Accustomed to privilege

Our bedroom is illuminated by a single red light bulb in a lamp on the dresser as I contort my body to slip out of bed. It is not quite 4:00 AM. Green curtains are drawn over mini blinds against the dark and cold outside, and steam from the humidifier billows into the air. The half-asleep baby settles into the vacant spot I have left and Matt shifts his own body to wrap our young son in his arms, a bottle of combination breast-and-cow’s milk at the ready in case the baby lion stirs to nurse.

We are a co-sleeping, bed-sharing family and I have gotten over any misgivings I had about this fact. When I really think about it, my whole immediate family consists of co-sleepers, save my middle sister. When I was a child, that same middle sister and I slept with our parents regularly. And we slept in the same bed with each other until we were 11 and 12 years old. Even as adults, we pile into beds and crash however we can or need to, because it’s sometimes the only way everyone is going to get any sleep.

When our mother was actively dying at my sister Sarah’s house, both my sisters reached the end of the sleep deprivation they could tolerate and had to get some rest. Our stepmom had agreed to take the night shift and I was going to head home to my sick dog and to get some rest. I stood at the foot of Sarah’s king-size bed where both my ragged sisters lay with the covers pulled to their chins. We went over logistics—how I would be back in a few hours—and we talked angrily about the difficulty of what was in front of us as we approached the weekend. If Mama didn’t loosen her grip on this life before the following Monday, we feared we would have to put her into a facility that could care for her since we all needed to go back to work. Wondering whether you will be able to see your dying loved one through to their final exit because you can’t afford to take more than a few days off work is a strange and terrible reality of life in this country. That our modern society doesn’t hold space to enable people to focus on what is most important right in front of them is nothing short of disgusting. In the context of our bigger society, my sisters and I were fortunate to have off any time at all.

Our mother had been adamant since I could remember that we had better never, ever put her “in a home.” She promised to never forgive us for that and to haunt us until the end of our days. I stood impatiently with my keys in my hand, shifting my weight from foot to foot and periodically staring at the clock projected onto my sister’s bedroom ceiling. The numbers were oversized and fuzzy and I imagined each minute fluttering to the ground like ash as time slipped away. 12:37 turned to 12:38, and I calculated how much sleep I could get if I left by 12:45.

Sleep-deprived, hollowed out with grief, and frustrated at the possibility of our mother haunting us all eternity, my sisters and I talked in sharp voices at each other about what we might do if she didn’t die soon. The possibility of being forced into checking her into a facility loomed over us because we were out of options. None of us had husbands or partners who could or would share the load. One of Mama’s sisters had lost her life partner less than six months before and was three hours away with no mode of transportation. Her other sister’s husband was dying of cancer. There was no one left. We had our stepmom, and a couple of very devoted friends, and they were angels. But they couldn’t take off time from work indefinitely to help.

She’s gonna have to go to a nursing home, there are just no two ways about it.

I don’t understand how she’s still holding on, why she won’t just rest and let go.

She seems so frail, how the hell did she sit up and try to get out of bed?

Because even in death she’s a control freak.

These days, I sometimes get out of bed as early as 3:30, trying to get a jump on the day and have quiet time with my coffee and oatmeal and the dog. Even on my days off work, I sneak away. Often, I work to make sure I stay on top of whatever’s on my plate. Sometimes, I sit quietly with the dog and listen to the slow and steady breathing of my sleeping house. On my vacation over the holiday season, I have excitedly slithered out of bed to work on jigsaw puzzles, a set of bluetooth headphones in my ears streaming whatever audio book I am listening to at the time. First, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a heartbreaking collection of letters to the author’s black teenage son where he tells the boy things like, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”

When I finished that, I revisited Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which I have  not yet finished. One quote that stands out so far is, “So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

I have been quiet in recent months because it feels like a time for listening instead of a time for talking. I have been slowly and painfully unpacking my own privilege, what it means to be an “ally” to people more vulnerable than I am in the wake of the 2016 election, facing my responsibility as a mother of a child who enjoys enormous privilege: a white, middle-upper class male.

My struggle is nothing compared to what black parents face.

As a meme I saw succinctly put it: I can’t stay calm; I have a black son.

I cannot imagine the fear that permeates every aspect of parenting a child of color, particularly a black son. As a new-ish parent, I am terrified of the world and all its dangers. I want to hold my son forever to protect him from all the hazards that wait outside our door. Any person who has been a parent knows that fear because it is just part of it. It’s part of having a child and being responsible for their well-being and loving them with a white-hot love that threatens to burst you at the seams.

