During these times and what is happening in our country, there is an opportunity to look deep within and face the things we want to change in ourselves and around us.
I think about things a lot. Not “meaning of life” things or “current events” things. More like a random loop of moments and happenings from my past, all the way back as far as the memory can take me. Some make me smile, some make me wince. Some make me smile at first, and then the more I think about them, I wince.
Recently, the topic of racial justice and the effect of white privilege has taken the form of one of those memories in the loop. This subject is starting to feel like it is punching me in the face on a regular basis.
I used to feel secure with my stance on race and social equality, pointing proudly at a life lived on the “right” side of these issues. Not thinking of myself as one of those “fortunate ones born into white privilege,” but rather that I’d “earned things the hard way.” When reflecting on a five-decade body of work advocating for racial equality, I’d smile with pride.
But, I’ll be damned if today’s raging debate isn’t making me wince. I find myself replaying certain events from my past and having to come to terms with the reality that perhaps they weren’t quite the clear-cut examples anointing me a champion of social justice that I’d believed them to be at the time.
I was thinking about this the other morning while driving on the freeway. I passed an SUV driven by an African American man, and from the looks of it, he was taking his family for a day at the beach. I glanced at my speedometer and noticed I had inadvertently reached 80 mph.
Murphy’s Law of the Road ensures such realisations occur exactly as the driver sails by a state trooper. And there, right on cue, checking traffic by radar at the side of the road, was a law enforcement officer.
I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach as I applied the brakes. I eyed my rearview to see if the police car pulled out to follow me. Uncomfortable thoughts—the traffic stop, the ticket, the points on the license—raced through my mind.
The officer didn’t pursue, and I breathed a little easier having avoided a speeding ticket. I put my blinker on and eased into the lane in front of the Black family’s SUV, and as I did, I realised that I’ll never understand how that family (and literally millions of families like them) must feel every time they go through the exact same set of circumstances that I just had.
What goes through their minds when they see a police car coming up behind them, lights flashing, preparing to pull them over? The man had young children in the car. How hard must it be for him to have to explain to his children that such a routine traffic stop can mean extreme danger to them simply because of their skin colour?
For that family, it isn’t about tickets and points, it’s about life and death. I hope I never know that feeling.
For that family, it isn’t about tickets and points, it’s about life and death. I don’t know that feeling.
With that small awakening, the whole concept of white privilege was reframed for me. It has nothing to do with the wealth one may or may not have been born into. It has everything to do with the whiteness.
The point here, is that guys like me—white males, over fifty, secure in our employment and our 401(k)’s—are being forced to confront such truths for the first time in our lives.
This has taken me further back in my personal timeline, ten to fifteen years ago.
I’m in a board room on the 42nd floor of the World Financial Center with about a dozen co-workers. I was the senior person in the room, and the meeting is to brief me on some topic we must have considered important at the time.
The presenters were two women, one African American and one white. They did an excellent job, and the meeting concluded successfully. As we got up to leave, I made a point to personally seek them out, to tell them what a nice job they’d done. They smiled graciously and seemed to appreciate that I took the time to extend the courtesy.
I felt good returning to my office, feeling as though I’d taken an extra step that a lot of the other white guys didn’t regularly do—offering a thank you for their hard work.
A memory to smile about, right?
Right, until I took a deeper dive into the memory pool. Thinking back, I remember a moment during that presentation. I’d reemphasised one of the points made by one of the women, restating why I felt it was so important to our broader discussion. I recognised the white presenter for her keen insight in having raised the issue.
Again, a nice touch to demonstrate to the group that important ideas can come from any of us at the table, young or old, male or female, senior or junior. But now I recall how the African American presenter had shot me an odd look. It was just for a second, and then she’d looked away. I took note of it at the time, but moved on, not realising what caused her reaction.
Sitting with my coffee this morning, it hit me. She made that face because she had been the one to raise the important point. And I had complimented the white woman. In a group setting.
Such an error is a textbook example of racial discrimination in the workplace. How could I have been so oblivious?
This happened years ago. I wonder how many times that African American woman had encountered such dismissal in the workplace prior to that day? And how many times since? I wonder if she went home and told the story of how it had happened, yet again, to her parents? Or her husband? How that might have felt to her?
