On August 15, 2014 I left the lab to participate in Portland’s #NMOS20141. Portland held our vigil at Pioneer Courthouse Square. If you’re not familiar with Portland it’s similar to Union Square in New York. Since I really couldn’t find parking I walked into the Square towards the end of the moment of silence. There was a large circle where people of all races stood shoulder to shoulder. I did notice that about eighty percent of the crowd was Caucasians. After the moment of silence everyone came together in a large group and began telling the crowd their feelings or experiences on police brutality in regards to race.
The first thing I noticed was that most people didn’t use the bullhorn that was present so it made it kind of hard to hear most people. Shortly after I observed a middle aged white man because he had on what looked like a construction helmet, red framed sunglasses, a full beard and a sign hanging around his neck saying “Legalize marijuana.” He simply looked out of place. As he got up to voice his feelings, he began shouting disjointed phrases over how he was upset that the police kept harassing him for smoking weed. An older woman ushered him from the center of the crowd before he could go any further.
After a few more people talked I was ready to leave because I had two evening meetings and I couldn’t hear what most people were saying anyway. As I was getting ready to leave a mixed race Jewish young man stepped forward to the center of the crowd (I know he was Jewish because he was wearing a Kippah cap). Although he had a soft voice it carried enough that I could hear what he was saying clearly from the outer edges of the crowd.
He first pleaded with the crowd to bear with him if he cries because this is something that he’s really passionate about. This is when I knew that I had to hear what he had to say. He went on to say how he was tired of seeing black people killed in this country just for being black. He tried to explain that this was not a black issue but a white issue. Then he said what I wasn’t aware was a trigger word; “privilege”. The words “white privilege” weren’t five seconds out of his mouth before a white man yelled over him something about not all white people have privilege. The Jewish kid in turned told the white man to “Shut up.” The white man, red with anger, took this opportunity to start taking steps towards him in what I perceived as a threatening manner. What I presumed was his older and bigger brother (he later said so) pushed the Jewish kid to the side and told him to “Back the fuck up and don’t approach my brother.”
Another older white man (also wearing a Kippah cap) weaved his way through the crowd saying he was trying to get to his son. He was able to get in between his older son and the angry white man thereby diffusing the situation enough so that both backed down. The younger son was able to finish his sentiments and I was left awestruck as how a white man could so brazenly disrupt a black man in a moment of such truth and rawness.
Why did he feel he would be justified in doing so? He proved the young Jewish man’s point. White privilege is a hell of a thing.
No one thought he himself didn’t care about the murder of innocent Black people. He was standing shoulder to shoulder at a rally for us. Yet his white guilt combined with his privilege stirred such reverberation in him that the diatribe he heard caused him to lash out wrongly and unjustly.
That’s the thing about white privilege. No white person, regardless of how progressive or conservative they are, wants to admit that it works in their favor. A white person may be working hand in hand protesting events around the Mike Brown murder and treatment of American citizens in Ferguson or they may hate the way that people of color in this country are sometimes treated as subhuman but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have advantages that others who are rungs lower on the social ladder can only imagine.
If Mike Brown from Ferguson, Missouri were apart of the 29.3% White population Darren Wilson wouldn’t have thought twice about stopping his police cruiser that day. That is the privilege that whiteness is afforded in this country. The ability to live comfortably in one’s own skin, to wake up each morning knowing that you’re the status quo, the default of all things from pop culture to religion (WASP2) to politics. Privilege does not have to think about any of this. Privilege is ignorance to the weighted awareness of wearing a veil of race everyday of one’s life.
So yes I think that White man was wrong for his outburst. It was neither the time nor place to upstage a Black man with his overbearing White privilege. I hope he learned something that day.
1 National Moment of Silence for Victims of Police Brutality. 90 vigils across the world happened to share in a moment of silence and solidarity with each other.
2 White Anglo-Saxon Protestant- Males of this group are on the top rung of the hierarchy of American society.