You can’t walk the streets of San Francisco without walking by a multitude of homeless people. They are as ubiquitous as the assorted businesses that anchor either side of the street and the trolleys that roll up and down the hills. Some quietly hold signs asking for help; others loudly insist and persist. The young men and women make you wonder about mothers somewhere with broken hearts; and the elderly make you worry if they are getting the healthcare that they need. I want to know their stories. I want to ask, “Why?” How? What happened to get you here.” “Who is missing you?” But I don’t. Sometimes, I speak. Sometimes, I give. Sometimes, I don’t even make eye contact. All of the time, I feel guilty.
I look away because I feel guilty; then I feel guilty for looking away.
Whatever the day, I am dressed in clothes that could buy the person a week’s worth of food. I may be picking my son up from his private school or could be leaving an expensive lunch or dinner with friends. I’ve probably taken a long shower that morning with a peppermint scented shower gel that I purchased at some upscale department store. I’m living a privileged life in the wake of so many being so broke, so broken. And no matter how much I volunteer, give to organizations, convince myself that I am a good-hearted person; I feel heavy with guilt—admittedly not for long – and not long enough; but for the brief exchange I am raw to their pain and defenseless against guilt.
I can make myself feel better if I tell myself that these brothers and sisters who are living on the streets caused their plight – they used drugs, are alcoholics, or had a gambling addiction. Honestly, there is a bit of reassurance when I’ve seen a homeless person, leaning on a worn, brick wall gulping from cheap bottle of booze or shooting up. “See, that’s why,” I tell myself.
I’ve chuckled at the homeless who display signs, “Need money for weed and booze.” “There is a reason for the state that they are in”, is what I think. “They are responsible for their condition” is how I soothe myself. It’s easier to think that way—well, it is for me.
So, I understand. I understand why White people rebuff the idea of White Privilege.
I don’t look honestly at a homeless person because of their baggage: filled grocery carts, dirty backpacks, or trash bags filled with cans and bottles; I don’t look at them because of my own baggage. At that moment, when our lives connect, I am immediately confronted by the stark differences between our situations. I am confronted with my own privilege and suddenly privilege (or at least the stark inequity) doesn’t so feel good. Poverty is ugly; homelessness is ugly; the reality behind how many people ended up living on the streets is ugly. Why them and not me? Am I more deserving? It’s unsettling to see.
Watching videos of Black men (and women) getting beaten and killed by the people we grew up to believe were our heroes in blue is at minimum unsettling. Many of us have believed since 3 years old, when we dressed up as a police officer for Halloween, when one came to visit our kindergarten class, that cops were the good guys and criminals were the bad guys. We depend on these certainties in life. They make life seem more manageable—controllable. We don’t want to believe differently, so it’s easier to justify that the murdered deserved what happened to him or to her: “He was a thug. He should not have been there, done what he did. The cops had to shoot him.” How else can we look at Michael Brown’s body laying in the middle of the street for 4 hours unless you somehow distance yourself from him being somebody’s 18 year-old child and make him a stereotype, a thing—almost like the movies (we don’t flinch when bad guys have brutal things done to them because they aren’t people; they represent evil).
We also want to believe that if we work hard and do right, we will be successful. Isn’t that the American dream? The face of the homeless makes us question if that ideal is possibly untrue. We want to believe that we all start at the same point, have equal opportunities, and that the most talented, persistent and hard-working are rewarded. It’s rewarding and ego-boosting to believe that our station is life is completely commensurate with our effort in life.
It’s easier to defiantly declare, “I worked hard for everything I’ve got. No one in this world is owed anything. They had as many opportunities as I did.” Comforting; but also untrue.
I was blessed enough to have parents who wanted me on this earth, who chose to have me. What about those who didn’t? I was raised by parents who sacrificed for me. What about those who didn’t? I was raised by parents who were sober, with no addictions. They gave me all I needed and were informed enough to help guide me to get whatever I wanted. For instance, I knew to take the SAT, to go to college. Someone guides us to these decisions and places. We aren’t born knowing them. What if you didn’t have that guide?
It’s easier for me to believe that people are homeless because they have made dumb decisions in life. Many of them have. I have too. But some had a life boat when the Titantic sank and some drowned. My mother was my life jacket daily; and my rescue raft when the waters got rough. I didn’t wait until marriage to have sex; I started drinking before it was legal; I shoplifted; I over-drafted my checking account; I snuck out; I tried weed; but I got lucky. I didn’t get caught. And the times that I did screw up, my mom was there to “fix it.” I was privileged. Some people didn’t have some one to rescue them when they fell overboard. I started off better in life than some people simply because of who my parents were.
I also started off better in life simply because of what my parents could give me financially: I was exposed to different parts of the world; I went to good schools; lived in a neighborhood where I didn’t have to worry about fighting every day on my walk home from school and I lived in a house that I could depend on the lights working so that I could do my homework. I ate at nice restaurants so when I went on job interviews that took place over lunch, I knew which fork to use. When I got a “D” in Algebra, my mother had the money to pay for me to get a tutor to improve my skills and pay for me to retake the class and replace the grade. I was privileged.
Does this mean that I didn’t stay up late nights studying? No. Does it mean that I am not qualified for the jobs that I have? No. Does this mean that I don’t deserve my degrees and successes? Absolutely not. It just means that I had a head start and my journey was easier than a lot of other peoples because of who came before me.
My dear White sisters and brothers, the same is true for you. Your ancestors used free labor for 300 years to accumulate great economic gain. Your race had a 250-year head start. Think about that—250 years. One race greatly benefitted from a situation and one greatly was damaged by it. You didn’t own slaves; nor did your parents or grandparents but all of you benefitted from it. That’s an undeniable fact. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t worked hard in your life personally; but it means that you started building from a different place with better materials. It means that the vast majority of Black people can’t say that a vase, silver or a piece of property has been in their family “for years.” Generational wealth is non-existent in the Black community. Instead of inheriting property, we were the property for 250 years. Consequently, while a college-educated White American has an average net worth of $75,000, a college-educated Black American has an average net worth of less than $17,500.
Though we are now post-slavery, we are not post-racial. It is fundamentally easier to be a White person in American than a Black person—hence privilege.
- A White person is 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as an equally qualified Black person.
- Black men make 72 cents for every dollar a White man makes
- A Black college student has the same chances of getting a job, as a White high school dropout.
And what about when we fall down? What about when we make mistakes in life. Making mistakes isn’t a Black thing or a White thing; it’s a human thing. The fact is that White people have an easier time of recovering.
- Blacks are less than 13% of our population and make up only 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses.
- Blacks are 3 times more likely to be stopped as whites; twice as likely to be arrested; and 4 times as likely to experience the threat or use of force during interactions with the police.
- Once arrested, blacks are more likely to remain in prison awaiting trial.
- Black people are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than Whites.
These startling statistics, but don’t even account for the daily inequities:
- Trying to catch a cab, when one won’t stop for you.
- You can turn on the television, read any magazine and see representations of yourself.
- You are rarely the “only” in any situation – not in a classroom, a board room or a social gathering.
But the point of talking about White Privilege isn’t guilt; it’s acknowledgment. Something powerful happens when people acknowledge another’s struggle. Guilt tears us down; acknowledgement build us up. Acknowledgement of the whole person, including their challenges, builds bridges.
When I walk down the San Francisco streets and I meet eyes with a man or woman who calls them home; I will smile and at least acknowledge them, let them know I see them, even though it’s tough to also see their struggle.