Like many horrified readers, I’ve been following the news of the murder of Trayvon Martin this week, waiting for more information, waiting to see if his case will even be tried. His killer, George Zimmerman, has yet to be arrested, protected by a seven year-old Florida law called “Stand Your Ground,” which was enacted after hurricane lootings and which essentially promotes vigilante justice. No matter how the legal system deals with Zimmerman, if at all, Trayvon Martin—like Amadou Diallo before him—will never be able to tell his side of the story.
Those of us who choke back tears on sight of Trayvon’s picture do so with one thought echoing in our heads: What if it had been me. Except there is a system in place that makes many of us edit that thought into What if it had been my little brother or What if it had been my best friend because we are automatically less vulnerable, because we are not men and/or we are not black. That’s what privilege is. And it tastes terrible to anyone with a conscience.
While the extent to which Trayvon’s killer was willing to pursue an unarmed boy may be exceptional, his prejudice against the boy is anything but. White privilege does not only give most white people in North America, Oceania and Europe the benefit of the doubt, but it frees us of the burdens of having to represent our race with every step we take in public. In public we are judged as individuals, not examples.
Of course younger people will always be eyed with more suspicion of violence than older people, but finding oneself at the intersection of youth, maleness and black ethnicity automatically attracts such suspicion like nothing else. Unlike President Obama, I’ve never once been followed by security guards simply upon entering a shopping center. Unlike a friend from Côte d’Ivoire, I can go on vacation anywhere in Europe, even though I’m not a European citizen. I take these freedoms so much for granted that I view them as basic rights, but since they are only accorded to some citizens, they are privileges.
In this NPR article, Corey Dade talks about advice his parents gave him as a young man built on their experience of being black in public in the United States. Cynicism would consider it just another set of privileges to add my list, but it’s been a while since I’ve read anything so humbling. I’ve never once worried about police officers surrounding my parents’ house after I went out to retrieve something from the car. I’ve never had to. That others do makes me lucky. In the coldest sense of the word.