Recently I was talking with a young woman when a man about my age joined our conversation. When he learned the young woman was a 21 year-old college student, he said: “Ah, to be free, white, and 21!” I cringed. The young woman was probably too young to know of that saying. I wasn’t. It was the declaration of privilege by which I came of age. It meant that if you were those three things, then nothing could stop you. You had it made. You had all the privilege one needed in America.
Now the man who said this was well-educated, clearly a professional, and should’ve been aware of the import of his words. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, just assuming he was trying nervously to break the ice of our conversation. Words, however, have power. By repeating a saying of our common, racist past, he was unwittingly (I hope he was) perpetuating the sinful assumptions of one race’s privilege over another. It seems our racist past isn’t past. It’s still playing in our brain’s recording studio, occasionally spilling out when the mute button isn’t functioning right.
When he left I had to explain to the young woman the context and background of that old saying. She looked at me as if I were an anthropologist explaining the odd cultural practices of an obscure tribe from a distant land. And maybe that’s a good metaphor. My white tribe in this culture has assumed our privileges without realizing them. When my two sons were teenagers, I never had to talk to them about how to appease the police when walking down the street or driving a car. It never would’ve occurred to me then to think that I might have to do so. Not so with black fathers.
My oldest son got arrested for “stealing” two donuts from a grocery store when he was 18 years old. He’d gone to the store with his best friend, Jose, to shop for our family. While in the store, they did as we had done when they were children. They got two donuts out of the display case and ate them, intending to pay for the consumed donuts when they checked out, as we did when they were youngsters. They bought our groceries with our debit card, but forgot to pay for the two donuts. Security guards detained them as they left the store and the police arrived within minutes. My son, God love him, got a little mouthy and testy with the police claiming it was clearly his mistake: He simply forgot about the two donuts. After all, he’d just bought over $90 in groceries, so he’d pay for the two donuts now. The store manager would have none of it. The police arrested them. If his friend hadn’t looked like a “Jose,” my hunch is his white privilege would’ve been enough. They never would’ve been monitored as potential thieves while they walked the aisles of the grocery store that day.
And that brings us to Michael Brown’s horrific death in Missouri, which has dominated the recent news. The box of cigars he carried could’ve been two donuts. And maybe Michael Brown got a little mouthy and testy with the police officer? Or maybe he didn’t? But six bullets later he was dead in the street. Six bullets! Count each pull of the trigger. My son just celebrated his 27th birthday. I wonder if Michael Brown had been “free, white, and 21,” would he still be alive today? Our racial history says that’s highly likely.