And I thought I was one of the “good guys.”
Guys like me—white males, over fifty, secure in our employment and our 401(k)’s—are being forced to confront such truths for the first time in our lives.
I wonder why no one in the room had interrupted me to correct my error? Because I was the senior white guy in the room, that’s why. And so, along with my morning coffee came a bitter dose of what systemic racism really means.
Let me assure you, my life was far more peaceful and content when I never had to question these uncomfortable truths about myself and society at large.
For over five decades this “good guy” has played with, worked with, worked for, hired, fired, befriended, argued with, competed against, celebrated with, mourned alongside, and embraced people of colour. And to this day, I’m proud this is part of who I am. Something I can point to about my upbringing that my parents got right.
But, again, none of that is what today’s dialogue around racial inequality is challenging.
Because all of those important memories of mine may be completely accurate, yet it still doesn’t mean I haven’t inherently benefited from white privilege every step of the way. And what I never appropriately grasped, until recently, is that my personal history will never mean I understand.
I then dig a little deeper.
I’ve repeatedly rolled my eyes in disdain when I hear some white guy claim innocence on the topic of racism by saying something akin to “some of my best friends are black.”
And I’ve patted myself on the back as someone who has always abhorred the “N-word” and raised children who believe it to be among the worst, if not the worst, profanities in the English language. But (and I hate like hell to admit this) I’ve spoken up far too rarely when in the company of someone who has used such hateful language.
I’m not going to waste my breath on that asshole, was too often my rationale (excuse?) for walking away instead of confronting such demonstrations of racism head-on.
I wince again.
Because I felt, as a self-declared member of the “good guys,” I was somehow given a pass from all hard conversations concerning racism. I am not part of the problem, so I need not engage.
The truth is that such inaction made me the equivalent of the valedictorian of race-relations summer school. A bystander when it came to the fight for equality and level playing fields for minorities and women.
Now, I’m forced to reexamine an aspect of my life that, up until very recently, I took great pride in. And it’s left me feeling empty. Feeling as though I’ve missed so many opportunities. Opportunities to create the right dialogue and promote real progress, not just lip service and sound bites.
It’s taken the cold shower of finding myself (and those who occupy the same societal demographic I do) the object of scorn and derision—ironically because of my skin colour, age, and gender—to turn the focus inwards. To try to determine how I might reshape this part of who I aspire to be and contribute to answers instead of ignoring the issue because I’ve determined my hands to be clean.
I wish I could wrap this up in a nice little bow here and list the actions I’ve begun taking to right my personal ship when it comes to racism, white privilege, and social justice. But I’m not there yet. Not close, really.
You can’t find a solution until you’ve admitted there is a problem. So, I’m admitting it.
You can’t find a solution until you’ve admitted there is a problem. So, I’m admitting it.
I may be naïve, but I believe there are other folks, that look like I do, who have reached similar, painful conclusions over these last weeks and months. I hope I’m right in believing that others are reevaluating too, otherwise it might feel like all of this will have been for nought.
And by “this,” I’m referring to the tragic, senseless bloodshed of so many people of colour.
And by “this,” I’m thinking about the rioting, the destruction, and the violence in the streets of so many beautiful, progressive cities across our country.
And by “this,” I’m including those whose lives have been taken—Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean—and so many more. Names that before this year had been under-reported or dismissed.
It was easier for me when I didn’t know the names so well. When they weren’t a part of NBA press conferences, or in the screaming headlines of social media posts decrying racism in our country. Such examples may seem superficial at first glance, but they’ve aided in ensuring that such atrocities can no longer be ignored.
In the end, I just want it to stop. To end. For things to go back to “normal.”
But there’s something else I’ve learned over these last several months of social unrest—my “normal” is no longer okay or acceptable. And it never should have been.
I used to keep a quote taped to my cubicle wall when I first started out in the workplace.
“To get to the next level, you must embrace discomfort.”
The smiling has stopped. It’s time for me to accept that, when I wince, it’s an opportunity to embrace the discomfort of standing up for real change in our society. Systemic racism is wrong and always has been. It’s time for me to start doing my part to effect real change.