White Privilege

Not that long ago ‘check your privilege’ was being bandied about. A white male student wrote a piece in the Princeton college newspaper in 2014 calling attention to the use of the phrase. Some were resentful of the comment (including the writer of that column), some were confused by it and others welcomed the dialogue. That conversation seemed to be limited to college campuses, then the moment faded away. Now we are in another moment where this idea of ‘privilege’ has currency – maybe this time it will have more traction. The murder of George Floyd was the latest example of brutality inflicted on an African American man that would be very unlikely to happen to a white one. While it is troubling to label that difference in treatment a privilege because one would hope that any living being would be treated with more respect than Mr. Floyd was afforded, what should we call it if not privilege?

My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about that idea. “I wish there was another way to say it,” Gary commented. “People reject the idea of privilege immediately, like it doesn’t apply to them. They say, ‘no one gave me anything,’ or ‘I worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.’ It’s hard to get people to see it.” Gary was reflecting on his experience talking with a range of people who come through his office – not that it comes up that often, but when it does, he has found resistance. I know he isn’t alone.

People can only see things through their own experience. If they didn’t grow up wealthy, and then they achieved a measure of success after working hard, it can be hard to accept that they were still advantaged (if that can be a verb). We want to believe in a meritocracy and that we earned what we have achieved. But the advantages can be taken for granted, and there is no reward for calling attention to it. The status quo has a lot invested in protecting itself.

The first time I read about the ‘invisible knapsack’ (otherwise known as white privilege) was in 2001. I was participating in training to be a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in their World of Difference program. The World of Difference program is a multicultural awareness effort that had a number of components, some geared to schools, others to workplaces. I participated in five full days of exercises, each designed to examine our assumptions about all the ‘isms’ (racism, ableism, sexism, etc.) in our society. Though I had always been socially-conscious, or thought I was, I learned a great deal about the insidious ways that our biases impact our behavior. On one of the early days of the training, we were given an article to read (I highly recommend it:

https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack).

 

That article was first published in 1989, 31 years ago. I read it 19 years ago. It is getting attention again now.

Interestingly, the same has happened with video from a PBS special, broadcast originally in 1976. That video (written about in an article in the New York Times recently (https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/100000006654178/rosedale-documentary-where-are-they-now.html or you can watch the original documentary here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv0n1xfNf1E&t=3619s) is from a Bill Moyers piece on Rosedale (Queens). Rosedale is the neighborhood where Gary grew up. Last week I reposted Gary’s essay on an incident that happened to him when he was a child.

On the one hand, I find this all very discouraging. We have been having the same conversation for most of my life and yet it still comes as ‘news’ to many. I don’t understand that. On the other hand, there finally seems to be more widespread acceptance of the existence of systemic racism. I am hopeful that maybe now we can finally make some meaningful change. In the course of a given day, my mood can shift from optimism on one hand to despair on the other.

I take comfort in the words of our former president, Barack Obama, when he points out that we have made progress – that for all the anger, pain and disappointment caused by continuing tragedies, we have made steps forward. Despite the setbacks, and reminders that there is still much work to be done, there are more opportunities for African Americans in America today than there was when I was born (in 1959). Of course, that isn’t enough, as we see every day, we haven’t made nearly enough progress.

One of the things I have realized over the course of my career as a school board member and as a trainer of school board members is that we need to periodically refresh our knowledge of the fundamentals. We think, since we are doing the work day-to-day, that we know the essentials. But the truth is, we forget, or at least lose sight of them. In the midst of whatever crisis, we are facing, or even when we are carrying out the mundane day-to-day tasks, we stop thinking about the fundamentals. We can easily lose our way. That is why continuing education is critical in every field – medicine, law, every workplace. It isn’t just that we need to learn about new developments, we need to be refreshed on the core values that inform our work. There is always more to learn and more awareness to be had – and this applies to being a citizen of a democracy. I hope Americans are willing to do the work.

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An Idea about Law and Order

My husband and I are creatures of habit. Since we have been empty nesters, unbelievably it has been 13 years since our younger child left for college, there has been a certain predictability to our routine. After Gary gets home from work, we have dinner sitting on the couch in the family room, with the TV on. When we finish eating, we replace the dinner plate with our laptops and the TV drones on. We aren’t watching it exactly, we are doing our respective things on our computers, but the television is providing some background noise. I scroll social media, do crossword puzzles and edit blog posts. Gary reviews patients’ labs, catches up on email, surfs the news and writes his daily missive to the kids.

As background noise, Gary’s preferred TV choices include sports, episodes of Law and Order, World War II documentaries and Seinfeld. The thing all of those have in common is that he can half pay attention and still follow along, he knows them all already (except live sports; baseball, in particular is perfect for watching while doing something else). I can tolerate most of those, though I get tired of all of them (except sports, but even with that I have my limits). I have, in more recent years, gotten him to expand his list to include House Hunters. We do have more then one television. Sometimes I go upstairs and actually watch something else. But since we don’t spend that much time together – given his work schedule and his need to review labs and paperwork in the evening – I more often than not choose to sit with him. We chat here and there; it sustains our connection.