But my fear is without the compounding factors that parents of non-white children face. When my son is crossing the threshold between child and adult, when his voice is changing, when he starts to look like a man, I can generally trust that he can walk down the street in whatever clothes he wants to wear without being harassed or endangered by the people who are charged with protecting him. He can exist in his body and in space without a fragile white person perceiving him as “threatening” simply because of his loud music or his hooded sweatshirt or his tall stature. My son is privileged. Even if he is mistaken for an adult when he is still only a boy, his skin does not mark him as “other,” does not set off alarm bells for nosy lovers of the second amendment, does not does not signal to the police that he might be a menace.

Coates’ use of imagery and directly discussing his son’s vulnerable body is astute and poignant. The fear that he has for his son, that he has to share with his son to keep the boy safe, even from the beginning of the child’s life, is something that those of us who are not people of color likely cannot imagine.

Most people would agree that 2016 has not been a particularly good or uplifting year. We use time as a measuring stick because it puts some frame around our experiences and helps us compartmentalize, but we need to examine what led us to where we are and acknowledge that a new year will not automatically solve anything.

How did we end up in a place where it is worse to be called a racist than to be racist?

What led to the election of a dangerous narcissist to be president of the United States?

What choices have we as a society been making, what policies are we allowing, what personal decisions do we make, that have created a path to where we are?

This year does not exist in a vacuum. In a couple of days, when the last minute of 2016 floats to the ground like ash, life will not be fundamentally changed. The same problems will exist. The same microaggressions and overt acts of aggression will be perpetrated on marginalized groups in the same fashion as they were minutes before. Hate will still spread like poison through our streets, our board rooms, our classrooms, our policies, emboldened by an overtly racist and sexist petulant child who many Americans have apparently decided aligns enough with their values that they could vote for him.

There are people in my life who voted for Trump, and I have spent the past several weeks trying to reconcile how I continue to love someone who is willing to look past his obstinate and proud ignorance; his bragging about sexual assault; his hatred for anyone he perceives as different; his support for the Klan (don’t tell me how he finally denounced them and that the Klan always supports a candidate—any presidential candidate worth their salt would loudly denounce the Klan, like George Bush did a couple decades ago); his close ties to Russia; his willingness to appoint lobbyists and millionaires and billionaires to positions of power where conflicts of interest scream like sirens; his complete unwillingness to follow any sort of protocol in a system that has been in place for decades or centuries; his utter disregard for real American people. The list goes on.

People were willing to put aside all his repugnant qualities because…what?

He claims to be pro-life? Secret: he’s really not.

You think he’ll fix the economy? Secret he doesn’t understand basic economics, and is numerically and financially illiterate.

You think he’ll create jobs? Secret: that Carrier deal was not a sustainable move, and it’s not even finalized yet.

You wanted “something different”? Secret: the team he’s assembling bears no resemblance to you or anyone like you, and there is nothing novel about appointing the ultra-rich to positions of power where they can make decisions that directly benefit their business interests. Also, he’s assembling the richest team in modern history.

Many people I know who voted for Trump have a strong disdain for Barack Obama, though they cannot articulate why.

What specific policies do you disagree with? I ask. Only rarely does someone even know what Obama policies they take issue with, and most often they do not actually understand what Obama’s presidency has entailed. And, generally speaking, they cannot get past the surface of any of the policies they claim are no good, can’t drill down into the nuances of why they believe those policies are problematic.

The truth is, for many of these white Midwesterners, there is a thread that traces back to an internalized racism that they are unwilling to even consider, much less address and work on changing.

If you try to discuss it, they will turn red faced and hateful. They will spew angrily about how they are NOT racist, and then they will tokenize the one or two black or brown people they know. I had black friends growing up! My sister’s child is black! How dare you call me racist!

Knowing a person of color does not innoculate you against racism. In fact, just as all of identity is fluid, there is no plateau that we can reach as white people where we can say, “There, I have unpacked everything. I am enlightened and not even a trace of racism exists in me. I am informed, open-minded, and I get it!”

Because the truth is, white people will always benefit from societal systems and infrastructure that is designed to work in our favor. We will always have an advantage. The game is rigged in our favor. The best we can do is spend our lifetimes unpacking, evaluating, and unpacking some more. If we hope to help move the needle at all to deconstruct some of the heinous shit that led to the dumpster fire that was 2016, we need to be doing constant work on ourselves, we need to be calling each other out and calling each other in. No more laughing nervously or anxiously changing the subject when Uncle Jim or Grandma makes an overtly or subtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic remark or joke.

