I want to tell you a story about the moment I was most painfully aware of my white privilege.
In the weeks since the murders of Ahmud Arbery, Breonna Taylor here in Louisville, and George Floyd, I’ve noticed white, privileged people like myself taking more seriously our role in the structural injustices in our society. Even if we’re not active aggressors, we still benefit from generations of preference given to people who look like us.
In that spirit, I share this experience with you.
A few years ago, when we were living in Nashville, our family opened our home to foster children. Since our daughters were very young, we generally took in younger children. The one exception was an African-American teenage girl I’ll call Tiffany (not her real name, as I’m honoring her anonymity).
Tiffany was a bright, gifted young lady who had been dealt a crummy hand in life, and we did everything we could to help her stay connected to her East-Nashville community of friends while she was staying at our Brentwood home. It wasn’t too many miles away, but these were two very different worlds.
One day, after I picked her up from school, Tiffany asked me to take her to a Hair and Beauty World store to buy some weave that her friend would put in her hair to make it longer. An earlier experience with a black toddler foster-child helped us realize that African-American hair is a world we know nothing about.
Earlier that afternoon I had officiated a funeral at the church I was pastoring, so I was wearing a suit and tie. About a minute into walking into the store, I became very uncomfortable. I realized that not only was I the only white person there, I was dressed very differently, accompanying a very young black woman, and paying for her purchase.
It was as if I could read people’s minds, wondering what kind of sketchy stuff was going on. I wanted to announce that I wasn’t some kind of pervert, but that would have just made things worse. I smiled, swiped my card, and got out of there as quickly as I could.
I drove Tiffany to her friend’s place in the James Caycee homes. If you aren’t familiar with Nashville, this is a public housing project in view of the stadium where the Tennessee Titans play. Nashville police are there frequently, and it’s considered one of the roughest projects in town.
The church I was pastoring at the time was in another area considered “rough” (in other words, low income), so being there didn’t bother me. That is, until that night when I came back to pick Tiffany up.
Tiffany’s mother was described to me by the social worker as schizophrenic and having a pretty serious drug problem. Somehow, her mom had figured out Tiffany was at her friend’s house, showed up, and was physically restraining her from getting in my car.
This woman was screaming obscenities at me, accusing me of being there to find under-age prostitutes, looking for drugs, and lots of other awful things.
I’m not a large person, but Tiffany and her mom are both quite petite, so I could have easily taken care of this by myself and gotten her in my car. But I was not about to get in a fight with a black woman in the projects late on a Friday night. There is no way that would have ended well. So I called the police.
Eventually two white police officers arrived, and they immediately came over to me to learn more about what was going on. I calmly explained the situation to them while Tiffany’s mother continued to restrain her and hurl accusations at me. There was never a moment when I worried that the officers wouldn’t believe what I was telling them, nor did any of their non-verbal cues give me a reason to worry.
What I told them was true, but they had just met me. For all they knew, I could have been a scuzzball looking for drugs or engaged in human trafficking. Tiffany’s mom could have been correct, but these guys likely never considered that she could be telling the truth and I could be lying.
From what I could tell, these two police officers were good guys. They were professional and respectful to everyone they spoke to during this encounter. I can’t know what’s in somebody’s heart, but suffice to say that I would be very surprised if these guys had KKK robes in their closets at home.
What’s worse, when I took out my phone, I didn’t know that the responding officers would be professional and respectful. In hindsight, I could have been a catalyst to a black person being harmed or even killed by police.
But these officers believed what I said, and I didn’t worry about not being believed for one second because I look the way I look. I drove the car I drove. I dressed the way I dressed. I had the confidence of a white, privileged man who knew that the system was set up to protect him.
After I got home and Tiffany went to her room, I relayed the story to my wife, who was half asleep. I began with an almost amused tone of “you won’t believe what just happened!” By the time I finished telling her the story, my face had fallen.
Holy shit. My white privilege has never been more evident.
I’m not sure what steps need to be taken to heal our society. I know I’m part of the problem, since I get preferential treatment I didn’t choose or earn. Perhaps naming and narrating my experience is one small thing I can do. Thanks for listening.