Dear Fellow White People,
I thought long and hard on how I should write this. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I should write this. I spent hours over the last week, staring at the blank computer screen, typing out a paragraph or two only to erase it all. My writer’s block stems from the fact that the story being told right now isn’t my own, and I don’t want to jump in and act like it is. I don’t want to take away from all the incredible, terrible, beautiful, and heart-wrenching Black stories that need to be told.
But I know I need to do something. I cannot just sit back and watch as my brothers and sisters on this spinning rock are suffering. Words are what I do. Words are what I know. Words are my weapon, so that’s what I’m going to use.
I’m not going to pretend to be the voice of a movement that is impossible for me to understand. I’m not going to sit here and whitesplain racism. All I can do right now is tell my own story, because I may not have been the victim of systemic racism, but I have been the beneficiary. So, maybe if I tell you this story, you’ll be able to see the privilege for yourself.
If you don’t know me yet, I was born and raised in southern Arizona. My dad was federal law enforcement and my mom was a teacher. I have two brothers and two sisters. My parents had a mortgage, we always had two cars in the driveway, lots of pets, and we went on at least one family trip every year.
It was basically a perfectly normal middle-class white family.
Though my parents did stress about money, they never missed the mortgage payments, or the car payments, and there was always more than enough food in the fridge. I never lacked any necessities, and I generally got what I wanted for Christmas. It was hard when I didn’t get the things I wanted though. I mean, how dare my parents not get me a Playstation 2 like I asked for?! Right?
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, too. I almost got caught with drugs a couple of times in high school and eventually a rumor started going around, making its way to the school administration, that I was the go-to guy for certain illicit substances. I went to the principal and explained to her that I was not the drug dealer people said I was. It was a lie. She took my word for it.
A common occurrence when living in a small border community like Nogales is interacting with the U.S. Border Patrol, especially at the checkpoint on I-19 where you have to stop, they look into your car, maybe ask where you’re headed, and send you on your way. That is unless they think there’s something suspicious about you, or you fit a profile, in which case they send you into an inspection lane and commence to search you and your car inside and out. I’ve never been asked to pull into the inspection lane. Never once. I was asked to open the trunk of the car one time when I was 18, though.
I got out of the car, opened the trunk and let them look around.
“What are you doing with a bulletproof vest?” the agent asked me, curiously. He wasn’t angry, or suspicious. Just curious.
“What do you mean?” I asked surprised, and a little nervous. I looked down into the truck, and sure enough, there was a bulletproof vest laying there. Now, I mentioned before that my dad was law enforcement, and the car I was driving was his. So was the vest. “Oh! That’s gotta be my Dad’s. He works for Customs.”
“Alright. That makes sense. I thought for a second you might be one of those neo-Nazi terrorist guys,” he joked. That’s right—he joked. He didn’t say it with even a modicum of seriousness. He even chuckled.
I remember laughing nervously.
The agents closed the trunk, gave me a pat on the back, and sent me on my way. I, however, couldn’t get the interaction out of my head. For starters, I’d never been so insulted in my life. “…one of those neo-Nazi terrorist guys.”? How dare he presume that about me? Then I realized that even though he suspected that, even for a moment, he never heightened his guard on me. His hand never went to the ready position on his sidearm. He never backed up to maintain a safe distance from me. And then he even laughed and joked about it.
I’ve also been pulled over by the cops a few times over the years. Stupid stuff, really. Usually speeding. I had a pretty heavy foot before I became a dad. One of those times I was pulled over for speeding was driving home from a friend’s house around 1 a.m. I was still a little tipsy. (I acknowledge how insanely stupid and dangerous that was. I have not driven drunk since my very early 20’s.) I was going a little fast crossing the freeway overpass, and there just so happened to be a highway patrolman sitting right there on the other side.
He pulled out behind me and followed closely for about a mile before he finally turned on the lights and blipped his siren. I pulled off to the side of the road and waited. He approached slowly and ordered me to turn off the car. I complied. He came to the window and shined his light right in my eyes.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“I’m sorry, Officer. I honestly don’t.”
He explained to me that I had been going almost 20 MPH over the speed limit on the overpass. I vehemently disagreed with him. I maintained that there was no possible way I could have been going that fast. I assured him that I had checked my speedometer, so if I really was going as fast as he claimed, the car must not be reading my speed properly.
He wouldn’t back down, and neither would I.
“Have you been drinking tonight?” he finally asked, changing the subject.
“No sir. I was at a friend’s, but I don’t drink.” This was an obvious lie.
“Yeah, sure. Your eyes are pretty red, too. Have you been smoking weed?”