I know many people of color who were in no way surprised by the election results. It has shaken me to realize that I, like many liberals I know, had become complacent and comfortable. My privilege had allowed me to ignore the reality of what was going on in our society, what has always gone on. There has never been a moment in our history when we were truly “post-racial.” Just because you know a black person, just because we elected one black man to serve as president, just because black people have been able to vote for a few decades (note, I said decades, not centuries), that does not mean that we are beyond racism in the United States. We are far from it.

“Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015.” That is a problem.

There are people who voted for Trump (or Gary Johnson; I’m looking at that group, too) who would find reasons to argue about this, who would defend their vote. These are people who share my bloodline and whom I have known my whole life and whom I will forever feel guarded around now, if I choose to be around them at all. Were I not a parent, maybe I could shut it off and just keep our interactions to pleasantries. But I am forever vigilant about what my son’s little ears are hearing and the messages he is internalizing.

It is complex because these people are not always overtly and obviously problematic. Most of these people are genuinely kind in one way or another. Still, it is not enough. Being willing to help someone get their car out of the snow, bringing a meal to a grieving person, buying gifts, sending thoughtful messages, donating time or money, going to church… none of this is enough to make me consider a person safe to be around my child if they voted for Trump, or if they espouse “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” rhetoric. These things are inextricable, and speak to a much larger problem in our society that has to do with what some people call “racial tension” but what actually means “our society was built on the backs of black people and now we are allowing our police to kill black people” and “our intense fear of anything different from us means that we would rather destroy people of color, Muslims, immigrants, anyone who is different, than evaluate whatever is inside of us that makes us so intensely fearful and vicious.”

Stop rioting! People cry. If you want to protest, FINE, but it should be peaceful!

And when a black person calmly takes a knee instead of showing his allegiance to a country that was literally founded on the destruction of black and brown bodies and that continues that legacy today, these same white people explode with vitriol.

Even the right’s up-and-coming darling Tomi Lahren could not answer the question of what, exactly, people of color can do to express their disapproval of what is happening in the U.S. that will not earn them hatred and ire from whites. When asked about it, she simply looped repeatedly back to the fact that she didn’t like what he was doing. The truth is, she—like many on the right—is a vapid repeater of talking points, working herself and others into a lather based on their feelings instead of anything that remotely resembles reason or facts.

The real message for people of color is that they need to fall in line and stop making white people uncomfortable. Stop disrupting the status quo that white people have benefited from since we showed up here as immigrants and brutally took this land from Native Americans.

When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

And that’s really what it boils down to for most white folks, even if we/they can’t or won’t admit it: the terrifying idea that we may have to give up just a little bit of privilege.

For some white folks, it is much easier to stick their heads in the sand and “not be political.” They want to know why we can’t go back to our regularly scheduled programming where the Internet is filled with cat videos and memes instead of all this political stuff. They want to limit “political talk” at gatherings, just enjoy togetherness, pretend that the world isn’t on fire. I am guilty of checking out in this way after the 2008 election nearly gave me a heart attack. I channeled my fresh grief into intense anger about Sarah Palin and John McCain, both of whom seem like pussycats now.

I want to shake my former self, and these people who happily sidestep “political” talk, and carefully describe what privilege is, how it manifests, why for people of color there is no option to just shut off their brains and pretend that “politics” don’t matter. Just a few years ago, I was a white person who believed there was no way I had any privilege because I had grown up poor. I believed that my socioeconomic experience was more meaningful in shaping my experience than the color of my skin. A very patient woman of color who is now a professor at a prestigious west-coast university gently explained that, no matter how poor I was, I could walk into any public space and no one would have to know, based on how I presented myself. A person of color cannot take off their own skin.

Now, more than ever, this distinction rings in my ears.

As if she could hear us and understood the reality of our modern lives, our mother died between 6:00 and 7:00 on Friday evening in the same bedroom at my sister’s house where she had been living for three months. While I often wish she was still here, I am thankful for what she instilled in me as my parent. She taught my sisters and me to be true to ourselves, to fight for what we knew to be true, even if it was unpopular. This often meant she had to swallow her own ego as a parent and help us navigate things that called into question her own “rightness” as our authority figure. But she did it, even though it made her uncomfortable.

2017 is coming, and it is high time for us white folks to get uncomfortable. That is the only way we are going to grow. And the only way we can hope to survive the next four years and retain any ground we have gained in the previous eight, is to grow and push and stretch the limits of our understanding, to tune out the stomping and yelling of our own egos long enough to get quiet and listen.

Because, the thing is, we are at a pivotal moment in history right now. And—as much as I hate binaries—you are on one side or the other. As we’ve all heard by now, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

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