My son’s dentist’s office looks as if it were designed by one of those celebrated television interior designers: a professional mural that covers the entire office from carpet to ceiling transports you deep into the ocean with schools of various fish, octopi, corals, and crustaceans. There are T.V. screens continuously running kids’ movies. We’ve been going there since they were little and I took my now 14-year-old son one recent morning to get a filling prior to school.
Shortly after our arrival, a White man, who appeared to be in his late 50s, wearing a hounds-tooth blazer, khakis and oxford shirt, opened the office door and stood there trying to coax a child in. “Come on, Daniel,” he jovially pleaded repeatedly. Eventually, an adorable little boy with chestnut curls atop his round face came in and stood Velcro-ed to his father’s leg. The man loudly announced their arrival to the 3 receptionists and started walking towards the seating area, where my son and I were waiting. When he reached me, the father extended his hand to shake mine, “Hi, I’m Ed, he smiled.” I shook his hand and introduced myself; although I found this entire exchange odd (I rarely talk to, much less introduce myself to people in the dentist’s office.
Ed seemed like a man who was on his second marriage, at a point in his career when he could give this child all the time that he didn’t give his first batch, and being at the dentist office with his son was exciting to him. While his enthusiasm was a bit unusual; it was genuine and charming.
But, then it wasn’t.
“Daniel, look at his hair,” Ed directed pointing to my son’s twists. “Look, son. Do you see? Isn’t that cool? Isn’t his hair neat?”
My son, dressed in a gray sweatsuit, smiled sheepishly, instinctively started fiddling with one of the twists at the front of his head and mumbled, “thanks.”
I, automatically started with my Blackculation (when Black people calculate if they are being treated differently or offensively in small interactions with other races; and then determining what their plan of action should be if they are). I thought, “He’s not an animal in the zoo. How would you feel if I pointed to your hair and said, ‘Evan, look at this hair? See how it just lays there. Look at it.’ How would you feel? But, on the other hand, Ed seems so nice. He thinks Evan’s hair is cool. He trying to show how he appreciates Evan’s hair—though it is different from his own.”
I smiled and said nothing to Ed. And my Blackulation came up with the same result as it frequently does: Well-meaning White person + Cultural ignorance = micro-aggression. I don’t believe that Ed meant to be offensive; but as a White male in America he has never had to learn how to communicate effectively and inclusively, with people different from him. On the contrary, the world has had to learn how to communicate with him to succeed. Ed’s behavior wasn’t due to bad intentions; but rather due to White privilege.
Similarly, White privilege caused me and my two friends to pause from our constant chatting at a local restaurant that boasts large windows and magnificent views of the San Francisco Bay. We were sitting in the bar / lounge area having cocktails and appetizers along with approximately 20 other tables of adults. A couple with a 2 year-old, 3 year old, and a dog took a table in the bar instead of sitting in the restaurant like other families. The kids were doing what kids do: screeching, talking too loudly and running around. We were annoyed. This couple didn’t care that most adults sit in bars purposely to destress, to talk to their friends freely (about adult things and sometimes with curse words), and to be away from their own kids. We sure as hell don’t want to be around anyone else’s. This couple didn’t care about how other people felt about dogs, or more particularly, dogs around our food. It was the epitome of privilege. Their desires not only superseded the other 40 people in the bar; I don’t think that they considered anyone else’s desires. I don’t think their behavior was mean-spirited; but came from a place where they’ve never had their presence questioned or not welcomed. Black people unconsciously wonder if their presence will be welcomed, if the service they receive will be fair; and oftentimes do things, such as dress very nice, ask friends if the place is welcoming, or ensure that they behave appropriately, to increase their chances of being welcomed.
Being welcomed is something that many Black people must consider even in their own neighborhoods. I was just talking with two Black men this weekend. One says, that although it’s chilly now, he never wears his hoodie up when he runs in the morning. The other said that he always wears one of 3 college sweatshirts that are identical so that people quickly recognize him and know that he is that same Black man who jogs around the neighborhood a few times a week. Similarly, I wouldn’t let my son go door-to-door to do fundraising for his high school’s basketball team because weekly our online neighborhood watch has messages from neighbors who have called the police on people who looked as if they didn’t belong in our neighborhood (in other words, people of color). I was nervous of what would happen if my 6’2, broad shouldered Black child showed up at some of these people’s doorsteps one evening? Daily, Black people must think about how to operate, simply because they are Black. Unconsciously a Black man or woman is always thinking – not about who they genuinely are – but rather who others perceive them to be.
Sometimes, we Black folks, tired from doing all we must to to survive, are irritated at the contrasting freedom. White people (regardless of socio-economics or education) generally do not have to consider these things. This fact doesn’t make them bad; yet it does make them privileged.