How I Understand Privilege

‘I wish I was black.’ 

I was probably 12 years old or so when I said this and I was 100% sincere. In that moment, looking out the window as the rural landscape of western New York flew past, barely undulating and never ending I couldn’t have been more sincere. 

My life was basketball and I was a Piston’s fan, Isaiah Thomas was my all time favorite player. Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ was my first record. And I mean vinyl. Might have been my last as well. Tapes were on their way. All the guys I watched on the playgrounds and at the college, whose games I emulated and whose styles I mimicked were all black guys. I was into early rap through my older brothers. We had cardboard taped to the floor in the basement and we spent hours a day working on all the moves we could remember from ‘Breakin’. I’m not sure I could ever windmill but I could do everything else. I was a badass little pop and locker. I remember someone getting a hold of a tape of Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious’ and hearing it and thinking I’d just heard the coolest and damn near funniest thing ever. ‘Gooney goo goo’ had me rolling, and for the life of me now I can’t remember what the joke was to that punchline. Whatever, his stories were so clearly real and it felt like a sneak peak into a life that I was fascinated by. A life I could only imagine. A life I couldn’t stop imagining. 

The appeal was made only stronger by the sense that they were fighting a battle I couldn’t really fight. My team, the one I was on not by choice, was the opposition. The ‘man’ and I didn’t want to be ‘the man.’ I wanted to be cool. Black people, to me at 12, were cool. I can’t remember which comedian I heard more recently who said, and I’m most certainly paraphrasing here, ‘God knew that black people would have to endure countless and endless suffering and to make up for it he gave us a lifetime supply of ‘cool.’ It’s kind of a joke and kind of a sad statement of the reality of what a lot of people have to face and how a certain number choose to counter the reality that won’t seem to change for the better without changing doubly for the worse at times. But at 12, for me, it wasn’t so nuanced. 

Beyond that I had a couple of role models in the house, older brothers who were the guys I looked up to most. I had two other brothers, actual brothers of mine, born of the same parents and all, and I looked up to them like crazy, but for some reason, perhaps my aforementioned affinities, I was drawn to my brothers who were ‘brothers.’ 

Eventually after processing what I’d said my father replied to my non sequitir calmly and wisely.

‘You probably shouldn’t tell anyone that. It’s okay for you to feel that, for now, but you should probably keep that to yourself.’ 

‘Why?’ I asked. 

To my mind it could only be taken as an honor, right? I mean I was saying I envied blackness. How could that be wrong? 

A thousand ways. Trust me, it didn’t take long for me to see that after enunciating my most sincere wish. 

‘Well…’ My dad thought. How do you tell your 12 year old that they are being so ignorant of life’s realities in a moment when they are trying, sincerely, to understand people different from them. 

‘I don’t think you are thinking about this, but it could come off to some people like you are not really appreciating all that you have been given. Might seem a little unaware of all that black people have had to go through.’ My dad said.

My dad’s not a ‘race’ guy. The issues confronting his own ‘kids’ would be dealt with when they would come up, but it was largely not a thing he thought about. He’s often surprised by how much I will think about race and the unfairness I’ve seen as I’ve grown up and watched. I’ll remind him, it would be hard for him to have my perspective, he didn’t really grow up in an environment like the one I did. He didn’t grow up in an integrated home within a largely homogenously white community. He didn’t see all the dads who’d go out of there way to drop the ‘n-word’ in front of me, just to, I don’t know, check if I was cool with it? Remind me that they thought my brothers less for it? Just to shock me? Maybe they were like that all the time, I don’t know, but from my house growing up it was the single most hateful sounding word ever. When I was a kid it was just barely starting to be reappropreated by black culture and these grown men weren’t aware of that. It was the ugliest of usages of the ugliest word. 

That day my dad stopped me cold. For him he was just responding to a sensitive issue, trying to steer me clear of saying something so wrong, but what he did was get me thinking. I knew instantly what he meant and it started me on a train of thought that has been a thread through my life. It didn’t change my heart in that moment, but it changed my head. Eventually my heart caught up and I came to understand how truly wrong my wish was. 

I’m still learning to understand my great good fortune. I’m so thankful I said that to my dad. So thankful that he answered the way he did. Through the years and phases of my life I’ve seen how it’s made me see things, things that are now so obvious to me that are so hidden from so many white men. About how much is taken for granted. 

