
Eric Garner lived in a world where “resisting arrest” means trying to keep your hands free while repeating “I can’t breathe,” where a video of a police officer choking you to death is insufficient to secure an indictment, where your asthma is seen as a more significant factor in your death than the arm wrapped around your neck.
The world they lived in is the flip side of mine: the privileges I derive from the color of my skin are inseparable from the violence visited upon Brown, Rice, Garner and others. Moreover, it is the dependence of my privileges on a system which disadvantages people of color that preserves those very disadvantages.
Most white people seem willing to admit there is some racial inequality in the United States. But only a subset of those are willing to go further and admit that some of their own prosperity is built on racial violence.
To many, the relationship between white prosperity and black misery is invisible. The traditional narrative is that white communities are wealthy because their constituents are hard-working, skilled and upstanding citizens, while black communities suffer from indigence and the residue of Jim Crow.
We’re told that white people owe their success to their hard work, while black people owe their misery to the chips on their shoulders.
The truth is that white prosperity is founded upon violence. This is uncontentious when we’re talking about history: Slavery, the Tulsa Race Riot, Jim Crow, Selma. And that’s where the list stops in contemporary discussions about race. Somehow, 1965 is taken to mark the end of race problems in America.
But this is to ignore the uninterrupted violence and repression faced by people of color since 1965. It is to render incomprehensible the rise of the Black Power Movement. It is to ignore the enormous impact of the War on Drugs on communities of color. It is to ignore the countless people of color killed by police officers in questionable circumstances.
It is to ignore the myriad of ways in which the courts cover for police officers at the expense of justice. It is to pretend that the deaths of Brown, Rice and Garner are isolated incidents.
They are not.
The question is: what can people like me do about it? We can “unpack our invisible knapsack” of privileges. We can speak up, whether on social media or in public. We can listen when people of color speak out. And eventually, we’ll have to give up the benefits that a violent system accords us.
My thanks to Nancy Eggen, Laura Allen and Haley Stritzel for their thoughts on this topic.