Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My White Privilege Story

Human Rights Day 2014 #Rights365

Today is "International Human Rights Day 2014," a day which "commemorates the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaiming its principles as the 'common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.'" It's an international day, but it's quite clear that while we Americans regularly like to point out the human rights failings of other nations, we have some work to do to live up to these standards as well.

What do I know about it? I'm an educated, middle-aged, white guy, and have benefited from the same society and system that failed to grant justice in the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many more. It's not something I asked for, or purposefully or even consciously participated in bringing about, but I have benefited from it all the same.

Here's one little story of white privilege: I was about 19 at the time, and the car I was driving was a beat-up 1969 Pontiac station wagon. Where it had paint, it was primer gray. Quite out of place in the middle-class Los Angeles suburb where I resided.

One morning, on my way to work, I ran a stop sign. "Ran" -- actually, it was more of what we call a "California stop," where you slow down, check both ways, and roll through without actually stopping. A policeman pulled out behind me and pulled me over. He informed me about the stop sign and asked to check out my ID and registration.

Once my ID (with an address about a mile or two from the intersection) checked out, he asked me, "What do you think we should do about this?"

Being a smart-ass 19-year-old, I said, "Let me off with a stern warning?"

He handed me back my ID and said, "Don't let it happen again." He then returned to his vehicle and drove off.

White Privilege. Had I not "belonged" in the neighborhood, that transaction would not have gone so well. Had I not "fit in," a traffic ticket would have been the least of my concerns.

The pay-off there was obvious, and the contrast to current cases is clear. It's not always so obvious and clear. Walking through stores on a day when I didn't bother to shave and am wearing old, torn jeans, but still get excellent service instead of being followed and scrutinized. Middle-aged white guy privilege.

Of course, I am missing one crucial ingredient for full privilege: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Christian. I've experienced anti-Semitism first-hand, too.

Perhaps my worst story of anti-Semitism effecting me: I was about 21 and working in a real estate office. One of the saleswomen got off a contentious phone call with a client and started screaming about the "fucking cheap kike."

I took exception to her choice of language, and told her so. What word should she use, she wanted to know? I suggested that clients behavior had to do with them being an asshole, not a Jew. Now, I was in trouble.

While she got away with using the anti-Semitic slur, "kike," as well as several choice curse words, I was to be disciplined for saying, "asshole." Needless to say, I didn't work there much longer.

There have been other, more minor, examples, but generally speaking, in my life experience, being a white guy has gained me far more than being "the wrong religion" has hurt me.

Protestor blocks traffic
So, yes, when activists, advocates, and protesters point out the use of excessive deadly force and its racial overtones, I get it.

"But they were thugs!" Michael Brown did not "rob a convenience store." He and the owner had a nasty dispute over about $1.50 worth of cigarillos, and yes, it turned to pushing, but not there was no robbery. And really don't think that $1.50 worth of smokes is a capital crime.

Eric Garner's crime of selling loose cigarettes is hardly worthy of a banned strangle-hold and death either. If Garner had created an iPhone app to match holders of extra cigarettes with people who wanted to purchase one, he'd be hailed for innovatively disrupting the tobacco market and be handed $40 million in venture capital.

"But nobody raises such a stink when white guys get shot by the police!" Well, actually they do. If you pay attention there's plenty of protest about the over-militarization of the police and the abuse of excessive force overall. But within that broader problem there is also the inescapable fact that young black man is twenty times more likely to be shot and killed in a dispute with the police than a young white man.

Black lives matter. (Yes, all lives matter, but not all people rightly feel like a walking target at this time). And, personally, I can't see any attempt to justify the killings of Brown or Garner as anything other than justification of a racist system and the perpetuation of Christian, white, male privilege.

Still don't get what's happening here? How about a few lines from William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene I, Merchant of Venice:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Shylock did not appeal to his oppressors to raise them to higher level of caring. He eloquently explained why he chose to sink to their level of evil. Had he sought his pound of flesh without this speech, the audience would have no sympathy. He's still the evil Jew in the play, but he's a humanized evil Jew, thanks to his eloquence.

I hesitate to condone some of the more extreme violence of some of the current protests, but I get the motivation. Unfortunately, I fear, it allows those who just don't what's going on to dismiss it all as, "I told you they were thugs."

Sympathizing with Shylock's demand for a pound of Antonio's flesh doesn't quell our revulsion at possibly having to watch it cut out live on stage, or our relief when a less bloody resolution is found.

But I would say that. I'm a white guy.

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