The rush of hot air instantly melted the dust of snow on my oversized puffer jacket.
As I stomped on the already-soaked carpet to remove the ice from my boots, it occurred to me that I would never really get used to the arctic hell that was Chicago.
I scrambled into the classroom, hurrying to my seat just as the final bell rang. Our English teacher told us to arrange our desks into smaller groups to discuss the scenario he was writing on the board:
“You are standing near the train tracks. There is a man slowly crossing the tracks, and he doesn’t realize the train is coming. Your new sports car, which you spent all your savings on, also happens to be on the train tracks. There are only a couple of minutes before the train arrives, so what do you decide to do — save your car or save the man’s life?”
Naive sixteen-year-old me thought, well, this is a no-brainer. I would choose to save the man’s life. Everyone would choose to save the man’s life. You’d have to be inhumane to let someone die just because you wanted to save your car.
“Okay, you can start discussing the scenario in your groups now,” announced our teacher.
Before I had the chance to say anything, the boy next to me, who I’ll refer to as John, voiced his opinion: “Car. Hands down.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded.
“What? Why? You can buy a new car. You can’t bring someone back from the dead,” I argued.
“Yeah, but you worked so hard for that car. Why would you sacrifice that for someone you don’t know?” replied John.
“And also,” chimed in another student in our group, who I’ll call Jane, “if he’s dumb enough to be walking on the train tracks when the train is coming, then maybe he deserves to die. I mean, it’s natural selection or whatever,” she added.
I couldn’t speak.
I was shocked.
I had never heard someone belittle the value of a human life this way.
I had never heard someone put a price on humanity.
The teacher wanted us to vote on whether it would be wiser to save the car or the man’s life.
The majority raised their hands for saving the stupid car.
And it was at that moment that it dawned on me that almost everyone in the class — the teacher, the students in my group, literally everyone except for me and one another boy — were Caucasian.
How had I not noticed this before?
A wave of discomfort washed over me. I had never felt so deeply out-of-place.
I left the class with a huge pit in my stomach, my mind whirling as I suddenly realized how much of an outsider I truly was.
* * *
I grew up in a world brimming with all shades of color. My neighbors, my teachers, my classmates, my friends, and my own family were so varied in the color of their skin, that it was easy to become color-blind; it was easy to let race and ethnicity fade into the background, because no one really paid attention to them.
In a sea of South Asians and Caucasians, African Americans and Arabs, Latinos and Egyptians, race just didn’t seem to divide us.
As a child in the Bay Area, I grew up completely unaware that racism was still present in our country, let alone rampant in many parts of it. I had no idea that white privilege was a thing, because here in Silicon Valley, the playing field had been leveled, or at least that was my perception. America had a black president for most of my childhood, and, in all the history textbooks we read in class, racism seemed to have a defined beginning and ending.
Unfortunately, I was no longer living in the Bay Area. Because of my dad’s work, my family and I found ourselves in the suburbs of Chicago, where race definitely did not fade into the background. In all my AP classes, there were no more than one or two people of color. My neighborhood was overwhelmingly white. Even most of my teachers here were white. It was only in the dimly-lit hallways of the high school that you could find African Americans and Mexican Americans, doing the blue-collar work that we privileged people didn’t want to do. For some reason, that did not truly sink in, until today, when I learned that most of the people in my class would choose to save what they considered “their hard work” over another human being’s life.
I kept replaying that class discussion in my mind, angry at myself for not retaliating with a better counter-argument.
Sure, you may have worked hard to get where you are, but I can guarantee you that a black person worked exponentially harder.
I guess white privilege leads people to believe that human lives aren’t equally valuable, that material wealth can mean more than human life.
A scary thought entered my head: is this really the way all white people think?
* * *
Later that week, I was volunteering with the school’s Key Club as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. It basically meant that I stood outside the grocery store and smiled at strangers, ringing an annoying bell whenever they dropped some money into the orange donation bucket. As I stood there shivering inside my giant jacket, a woman with her two kids walked up to me and said, “It’s so nice to see people like you doing something good.”
Despite my mind reeling from her lovely little comment, I gritted my teeth and smiled at her, nodding.
Despite being a minority in America, despite being a Muslim in post-9/11, America, no one had never called attention to my race or religion. I had worn a hijab (head-covering/scarf) for years, but no one had ever made me feel like an outsider because of it. I realized that, while I once had the luxury of living in one of the safest, most accepting and tolerant areas of the U.S., I was no longer in that safe place.
As I stood there, processing what the lady had implied, anger coursed through my veins. The media had distorted the reality of an entire religious community, and now generations of innocent Muslim children would pay the price. And that prejudice incited by the media, it didn’t apply only to Muslims — African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and Asians, among others, have all had to face the consequences of the stereotypes instilled in the minds of Americans by popular media. And, instead of people educating themselves with the truth, they expect the victims of inaccurate media portrayal to do the fixing.
That evening, I was boarding the bus to get home, when a mountain of a man sitting in the back loudly asked, “Hey, where are you from?”
I looked up. He was staring right at me.
My mouth was dry, my mind blanks as I stood there. Fortunately, my friend grabbed my arm and said, “Come on, you don’t have to answer, let’s go sit down.”
I was quiet the entire ride home. It registered in my mind that the man was white, and so was my friend. And it was only because she was there that I had felt safe enough to take this bus.
I had never been put on the spot like that. No one had ever questioned whether I was an American, or implied that I didn’t have the right to be here.
I guess white people also feel like they have the right to question others, to make others feel uncomfortable simply for existing.
I lay my head against the glass window of the bus, thinking: I would really like to live in a world where people do not value money over human life, where the stereotypes portrayed by the media are not blindly accepted, and where you do not need your white friend to make you feel safe.
Unfortunately, that world did not exist anymore. Because here, whites were the overwhelming majority, and herd invisibility, which is essentially a denial of any privilege, allowed for prejudice to run rampant:
“In a guilty world, a price must be paid for the experience of innocence; in the United States, one could argue that Whites’ experience of innocence is paid for by minorities.” — L. Taylor Phillips, Brian S. Lowery
* * *
I am not black. I am not white. But I am human.
And I am a human who cares about other humans.
For a long time, I thought that I had no right to speak about racism or privilege. I thought that this wasn’t my issue.
And I was wrong.
Unless we actively work to change the harmful words and actions surrounding us, we are complicit in the crimes upon which this country was built.
It is imperative that every white person accept that white people’s actions have irreparably harmed generations upon generations of black people. It is unacceptable that they are the ones who now have to live in fear and at a disadvantage because of the inhumane actions of your racist white ancestors.
So while it is vital to vote for a president who is not racist and xenophobic, to protest, and to reform the policing system of this country, it is just as crucial to assess the way you think.
Because your thoughts can have lethal consequences.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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Photo credit: Jr Korpa (@korpa)