There is a glaring miscommunication happening right now between whites and blacks and it stems from an unclear definition of the term ‘White Privilege’.
Let’s be perfectly clear: if you are white, you have white privilege.
Now before you pale skins have a conniption and launch into a ten-minute speech about how hard you’ve had it and how, despite these difficulties, you’ve earned everything you’ve achieved and acquired, before you feel the need to tell me or the world how very not privileged your life has been, hear me out.
I’m white, so I have white privilege.
Having white privilege does not mean I have a privileged or easy life. Having white privilege does not mean I have a leisurely lifestyle that is free of hard work and filled with champagne and caviar. Having white privilege does not mean that I get things free of charge without deserving them or that my childhood was just dandy and my rich daddy gives me everything I ever need.
That’s not white privilege.
Having white privilege means that when a figure of authority confronts me, because my skin is white, I automatically get the benefit of the doubt.
White privilege means that when a cop or a security guard sees me, he assumes I am innocent until proven guilty.
Here’s one example of my white privilege.
After headlining a comedy show at an Austin club, I decided to check out the band I had met doing radio that morning. They were playing at a downtown club just a few miles away and I had my own car with me. I was excited because the band was fantastic and they had promised me a backstage pass. Plus, a hipster dude from the audience had slipped me some weed after my killer set, and I was anxious to fill my empty pipe, smoke up, and relax to some live music after a long day of travel and work.
The American dream.
The problem started when I spilled half of the ground up pot onto the floor in the back seat while trying to transfer it up to the front. I had parked my car in a lot by the music venue, so I used the light from a nearby pole to help illuminate my scattered bud. As I collected it onto a partially unfolded map, the light suddenly got intensely bright all around me, making my job of saving the weed a little easier.
That’s when it occurred to me that I was in big trouble.
Two fine officers of the Austin City Police Department were now in my business shining their powerful flashlights in my face, in my car, on my marijuana. I immediately sat up, put the weed-covered map down on my lap, and placed my hands on the steering wheel. An officer doing extra security duty at a club I worked in Cleveland had told me that if you get pulled over, make sure the cops can see your hands so they feel safer and less inclined to pull out their weapons, so that’s what I did.
Then I slowly buzzed open the window.
“Good evening, officers,” I said with a slight smile on my face.
“Good evening, sir,” said the officer by my window with an equally wry smile on his. “What have you got there?”
His flashlight was lighting up my map of marijuana flakes and there was no disguising what I had there.
“It’s marijuana, sir. I’m a touring comedian and I just did a show and this is how I was going to relax and enjoy an evening of fine Austin music.”
There was a pause, and I could feel my forehead beginning to sweat.
“I see. Do you have any other marijuana in the car, sir?”
The truth is, I did have another big bud stashed in my backpack (that Austin hipster was generous, doggone it) but I did not want to add any more illegal evidence to the situation. So instead, I copped to a lesser crime.
“Yes sir, actually I have this, too.”
I carefully and unhurriedly grabbed my pipe off the passenger seat and handed it to him through the opened window.
He grabbed the pipe, sniffed it, and said, “And this is all you have? That’s it? If I run a dog on this car, I’m not going to find any more?”
“No sir, like I said, I’m just in town for the weekend doing comedy shows, nothing else.”
“Give us a minute.”
And this is where my white privilege kicked in.
There were several ways these cops could have handled this situation. Here’s a stranger in their town with a schedule one substance right out in the open, busted cold, an easy arrest and eventual conviction, since this was back when pot was more than just a misdemeanor.
It could have easily gone differently.
“Okay, step out of the car. Get against the hood of the car and spread ‘em. Let’s tow his car and bring him in.”
Guns drawn, cuffs snapped on, an arrest made, an expensive lawyer retained, missed work, exorbitant tow fees, marred reputation, maybe jail time, but overall a frightening, life-changing, financial and emotional experience.
It would have been so easy for them to do all that. There are thousands of examples in jails and prisons where the police took this particular route.
But these guys didn’t.
They took my pipe, scattered my weed, gave me back my folded map, said, “Okay, sir, have a nice evening,” and went on their merry way.
That is white privilege.
You could argue that it was because I was a headlining comic, or because I was polite, or completely honest, or showed my hands at all times, but that’s not why they let me go.
It was because I’m white.
They did what a good cop should do – listened to my story, my reasonable explanation of why I was even in this predicament in the first place, and they decided that I was neither a criminal nor a threat and it wasn’t worth the hassle of taking me in.
It was incredible.
What does it feel like to not have this benefit of the doubt?
What does it feel like when people assume you’re guilty and you have to automatically prove that you’re innocent?
What does it feel like when a cop refuses to listen to your story but instead jacks you up against the car and frisks every crevice of your body like he can’t wait to bring you in?
What does if feel like when I somehow inexplicably get shot and killed as a result of this simple run-in and my future wife and kids never get a chance to meet me?
I have no idea because I have white privilege, white ‘benefit of the doubt’ going for me – always have, since I was a baby.
I can’t deny it, and if you’re white, neither can you.
When someone tells you that you have white privilege, they’re not trying to tell you that you’ve had it easy, that your life has had no challenges, that you’re rich or that someone in your family is rich and takes care of you, or that you don’t work hard.
They’re not saying any of that.
All they are saying is that when it comes to being judged by a person of authority in a questionable moment, if you are white, you will usually get the benefit of the doubt, and if you are black, you will usually be assumed guilty until proven innocent.
That’s why people are taking a knee.
Because in America, all citizens are supposed to be treated innocent until proven guilty. No matter what color our skin is, we are all supposed to get the benefit of the doubt. But when someone feels like they’re not getting that, they are understandably upset. So upset that they might be willing to interrupt something as sacred as the national anthem with a silent, kneeling protest to demand their benefit of the doubt so that they can feel safe and human like the rest of us.
A silent, respectful protest during the national anthem in front of the flag has been chosen because both of these are meant to represent liberty and justice for all. And when you’re not getting yours, your liberty and justice, your benefit of the doubt, in America you have a first amendment right to take a knee and demand it.
No matter what color you are.
- Mike Lukas
A trimmed version of this piece was published in the Austin Statesman:
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