White Wakes Up
White, which the internet tells me is “color at its most complete and pure, the color of perfection” and which means “purity, innocence, wholeness and completion,” is one which I am exceptionally familiar. The website which pegs white as “the color of perfection” goes on to report its understanding that the shade “contains an equal balance of all the colors of the spectrum, representing both the positive and negative aspects of all colors.”
While I am no chrome-guru, as the website’s author claims to be, I believe my lifelong proximity to the shade—a childhood of ski-slopes, a childhood of racial privilege—allows me more than adequate authority to balk, as I did upon reading it, at the statement that white’s “basic feature is equality, implying fairness and impartiality, neutrality and independence.”
In English, we often read work by long-dead authors. Emerson. Thoreau. Twain. Hawthorne. Fitzgerald. Last week however, in accompaniment with a work by the more recent but still long-deceased W. E. B. Dubois, we read an excerpt not by, as our English teacher would phrase it, “some dead white guy,” but rather by black and 41-year old MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Our revolutionarily-fresh reading was an excerpt from Coates’s 2015 novel “Between the World and Me,” a work published, in literary time, only a millisecond ago. Coates, like the other authors we had read, captured America. Unlike the other authors, however, the America he captured was not a past America—as was Fitzgerald’s shimmery 1920s, Twain’s rugged 1840s—but the America in which we live today.
Coates spoke not about some distant historical injustice, but of injustice faced now. He spoke about the unavenged death of Michael Brown. The news media’s misunderstanding. Of his words, all of which powerful, a particular phrase struck me. “And for so long,” he wrote, “I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”
The idea that the American Dream, our national conceptual fixation and personal template, is one intrinsically at odds with black America is one I had never considered. Others had. A friend who sits behind me raised her hand to comment that last year at the Democratic convention Michelle Obama had said, to national attention, that she wakes up every morning in a house built by slaves. Another referenced an article we had read in AP United States history, which had pointed out, similarly, that the cost of founding our country, that heralded as the ‘Great Experiment in Democracy,’ was the exploitation of the African race.
It is this idea which has led to my bristling at the internet claim that white’s “basic feature is equality, implying fairness and impartiality, neutrality and independence,” this idea which affirms what I’ve understood, if somewhat removedly, through the veil of cultural amnesia, all my life: that history says otherwise.
Just as I am no chrome-guru, I also am no authority on black America. I am, however, familiar with white America. As a white person, I understand, maybe only logically, definitely without the daily presence of such understanding as those without such privilege feel, the extent of my racial privilege. I understand the unbridled opportunity, the complete mobility, and freedom, and with such opportunity, mobility and freedom the acceptability of carelessness, for action without consequence, which comes inherent to being white.
Unlike black kids my age, I’ve never been warned to be cautious around or feared the police. I see police officers as an extension of the actors my family watches on Blue Bloods because white people aren’t targeted by but protected by such powers. Unlike black kids my age, I’ve never received sidelong, anxious glares on a BART train. Unlike black kids my age, I am not more likely than my peers to be expelled or suspended, am not more likely to fall in adulthood below my parent’s socioeconomic status, and in better probability, will not, as a recent news study assured me black kids my age will, be described as “beautiful” or “statuesque” in the teacher recommendations for my college applications.
I am in no way an expert on black America. I have neither read much of the black experience nor seen any of it firsthand. I am, however, a white person with white privilege, which is to say that my vantage there makes me an authority on white America. I have seen the white side of racism firsthand, and often. White friends who belittle Asian classmates’ academic success as a side-effect of their race. White classmates who refer to interracial marriage as ‘cute’ or ‘trendy,’ or an interracial kiss, in a movie or on social media, as something they’d “like to try,” as though an expression of love between two willing parties, was a frozen yogurt flavor instead of an act in which neither race nor the recognition of race has any role.
I am in no way in touch with black America. I am not in touch with black America because I spent time with black high-schoolers form Hartford, Connecticut at writing camp back in 2014, or because I similarly befriended black high-schoolers from the Bronx, New York and New Orleans, Louisiana this past summer, both of which were academic opportunities I understand my socioeconomic privilege as responsible for.
I am not in touch with black America because I read about the Civil Rights movement in AP United States history, or because I juxtaposed the argumentative styles of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X in English, or because I followed the progress of the Black Lives Matters movement from the comfort of my i-Phone screen. I do not pretend to be.
Neither my race nor my surroundings give me right to comment on black America. My home, my school, my community and what fraction of it I come into regular contact with is monochrome. Any racial conversation other whites and I undertake, in class, at the dinner table, over rows of silver Apple computers in the journalism classroom, are purely theoretical.
Racial injustice is like a television program for those living in our “white bubble” of Northern Californian suburbia, a program we quite literally have the autonomy to turn on and off with the click of a Comcast remote, an Uber ride to a different neighborhood, a BART ride from Oakland back to the green-treed landscape universal to our respective homes. The only black people I see with anything close to a weekly basis are Don Lemon and Van Jones on CNN.
