Steven LaFond on coming to terms with white privilege — which gives him the ability to reinvent himself whenever he wants.
I get to wear a hoodie.
“White Privilege” used to sting my ears as much as its ratty cousin, “White Power,” ever did. I wanted to pretend it didn’t make me feel that being tarred with brush of privilege didn’t raise any ire in my liberal, lower middleclass person. I am not racist, I know racism exists, and there are far too many white people saying ignorant and tiresome things about other ethnicities that I not only wouldn’t, but loathe. Privilege to me had been caught up in discussions about class, something that’s defined my internal struggles throughout my life. I was caught up in semantics while I bristled against the term.
Could people not see what I had been through? Did they not get I’m not some suburban elitist who had been a ward of the state at fourteen? It’s now, in the wake of one more dead black teenager, that I have to admit I am more aware of what society gave me that he didn’t have: the ability to reinvent myself whenever I want.
Most weekdays, I work long hours in a beige cubicle, surrounded by coworkers with whom I have a surprising amount of affection for, considering I don’t associate with them outside of work. It’s been a year of building online communities that connect technical professionals worldwide. Most of our casual conversations are the type of “water cooler” talks that mean next to nothing to us in the United States. We exchange details of what we did on the weekend, exchange personal anecdotes about our current lives, and occasionally share stories about our misadventures in college or high school. I don’t share my teenage stories.
I used to chafe a lot in the environment I’m in; the white-collar business world can be inane and petty. It’s populated with the folks I didn’t associate with or encounter in the small town of Hooksett where I grew up. Most of the people I talk to have some sort of private school experience. Under the hum of our central air, which keeps the office at a steady seventy-one degrees, I’ve been asked where I went to school. So I share the public story. Manchester High School West, Emerson College, then Bennington for an MFA in Creative Writing.
I leave out the two years from eighth to tenth grade that I lived in a group home in Danvers, MA, for being caught with a knife with the intent to stand my ground against a junior high school bully who had picked on me mercilessly for two years. There’s no mention of the times I’ve driven by my bully’s old house in order to both apologize to and forgive him. I avoid the talk about the hospitals, psychological misdiagnoses and the therapy, and the constant surveillance by my former high school’s administration for fear that I may one day carry out some sort of violent crime. Instead, they get that I was on Ricki Lake at seventeen as a teen goth kid. They hear about my doctor brother and my prosthetic tech father. They get the short, inoffensive version, and because of that, I’m not hassled or looked at like a freak or lurking predator.
I carried a knife. Trayvon carried Skittles.
My friend, PeeJay, doesn’t drink. He traces it back to an incident when he was younger where a loud disagreement with his Dutch ex-girlfriend led to an arrest. From my understanding, it was one of those obnoxious political arguments drunken people have on the street every night in Boston. In most things, PeeJay is a better person than me. He’s kind, honest, and he listens more than he speaks. He’s a level of control that most men our age don’t have, and I think I became less of an angry man when we first met.
The story of PeeJay’s arrest informed an incident months after he told it to me when his current partner began fighting with him in a bar and he quietly stood up and left for a few minutes. He returned, collected and dignified. She let whatever it was go, and we had a good night. At the time, I was impressed on how he handled it. However, his practiced calm, his demeanor, is necessary in our society. An angry man gets attention—while a black man without a smile, let alone angry, is a threatening thing to white people.
The difference we have here is that my story about being held for questioning and then sent away doesn’t fit the mold of my exterior, it comes off as unique and crazy and its context is either an uplifting tale of someone finding redemption and success, or a secret I can never mention and let the world carry on around me under the illusion I’m just another wacky white guy, with an eccentric haircut and tattoos that I can cover up with a long-sleeved shirt. PeeJay’s story is this: he’s black in America. Who he is and his life, it’s always starting with “black.” He can’t roll his sleeves over his skin, or put on a mask. Instead, he must walk a line of control and dignity while trying not to sacrifice any of his natural friendliness. I don’t know if it’s a daily pressure, nor do I know what ignorant thing I may have said (I know of two) that must have sounded just stupid but he he gave me a pass.
Racism is actually a quiet thing. It’s a misguided belief that colors your experiences so subtly you don’t notice it until it’s pointed out. The subtle blue tint of modern horror movies is used to increase tension. How many of you knew that existed until you read that? We see the world colored, not only by our experiences, but the opinions and tutelage of our parents and neighbors.
I have relatives, many of whom own firearms to protect their families. Pressing them to define from whom they need protection, they make mention of the city streets half an hour away where crime is rampant and the people are poor. They rail against the straw men of anonymous minorities calling them a “cracker” or “honky” with impunity while my relatives have to watch what they say. They don’t, however, watch that say. “Nigger” gets muttered occasionally, “illegals” is used as a blanket statement for any one who doesn’t look like an Irish “cousin” of ours. Irish cousins who, were they to stay past their visas’ expirations, are not part of the immigration problem. Out in the world, though, my relatives talk about security and conservative ideals. They protest the death of the modern family and a need to preserve our personal freedoms. It’s time, as one aunt says, “to take a stand.”
Nobody follows me when I walk through my mom’s neighborhood.
In distancing myself from the louder bigots with whom I share scattered sequences of genetic code, I found myself casting a critical eye to the politically correct. That same blue tint of racism exists there, too. At the 2011 Boston Bookfest, the writers and actors of HBO’s The Wire had a panel discussion. The very first question came from a stereotypical Cambridge intellectual who first made it clear that she did not watch television, but was convinced to watch The Wire and fell in love with “a world I had no idea actually existed.” She then went on to think about what we, as people who don’t live in the community, could do to “put an end to the ghetto?”
My friend, Bryan, with whom I grew up in the dilapidated squalor of our town, was furious. The unconscious condescension of the question was earnest, but inherently offensive. The kind of thing that makes an angry person want to put a torch to things. The cast and writers answered the question by first rephrasing it as a call for all people to help elevate our shared communities and then quickly moving on. I’m sure I’ve sat next to that woman at literary readings, though I pray I never officially meet her.
But here’s where the privilege of my birth is now apparent. I’m white, affable, and friendly. People take me in close, they relax and they tell me things. It’s not hard for me to get a decent outline of someone’s politics, background, and likes within five minutes. My wife notes that I take on the subtle patterns of speech of people I talk to, not necessarily their vernacular, but I match tone and cadence in a way that seems to put people at ease without making it seem like I’m mocking them. It’s served me well, but often means I hear what people really think about subjects we avoid in polite company. I will tell you this: in my experience white people don’t know they’re white unless it’s said in context of other races.
As a fiction writer, perspective means everything to me. The experience of being alienated, feeling persecuted, and working against the prejudices of others I previously felt I understood quite well. However, while my environment had a large role to play, I have to admit my choices helped bring me to the brink of tragedy and then out. I also the option to move to another state and find a habitat to be myself on my own terms. Trayvon Martin’s family moved to that neighborhood for a better life and he died all the same because his very presence caused ripples in the fabric of that falsely idyllic community. I won’t know first-hand what that is like. I’ll be damned if I don’t do what I can to make a future where no one has to know.
photo: jollyuk / flickr