It was a late Sunday afternoon, business were closing, and I was lost in an unfamiliar region of New Jersey. My smartphone had gotten wet. A wet smartphone is a blindsiding catastrophe for an unprepared, GPS-dependent millennial with no paper map in the car. (I have since bought a map.) While driving up and down the same highway asking directions from various locals, I discovered, for neither the first time nor the last, that when you are young, white, female, wearing name-brand clothing, driving a well-maintained Toyota Prius, and sound slightly desperate, people are very nice to you.
As the sun set and my gas tank ran low — with no GPS I couldn’t find an open gas station — I considered options. Could I knock on a stranger’s door? If I did, would they help me or turn me away? Would they call the police? Should I ask them to? Would the police help or make my life harder?
Unpacking an Afternoon
These questions all have easy answers. The last in particular seems to me almost ludicrous – of course I can trust the police in this situation. But if I were not white, these answers might be very different. If I were black, could the afternoon’s inconvenience of being twenty miles away from familiar territory become a real disaster?
These outwardly visible characteristics — whiteness, affluence, etc — tell stories about me which, in addition to being true, make the prospect of helping me attractive:
- My problem is tangible, uncomplicated, and relatable: I am lost, and I need to get home.
- I have plenty of safety nets, friends who can pick up the slack of helping me once I contact them, and a plastic-accessible emergency fund, so helping me is probably convenient and cheap for the stranger.
- I am not typically dependent on strangers, so whoever helps me will be unique, remembered as having singularly fixed my problem, and not one of many suckers.
- I am not homeless, a panhandler, or an addict, so helping me is morally unambiguous and there is no danger of “enabling me.”
- I am nonthreatening – I have not needed help for long enough to be truly desperate, dishonest, or violent, and even if I were, I am not capable of causing much immediate damage.
- My friends include society itself — cops, the media, a legal system with which I well equipped to cooperate, and a municipal bureaucracy that will probably find me sympathetic. (My demographics are the most threatening thing about me.)
- I expect, and am accustomed to receiving, cooperation from strangers — and as infuriating as it may sound, people generally do what is expected of them.
Admitting You Have a Problem Is the First Step
It is uncomfortable to realize that these characteristics and stories are my most valuable assets. As an American I don’t like feeling supremely dependent on things I haven’t eared, be it kindness from strangers or even worse, random chance. But checking privilege is a crucial step in the fight against racism. We cannot fix a situation that we refuse to acknowledge.
Another crucial element of antiracism is the willingness to release this demographic privilege. If I could push a button and become instantaneously black (or otherwise not white — I focus on the black experience here because of its unique consistency throughout American history) how quickly would my safety nets unravel? Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten home at all that Sunday night. Imagine a different button, one that negates my white privilege by changing society instead my skin color. How many new social survival skills would I need to learn? Can I survive in a society that doesn’t reward whiteness?
My small catastrophe was cut short by some kindly (white) firemen. I parked in the firehouse lot, smiled, asked for help, and they gave me a printed MapQuest guide and a bottle of Poland Springs and sent me on my way. The interaction was simple. They were municipal volunteers, and I was familiar, sympathetic. I was a colleague, or a niece, or a character on their favorite TV show. I cannot know which of my demographic characteristics worked the most magic that day. But this ignorance of exactly how my various privileges interact with each other makes them even easier to ignore.