The Privilege of Assumption
By Stephen Tuttle | June 13, 2020
George Floyd's grotesque killing wasn't the only reason for the explosion of anger. It was just the last spark on a fuse that's been burning a very long time.
We say we understand and we sympathize, then we focus on the small group lighting fires and looting. We call them names and point to the extremists involved on the left and the right. We observe, somewhat befuddled from the blissful homogeneity of northern Michigan, where race isn't much of an issue because there isn't much race. Traverse City is 93 percent white in a county that's 96 percent white in a region that's whiter still.
The reality is we white folks don't have a clue. We can't. No matter how supportive we claim to be, no matter how many marches and protests we attend, we'll never have a clue. It's not fair to claim all white folks are racists, but it is fair to suggest we're ignorant of the day-to-indignities of racism because we do not now, and never will, live them.
Yet, many of us recoil at the notion there is any such thing as “white privilege.” That reaction simply chooses to ignore the data. We are more likely to be hired, more likely to get a raise, more likely to be promoted, more likely to be offered management training, less likely to be pulled over for a minor traffic violation, less likely to be ticketed for a traffic violation ... it's a pretty long list of advantages we enjoy and disadvantages we avoid.
We see the videos of cops seemingly gone rogue, mostly in big cities, and wonder how such things happen. We turn our heads, secure in the knowledge the vast majority of law enforcement personnel do a fine job, which is true. It allows us to ignore the fact some entire departments have behaved so poorly toward minorities that they required Department of Justice intervention.
Even that is just part of it. It runs deeper still.
Imagine the police being called because you were trying to use the pool in the apartment complex where you live. Or you're refused the purchase of an expensive handbag because it was assumed your credit card is stolen. Or you're told to pay in advance at a restaurant because it is assumed you will eat and run. Or the police were called, accusing your college-aged daughter of trespassing because she was resting her head on a table in the common area of her own dorm. Or someone called the police and told them you were threatening her life because you asked her to leash their dog in a park requiring dogs to be leashed. Or you were followed by armed vigilantes while out for a jog.
Or that you were shopping, only to be shadowed by store employees assuming you're a shoplifter. Or you were hauled into a store's security office despite your having a receipt for every item. Or you were arrested and handcuffed for trying to get into your own home after you accidentally locked yourself out.
All of that has happened to African Americans in the recent past. Now imagine any of it happening to a white person.
That's the white privilege — the privilege of assumption — and we get it every single day.
It would be assumed that we belonged at that pool, that the credit card is ours, that we would pay for our meal, that our daughter belonged in that dorm, that we can ask someone to leash their dog, that we can jog most anywhere, that we're not shoplifters, and we'd be asked if we needed help if we locked ourselves out of the house.
The assumption that we are not lawbreakers, or dangerous, is part of our privilege. It's our normal, so how could we possibly understand anything else? We don't. And no matter how many platitudes we mouth about addressing the core issues or having a real dialogue, we'll do neither.
We don't understand, or aren't yet willing to acknowledge, the core issues, so we're hardly in a position to fix them. And another dialogue? Really? Please, no congressional hearings with white people reading cloying speeches written by some white staffer.
Police defunding or disbanding sound like overreactions with potentially unpleasant unintended consequences, a kind of we-have-to-do-something approach. Police reform legislation now percolating in the U.S. House will never get through the Senate or past President Trump's veto pen. The social programs now being suggested all start with a top-down mentality; we'll decide what's needed and who needs it.
We don't need a dialogue or hastily concocted reforms. What we need is a monologue —one where we do the listening. Just listening. Maybe if we can absorb even a little of the very real anguish, it would be a starting point from which we can then move forward.