When I was in high school and we were all sitting in suburban living rooms drinking forties of O.E. with our shoes off and watching Boys in the Hood and playing out fantasies that were others nightmares I knew the privilege. When we aped the style and patois of emerging disaffected young men who society rejected before they even arrived we were drowning in entitlement and dismissing and glorifying that which was exotic to us young men who would never have to face it. I recognized it, many of us did, for what it was not long after. 

When I was in college and heard truly vile hate speech being bandied about by the future executives of the world I was disgusted. The truth was there weren’t too many of them that did it, it was the tolerating of it all and the occasional sick deep indulgence of it all. I remember my mother, sitting at our kitchen table on a summer evening when I was home from school after my sophomore year telling me to love the people I loved for their good qualities and stick around to try to influence them positively when it came to the ugly parts. I don’t know. I didn’t really do that all that well there. Made some friends but I still have a lot of bitterness too. 

What I know is that ‘wishing I was black’ while sincere, was a privilege. It was a child’s understanding and I hope it came from a place of empathy and a desire to connect with and understand other people and their experiences. But it was definitely a privilege. The reality is that if a 12 or 15 or 28 or 45 year old black person were to ‘wish they were white’ it likely wouldn’t be from the same place of privilege as my wish came from. It likely woudn’t be naive. In fact I suspect it would come from a place of far deeper understanding than I may ever know. 

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “How I Understand Privilege

  1. JaDonnia B.

    Interesting accounting of memories of your introduction and recognized kinship with the ‘brothers’. But, unfortunately, most in your position and with your background are unable to see or come to grips with the realism of a ‘universal’ kinship that we all share-more similarities than differences. The differences lie in the life experiences and historical references, as well as access and opportunity to frame life experiences. Remarkably, the brothers possess the resilience, that you identify as ‘cool’ to make their own unique mark upon the world and add ‘color’ to it[no pun intended].
    Privilege is a real construct that many find hard to recognize, and therefore overlook or otherwise dismiss as an affordability to all others. This is how denouncing and blaming, and reinforced stereotypes persist in the consciousness of the dominant culture. Until perspectives are broadened, empathy is acquired, and implicit bias is challenged, the lens out of which ‘brothers and sisters are perceived will continue to be clouded.
    Your memories include Eddie and mine included Richard Pryor, et al. Once again, the beauty of people of color is their amazing creativity with language and the arts. Amazing, indeed! You can see that you have touched an area that elicits deeply felt, and greatly pondered thoughts from myself. Yes, food for thought and the polarity of the human condition collide to contribute to the discovery of the richness of culture and awakens the soul. Love this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. joejmedler Post author

      THank you so much… The universality that you speak of is hard to ignore when you share the same space, eat at the same times and in the same places and share the experiences of youth. I so wish there was more of that. I wish that we all sat around the same table everyday and were privy to one another’s dreams and disappointments and shared experiences. The sad reality that we are different is a reality only because of insistence. The similarities are so glaringly obvious once you are able to see past the tiny shred of difference, a shred of difference that may not be anything more than inherited foolishness cloaked in wisdom.
      Thank you for reading and your very thoughtful insights.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. JaDonnia B.

        That closeness in proximity is less frequent these days, with the level of segregation at public schools. If it weren’t for music, and the internet, those precious insights we can gain into one another, and forums such as this, we would be unaware of the ties that bind and connect us to each other. There is much more power and beauty and strength in the diversity we share as humans and we have to embrace our mosaic on a global and local level. We must do this for the children and for a better, brighter future.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. brickhousechick

    Another great story! Thanks so much for sharing this. My husband was the same way, his best friends were black, his favorite music and artists were black and he thought nothing of it. You were very fortunate in your upbringing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. joejmedler Post author

      Thank you so much for reading this. It’s a strangely hard topic to express feelings on since the experience while not unique, is certainly not universal or even the norm. The sensitivities around race make it really hard to discuss and that’s a shame. It leaves so many out of the conversation and that can’t be good.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  3. Lizzi

    This is really, really awesome. I love your thoughts and introspection and the way you wove the tale through your life as your awareness grew. Good for your dad, and good for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Fatherhood On Friday: Hitting the road, making the turn

  5. Pingback: Fatherhood On Friday: Hitting the road, making the turn | Dad 2.0 Summit

Thanks for reading... I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s