What White Privilege (and Black Fear) Looks Like

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
~ Unknown

It goes without saying that Ta-Nehisi Coates is an exceptional writer, perhaps the greatest of our age at what he does. It’s not just Coates’ skill with the language that makes him great, or even his obvious intelligence: those just allow him technical mastery of the craft. It’s Coates’ ability to perceive, and to convey, aspects of what is really going on in this country – his humanity and his passion, in other words – that makes him such an indispensable read.

I’m late to this one, but although the story here centers around Coates’ conversation with the mother of Jordan Davis, the teen shot dead in Florida for “too loud music” in his car by sociopath Michael Dunn, it was the simple litany of stories (with links to news articles) towards the bottom of the piece that really hit home with me. None of these stories Coates rattled off were new to me: I’d heard or read of all of them before I clicked through to them from Coates’ piece, and was outraged by every one of them. But even for someone paying attention as much as I have been (not as much as some, but more than many), I was rocked back on my heels to realize – and remember – that every single one of the following occurred during the past summer. All of them:

I realize America is a big place with some 322 million people in it. On that scale, strictly by the numbers, the above events comprise a fraction so tiny it’s less than a rounding error. But we’re not talking about percentages of large, ordinary groups like the elderly or residents of suburbs; each one of these incidents involves a black person being murdered, assaulted or sexually abused by a police officer in the United States. That is not a rounding error. I feel certain that no one reading this (or Coates’ much more widely-read piece) would consider it a rounding error if it were their loved one in the media for these reasons. So none of us should consider what happened to these people as anything less than awful, either. As the saying goes, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

About that, though? Even If you are outraged, if you’re also surprised, it suggests that maybe you might not have been paying that close attention previously. That doesn’t make you a bad person…but it probably makes you a white person. That’s the nature and the essence of white privilege right there, in a nutshell: the ability to not really notice these things which would shock and horrify you and possibly even damage you permanently if they happened to someone you loved enough…merely because they didn’t happen to anyone you know.

Someone much more cynical than I am once said human beings have a nearly limitless capacity to endure the misery of others. And it’s true for all of us, to an extent. But most people – or at least a majority of them – care about injustice and misery if they see clear examples of it. Most white people aren’t blasé about such systemic mistreatment and misjudgment of black people…we just have the luxury, by virtue of nothing more than our skin color, of being able to simply not even NOTICE it, unless we’re paying attention.

Black people, even the most accomplished professionals among them, never have that luxury. Instead, they have an ever-present twinge of fear (or at least awareness) that if circumstances go just a bit bad in exactly the wrong way, then these stories could be about them, or someone they care about.

That’s the difference, and it’s the definition of white privilege.