I have been abundantly blessed. I am a white, happily married woman in a high enough socio-economic class that I have the freedom to stay home to raise my kids. I have grown up with people who valued education, family, diversity, culture, progressive politics, open-mindedness, debate and giving back to others. I live in a fairly liberal and diverse area that is not struggling economically as much as other areas. I haven't known poverty, hunger or deep struggle first-hand. I have had my share of misogyny, but I've never known racism and honestly, haven't been around people who say racist things, either.
This is not a humblebrag. This is to acknowledge from the outset that I am completely aware my life does not necessarily mirror the struggles of others in this country. I'm not a Romney or a Rockefeller, but to complain about the problems I do grapple with would be yet another example of white privileged First World Problems, annoyingly out of touch.
But I am not without empathy. And it is that empathy that impels me to look past my white privilege and see the struggles of others who are not as fortunate as me in birth. It is that empathy that forces me to look at how deep the undercurrents of racism still inform our daily lives, decades after Jim Crow and demand that I analyze how much of the assumptions I make are due to privilege of my birth. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a column that points straight to that ugliness with which people of color must live every single day.
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive [actor Forrest] Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to a imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.