These days, I’m really thankful for being a white person.
I’m thankful that when a policeman pulled me over recently for an expired registration at 2 a.m., I walked away alive. I’m thankful that the officer didn’t yank me out of the car as I babbled like an idiot trying to explain why my inspection sticker was almost four-years expired. He let me babble. He didn’t question me.
He was polite, and respectful. I’m thankful that when I hastily reached into the glove box for my registration, he didn’t assume I was going for a gun. He kept his gun holstered. He didn’t whip it out and point it at me or yell at me or shoot at me. Thank you, officer, for not shooting me.
If I were black, the outcome might have been different. Maybe I wouldn’t be here to write this. So for that reason, I’m thankful for being white and for still being alive, when I could be black and dead.
But I wonder… would I be thankful for my skin color if I had been born black or brown? What would my life be like as a dark-skinned man? Would I be the same man I am today? Or would I be someone different entirely? Or would I have died long ago at the hands of someone sworn to protect me?
I wasn’t born a minority. I was born a white heterosexual male, a member of the elite class. As strange and insensitive as it is for me to admit, I am thankful for being born white. But before you tune me out, I’d like to dive in and explain why I’m thankful and not remorseful, as many other progressive whites out there seem to be.
The concept of “white privilege” posits that white people have more opportunities and access to opportunities than minorities, and don’t struggle with same struggles that people of color face, solely because of our Anglo-European features. White privilege makes sense to any open-minded person, but it’s not so much that being white is a privilege — it’s that being a person of color is no privilege.
We shouldn’t strive to eliminate white privilege; we should strive to elevate everyone to this status. We shouldn’t, as white people, feel bad about our privilege. On the contrary, we should feel bad that others don’t share the same privileges. It’s not about acting out of “white guilt”, but about acting out of compassion for our brothers and sisters of color.
Why? Because we are all human beings. We are all born into this world naked and wrinkly and confused and curious. We grow, we eat, we love, we hate, we laugh, we cry, we die. The end. Everything in between, all of it, are simply choices. Individual choices we make either selfishly or selflessly.
The privilege we enjoy as white people is a privilege that should extend to everyone. For everyone. But it is not. It has not been this way for thousands of years — the “race” or “family” or “class” in power instills fear of “the other” to rule. They have defined “race” based on language, belief or appearance, even though leading scientists continue to say there is only one race of human beings, and that using race as a proxy for genetics can have harmful consequences, both socially and medically.
But those in power use this weighted definition of race to divide and conquer. They exploit their power to perpetuate perceptions of “the other” that serve a selfish purpose — to further political and economic gain. The elite who profit from this inhumane system will always find a way to keep people from uniting.
Soon after post-Civil War Reconstruction began, poor blacks and poor whites were united against the oppressive upper class. Seeing this as a threat to their wealth, the elites then manipulated poor whites and turned them against all blacks, telling them that black people would take their jobs, steal their wives and take their land. The unified movement crashed before ever leaving the ground. That’s because it’s easier to point a finger at someone who looks different than explain the complexities of socioeconomic imbalance to people who don’t have the time, patience or bandwidth to hear a nuanced explanation of why things are so bad. They need a scapegoat. It’s an ancient phenomenon that seems to have gotten worse in the era of post-truth.
“Divide and conquer” is nothing new, yet we, as a people, continue to be bamboozled by this Machiavellian act, which preys on our subconscious fears of the unknown. The other.
Racism has been, and perhaps will always be, the trump card to control people. Racism only exists because those with closed minds keep it alive, and those in power manipulate fears. Racism is the ultimate infectious disease. It is the most effectual and diabolical tool of control ever concocted. It works because we aren’t even aware we have racist tendencies. We act without thinking, and if we’re white, our actions fuel the agendas of the ruling classes, leaving us with nothing with anger in our hearts, but leaving the elite with more control over our fear-filled lives.
Many white people have become unwitting mercenaries, fighting for a system that rewards certain violence and punishes others. A system designed to exploit our fears with one hand and sell us our happiness with another.
The insanity of racism only becomes clear when we acknowledge that this cancerous disease infects us all. We all peg each other when we meet, either consciously or otherwise. For most, it’s unconscious bias, a real, documented thing. It’s an ancient ritual leftover from thousands of years of survival — every being we’d come across we’d categorize. Is this safe? Is this dangerous? Is this friend or foe? Food or poison? To make these decisions, we’d use memories of past experiences or stories told to us by those who’d been there. Over the years, these stories morphed and changed and became exaggerated. It’s one of the few constants of human activity over millennia. The rumor mill has its roots in our own roots as a species, and now people of color are paying the price and white people are reaping the profits. It’s been this way for thousands of years, with various “races” and “people” taking turns at the helm, watching the “others” and keeping “them” down to ensure control.
It’s been ingrained in our minds. It’s not in our DNA. It’s in our culture, a lasting remnant of our caveman days that has somehow survived.
We’re bred to categorize. We’re not bred into categories.
For me, the racism infection became abruptly apparent when I fell in love with a black woman — an Ethiopian woman who was also part Italian. We were married four years. During that time, I saw people look at us either in awe or in hate. Sometimes people just looked at us, or ignored us, but I had wished the nonchalance responses happened more often. But we often drew stares, as if our union were either a miracle or a disaster. It was neither. It was two people, in love, and trying to make it work. When we divorced, it wasn’t because I was white or because she was black. It was simply because our love had faded away.
On the day we applied for a marriage license, we were asked to identify our races. There were boxes to check, with a blank space next to the word “other”. We checked that box, and wrote “human”. The man took our license, saw what we wrote, and his eyes glimmered as a smile spread across his face. I imagined him thinking: “Yes, you are both human beings. Aren’t we all?”
Aren’t we all. To this day, that thought gives me hope. And that’s something I’m truly thankful for.