A year and a half ago – just after George Zimmerman was acquitted after fatally shooting Trayvon Martin – my dad, Sean Kirst, wrote an article in which he said,
“That leaves, really, only one remaining option. Martin could have gone to the door of one of the nearby residents and asked for help. He could have told a homeowner that he was being followed by a strange man, and asked for shelter while the homeowner called police.
A result, maybe, if this had been a Disney movie.
I guess if we’re staying with this whole fragile chain of logic – that race and class and appearance had nothing to do with the buildup to a terrible outcome – then the homeowner would have opened the door and let Martin in, and maybe the same homeowner would have stepped outside and told Zimmerman the police would soon arrive.
Does anyone believe such a resolution, such an ending, was ever even possible?
Because if the world was really like that – if race, history and a vast cultural divide didn’t figure into every moment, every heartbeat, in this nation’s daily life – then almost certainly, this entire episode would have gone differently, and we wouldn’t be trying to heal yet another fracture in the national soul, and this young man would still be alive.
Instead, collectively, we’re left with this question:
If it had been your son or my son walking home that night, what would we have had them do?”
And though my father asked this rhetorical question at the end, it is one he and I will never have to answer. Not in situations similar to Trayvon Martin’s, with a neighborhood vigilante, nor in situations like Michael Brown or Eric Garner’s with police officers. And the reason my family will never have to answer this question? Simply because we have white skin.
It is insane to me that people still attempt to deny that race has anything to do with law enforcement (mal)practice in the United States – so devastatingly evident in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Racial and economic discrimination permeate and plague all levels of our society.
It’s easy for those who are privileged enough to not be subject to such oppression to bask in ignorance. Whether they ludicrously claim that we live in a post-racial society, or acknowledge discrimination and oppression as some concept that only exists in backward small towns south of the Mason-Dixon, this ignorance and denial of white privilege is so damaging to black lives in our country. Even if you are not actively trying to do so, white inaction assists in maintaining systems that marginalize blacks. No one has conveyed this concept better than Desmond Tutu – a South African social rights activist – when he said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
It’s easy now for white people to say they are not racist. It’s easy to believe that racism means donning a KKK white hood and burning crosses while spewing racial slurs. Yes, that is overt racism, but most racism is more subtle, more subconscious. Whites in our country – regardless of economic standing – benefit from systemic racism. It is easy for people to reference their black friends and co-workers to prove that they’re not racists. Well, I know plenty of sexists who have wives and homophobics who are themselves gay, so, frankly, that means nothing.
Being racist, and exercising white privilege, is so deeply and subconsciously embedded in the fabric of white American society that most white people aren’t even aware it’s happening.
Racism is the fact that even though Brown v. Board of Education ended school segregation in the United States 70 years ago, schools and neighborhoods have maintained their hyper-segregation.
Racism is the fact that even though I went to a high school that was 70% black and 17% white, every time I looked around the room in my International Baccalaureate and honors classes, almost all of my classmates were white.
Racism is the fact that I could 100% get away with so many obnoxious behaviors in school during childhood, which my black peers would not have gotten away with, simply because I was white.
Racism is the fact that black people are arrested at 6 times the rates of whites. Racism is the fact that though people of color only make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those who are imprisoned.
Racism is the fact that even if I had a criminal record, statistics say I would still be more likely to receive an interview callback than a black man with no record.
Racism is the difference between the prosecution and incarceration of cocaine and crack-cocaine users.
Racism is the fact that I do not need to live in fear of the police.
Racism is the fact that if I were killed in the same fashion as Michael Brown or Eric Garner, I do not hesitate for one second to believe that those officers would have been indicted. Racism is the fact that I never would be.
And, so, as a white person in contemporary America, who subconsciously reaps the benefits of white privilege, how can I help? The first step is to acknowledge my privilege. I must be vigilant against benefiting from hyperbolic interpretations of racism. I know I must examine my daily life and reflect upon subconscious behaviors, practice or beliefs that are racist.
Our daily interactions are filled with microaggressions – ie. saying someone “acts white” or “acts black.” We must continue to make conscious efforts to not only refrain from making these statements out loud, but to also confront the part of the subconscious mind that thinks this way. Recognize that these thoughts and sentiments are wrong and damaging, and in doing so people change the way they think for the better. I will take my own advice and continue to do the same.
Only once we are aware of how the system is flawed and how that flawed system works in our favor, can whites actually do their part to help join their voices to the powerful movement of black Americans demanding the end of injustice.