The pandemic is testing the limits of this routine. We have been home together more often for more extended periods of time. Before coronavirus, the routine was interrupted here and there by brief overnight trips I might make to the city (New York City, that is), or helping out with our granddaughter in Connecticut, or  consulting assignments or plans with girlfriends. All of those activities have been suspended these past four months.

Gary and I get along great – but even we were getting on each other’s nerves. Gary got angry at me the other day for failing to lock the door between the garage and the house. I got annoyed with him for flipping channels relentlessly and not getting back to Jeopardy in time for the beginning of the second round. Nerves are getting frayed.

His limited viewing options were also getting to me. Since there has been no live sports, SNY (the New York Mets’ station) has been replaying the 1969 and 1986 World Series and other winning playoff games. Gary shows no signs of tiring of them. I, on the other hand, have had enough. Though I am a Met fan, I’ve seen the ball squirt through Bill Buckner’s legs one time too many.

In an effort to broaden our horizons, we decided to watch a TV series that we missed the first time it aired. Our son highly recommended The Wire, a show that he thought would appeal to both of us. We would not treat it as background noise, we would actually watch it. Our daughter joined us beginning in season 3 – we watch at the same time, in our respective homes (she is in Somerville, MA). It has turned out to be an interesting choice to make during this season of unrest and Black Lives Matter protests.

The series, which was originally broadcast beginning in 2002, is a case study of systemic racism. The toxic relationship between the police and the poor, drug over-run Black community in Baltimore is on full display. The lack of trust, the brutality, the disregard for Black lives is evident in episode after episode.

The series explores the impossible choices the characters face and illustrates how people lose their way, disregarding morality for expediency or quick reward or pressure from those more powerful. We are almost done watching all five seasons, we are in the middle of its final season. I hope it offers some glimmers of hope when it wraps up because it paints a pretty bleak picture. While the quality of The Wire is beyond reproach, it may not have been the wisest choice from my mental health perspective. I don’t know that I needed reminding of our societal ills at the same time that they are playing out on the streets of our country. Not surprisingly, I have been reflecting on issues of law and order; particularly the role of the police.

It all reminds me of a course I took in college called Public Law. While much of the material that was covered has receded into the mists of memory, I do recall that it was the first time I heard an argument for ‘defunding the police.’ That wasn’t the phrase the professor used, but essentially, he made a case for it – not for precisely the same reasons as we are hearing today – though racism played a role.

We examined the role of the police in society, exploring its structure and relationship to communities. This was in 1978. The ‘60s era of protest, campus unrest and clashes with the police was over. My fellow classmates were focused on their GPAs and preparing for the LSAT; they weren’t as liberal as the students who preceded us. Our professor, Tom Denyer, had a different agenda. He made the case that the police and the criminal justice system were, in effect, casting people out of society unnecessarily; that we entrusted the system with too much power. As we came to learn by the end of the semester, our professor was an anarchist. Much to his dismay, he wasn’t successful in convincing the class of his position; as I recall, students vehemently rejected his argument. I certainly wasn’t convinced. I believed then, and I believe now, that humanity is not capable of policing itself. There are evil people in the world, and there are also troubled, misguided ones. Society needs to be protected from those who can’t abide by civil society’s rules.

But Dr. Denyer opened my eyes to ideas that I had not considered. I rejected his notion that the police weren’t necessary, but the question of how to do it in an effective, equitable way, and at what cost, was clearly very complicated. It was also clear that the system was flawed. One of the costs that I had not given thought to before was the toll taken on cops themselves. We read articles about the incidence of alcoholism and suicide among police officers – it is higher than other professions. It was also the first time I thought about what exactly we were asking cops to do – solve crimes? prevent crimes? help people in trouble? keep order in the streets? All of the above? Was that reasonable?

I was forced to consider the impact of the fact that police generally see citizens at their worst. Drunk, violent, abusive, carrying weapons, selling drugs, threatening…the list can go on and on. And, even if the 911 call doesn’t involve menacing behavior, they are often seeing folks at their weakest or most vulnerable. What is the impact of that? Day after day, year after year? How does a police officer not become jaded and/or racist?

Recently, as I revisited that issue, I had an idea. Could we restructure the job so that cops rotated to play other roles in the community? Would it be possible for them, as part of their job, not as volunteers, to run recreational programs? Mentor kids? Help with community gardens? Help seniors with technology? (or other structured, concrete, viable community service efforts). My notion is that by bringing police officers, as part of their required responsibilities, into contact with community members on an equal footing, on positive projects – so that they don’t lose sight of the residents’ or their own humanity, maybe the dynamic can be changed. Maybe if, as part of their job, police officers collaborated with citizens, they wouldn’t get so calloused. Just one thought among many that might be considered if we are going to find a better way to approach law enforcement. Thoughts anyone?