I have little to no difficulty in my life, racial or socioeconomic. I am subject to no institutionalized boundaries. Much like David Remnick expressed in stating that the greatest daily threat to his personal liberties goes no further than the state of the office frozen yogurt machine, my daily challenges do not go far beyond the quality of the drinks I order at Starbucks.
I am lightyears away from understanding the dejection a fellow Kenyon Young Writers attendee expressed in “Blueprint of the South,” a poem I admit I’ve only come across due to an extremity of privilege even most of my suburban friends lack—X has a lifeguarding job, Y a tutoring position, and so on—which is the ability to pour hundreds of hours into writing, into perusing web searches such as “high school fiction contests” and “high school lit mags” and applying to contests such as the Princeton High School Poetry Contest, where I found the piece among the winners’ ranks.
Though I can revere, can logically comprehend it, I cannot, on a substantial level, empathize with Christiansen’s statement “This body and many others like it / have been overused for centuries now, / and aren’t allowed anger or flight, / so in the end, I have to rehab past minds, / along with my own,” because my white privilege, my arbitrary allotment of inherent access to the world’s basics—money, education, self-autonomy—has removed me from such suffering, both historical and present. I do not feign understanding of such suffering.
I don’t know what it feels like to experience the irony of feeling targeted by what is purportedly a protective societal service. I can’t comprehend teachers or classmates sizing me up as a physical rather than an intellectual being. I have no experience to hold parallel to that of being brought to a police station on “suspicion of possession” of a substance I’d never used, so much as sold.
But something I do know, and comprehend, and have experiences to wield in understanding of? White people react in different ways to their privilege. My respective reaction has been largely influenced by my personal socioeconomic status.
Racism is in no case understandable, and is in all cases reprehensible, but it is also a disease which, like any other disease, is likelier to develop under certain sets of conditions. Living in a wealthy white community, I am not, after all, my white cousins, who, living in impoverished and rural Oregon, see a town member’s use of food stamps to purchase corn tortillas as an abuse of the welfare system. I am not one of Trump’s supporters, who I’m told supported a racist platform out of a fear, a feeling of anxiety of losing the ability to meet their most basic needs.
However moral I like to consider myself, I too am the result of my surroundings; as a white, upper middle class child, who will go on to a higher education and an intellectual career, I do not feel the same anxiety that some white Americans feel, as I don’t understand the rise of black America as a threat to my own future.
Despite the degenerate philosophy of the “For me to win, he must lose” mentality, I cannot neglect the fear which underpins such thinking, which is both a concrete one, and one to which I am unfamiliar. No more can I pretend that my family’s financial security, my own lack of such anxiety, has not encouraged my moral conviction in racial equity.
While others have worked jobs to help support their families, I’ve had the privilege of an Amazon Prime account through which plastic packages holding books are delivered multiple times a week to my doorstep. While others have driven siblings around, I’ve had the privilege of watching New Yorker podcasts. While others have done chores or run errands for working parents, I’ve had the privilege of empty space in which to develop a comfort with the English language that, however it may henceforth be used as a tool to fight inequity, is itself the most glaring of my signs of privilege, my most obnoxious indication of luck.
My moral objection to injustice, then, has been born of my separation from its actualities.
This is an irony I do not overlook.
Author Claudia Rankine similarly pointed out white privilege in stating that November resonated so clearly with white America because white America has never before been targeted. Rankine was right in asking, during the podcast, where whites were, before the election, at the Black Lives Matter Protests. The answer, of course, is that we weren’t there. We weren’t there for Black Lives Matter. Neither were we present in solidarity against the police-killing of Michael Brown, or Alton Sterling, or Eric Garner. We weren’t concerned with the word equality before it pertained to us personally.
That my hunger for equity moved outside of theory only after my radicalization, that I came to recognize the threats others face to their personal liberties, and have faced for much longer than I have for my own, only after my own personal liberties—to control my body, to have social equality to men, to have access to Planned Parenthood—is more evidence to what has been, for most white people, a distant national consciousness, a cultural amnesia to the all-too-present plights of black America.
In another New Yorker podcast, activist Brittany Packnett was softer than, though similarly-minded to Rankine in stating, “No one is born awake. Something woke every one of us.” So, here I am, awake.
So, here I am, a white person with little knowledge of black America. So, here I am, a bundle of ironies, a product of privilege and yet its opponent. So, here I am, age 17, an age at which black kids my age wear an already tired understanding of our country’s prejudices, coming to learn them.
So, here I am aiming to bridge the 13.8 miles between Oakland and me which, all my life, I’ve traversed only a number of times I can count on a single hand. So, here I am, in comprehension that however opposite are my burdens from Darius Christiansen’s, I too have not only my own personal history, but the histories of hundreds of years of people like me to account and to act for.
So, here I am.