“No way. I don’t smoke weed or drink.” I said this with a completely straight face even though my car, and myself smelled like cigarette smoke. I probably smelled a little like booze, too.
“Yeah, that’s bullshit.”
“Could you step out of the car please?”
“Yeah, sure. What for?”
“We’re going to do a sobriety check.”
I got out of the car. He stepped back and flashed his light in my face. Then he had me go through the whole routine: standing on one leg, walking a straight line, touching my nose, etc. I passed with flying colors, thankfully. Then he had me get back in the car.
“Did you know you’re driving with expired plates?”
“What?!” I feigned shock. I knew my registration was overdue, but I didn’t want him to know I knew. “I had no idea!”
“Well, you are. I’m supposed to tow the car, but I’m going to cut you a break. I am taking your license plate though, and I’m writing you a ticket for speeding and driving with a lapsed registration.”
“Damn. Alright. Thank you for not towing the car.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I’m still giving you a ticket.”
“A ticket is better than getting the car towed.” I remember thinking.
He wrote me the ticket, removed my license plate, wished me a good night, and sent me on my way. Sure, I had to pay a pretty hefty fine, but at least my car wasn’t impounded, and he didn’t give me a DUI even though I’m pretty sure he knew I had been drinking. Better yet, at least I walked away at all. At least I wasn’t killed.
If you’re thinking to yourself right now “Of course you walked away. Of course you weren’t killed. It was a routine traffic stop. Why would you have been killed?” then you’re privileged, like me. You see, as much as so many of us refuse to admit, we are absolutely the beneficiaries of white privilege.
All three of the stories I just told you are examples of how I benefited from my white privilege. Please try, for a moment, to imagine what would happen to a Black person, or any person of color, in any of those three situations.
My school was 99% Latino, and there were kids all the time being accused of selling drugs, even though they weren’t. I was selling drugs, and even though I had to endure a few random backpack checks that school year, none of the staff seemed too concerned about it. At the Border Patrol checkpoint, when that agent saw the bulletproof vest, he thought for a second that I might be a far-right domestic terrorist, and he didn’t seem too concerned about that at all.
What if I was Brown or Black? Do you think he would have still reacted so casually? My routine traffic stop went shockingly well considering that I had been drinking, and was being somewhat difficult with the cop. Do you think he would have responded so calmly were I a young, twenty-something Black man? Maybe. Maybe not.
People are dying. Americans are dying. They aren’t dying because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time; they aren’t dying because they did something so horrible that they deserve to be shot while on a morning run, or asking for help after a car accident, or while sleeping in their own homes.
They aren’t dying just because they’re people. They are dying because they are Black people.
For the love of all that is good and decent, please just say “Black Lives Matter.” Say it at least once. Say it to yourself when you’re alone or to a friend or family member. Say it on Facebook or Twitter. Say it because it’s true. I know you know it’s true because you keep saying that “All Lives Matter” and if all lives matter then Black Lives Matter too, right? So just say it. It’s not “Black lives matter more than white lives” or “Black lives matter most, so we should let them enslave us for centuries, so we know how it feels.”
It’s just “Black Lives Matter.” Period.
If almost every week you saw someone with the same color skin as you beaten, brutalized, even killed with no trial, no jury, no due process, wouldn’t it feel like the system valued your life, your sons’ lives, your daughters’ lives, less than everyone else’s? Wouldn’t you want to scream at the top of your lungs “MY LIFE MATTERS!” Wouldn’t you want to hear someone else say it? Wouldn’t it mean more than anything in the world to hear someone else tell you that your life does indeed matter, and that together we can work to make sure that once and for all, all lives really do matter equally?
I acknowledge the privilege I have been dealt. It doesn’t mean I hate white people or that I hate myself for being white. It’s not a bad thing to acknowledge our privilege. Acknowledging our privilege doesn’t mean that we’ve been horrible racists our entire lives, or that we caused these problems. It’s not saying that our lives have been smooth sailing, either, or that everything was handed to us on a silver platter. It’s also not a bad thing to admit that not only are there people who lack the privilege that we do, but that those people are actively pushed down by a system designed to severely limit their opportunity.
Please take a moment, an hour, a day if you have to, but look back at your life. Look for moments where life dealt you a poor hand. Then imagine, really imagine, how it would have turned out if you were Black, or Brown, or any other color on the spectrum than white. When you finally see the privilege, please acknowledge it.
“We cannot fix a problem if we do not identify where the problem comes from.” — Alicia Garza
Joseph Paul Wright is a freelancer journalist based in Nogales, Arizona. He tweets from @joewrightwrites.