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“It’s all relative,” a relative said. “You ask any person on the street about their life, and they’ll be the first to tell you they’ve had it harder than anyone else. They’ve suffered more, been more victimized, and their people put up with more abuse throughout history. They holler, ‘This life matters, that life matters, ALL life matters,’ and who the hell knows what to think anymore? Bottom line, we live in a free country and people should just shut up and be grateful for what they got. Now, go leave me alone.” ~ Overheard at the senior table sometime after lunch.
Janis Joplin told us that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” but odds are good the majority of adults living in the world today, both those old enough to get that reference and those who aren’t, embrace a more expansive, complex view of our most valued of human rights: personal freedom. Yet beyond hippie poetry and ingrained notions of entitlement, we of the western world are so accustomed to the ease and permission of the First Amendment or the Human Rights Act, our codified protections to be and do what we choose; our invitations to “speak our minds,” pursue our happiness, love who we love, or demand free Internet, that freedom as a concept is as taken for granted as the air we breathe. We revel in it, wave it, wear it, shout it from the rooftops…
“Feelin’ free, free, free.” ~ Pitbull.
We’ve even developed a culture in which there is no end to the outlets through which we can express our freedom – our criticisms, our rage, our rallying cries and civic activism. As citizens the world over spend increasing amounts of time on social media venting, with little censorship and few restrictions (outside occasional stints in “Facebook jail” or wrist-slapping Twitter suspensions), it’s easy to surmise that never before have we been as free to express our views in public, however caustic, however aggressive; often directly to the person who most inspires our ire. Just read the responses on Donald Trump’s or Theresa May’s Twitter feeds to get a sense of our ribald cultural candor – that’s freedom when you can slime your leaders in 240 characters and live to tell!
Yet despite these perceptions of “freedom for all” in our robust democracies, and putting aside, for the moment, the metastasizing autocracy of the current occupant of America’s White House, the presumption of personal freedom, under harsher examination, is really just that: a presumption. Because freedom is not necessarily meted out with parity and impartiality across the board. In fact, freedom – as a grand ideal, a vaunted principle, a revered right – is, more honestly, mitigated by factors such as wealth, class, family status, and opportunity (how free are we, really, when poverty and lack of access limit us at every turn?). But where freedom really gets battered and bruised is through the filter of race and privilege, topics so rife with tension and inconvenient truths that many refuse to even confront them.
“I’m tired of talking about race,” a white male friend said to me. “We’re all equal, we all get the same opportunities; we all got the same rights now. Blacks just need to get over their black thing.”
He wasn’t a guy who was overtly racist; he’d be the first to work with or welcome a person of color into his home; he even claimed to be “as open-minded as the next guy.” But as a white person (man) exempt from racial profiling – and a member of the top, primary patriarchal demographic – he couldn’t see how just being black adversely impacts the day-to-day minutia of living life as a black person. And because he couldn’t see it, doesn’t experience it, and, clearly, doesn’t believe it, he feels it’s a dismissible complaint. A cop-out. An excuse. Which is where white privilege offers its most corrosive distraction from the reality of life for those without it.
But when something is so endemic, so innate, so inherently a part of one’s existence, as white privilege is to white people, is some dispensation allowable for its element of invisibility? Are whites given leeway for not noticing because it’s always been there? It can’t be our fault if we didn’t ask for it. We can’t be blamed for something we didn’t create. We shouldn’t be criticized because we’re not personally infringing on the freedom of others. Right? RIGHT?
Several years ago, just as Black Lives Matter was moving swiftly into the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, I did a three-part interview series with Regina McRae, a black, New York entrepreneur and BLM activist I’d met via an article I’d written earlier called, “No, White People Will Never Understand the Black Experience” (a piece partially inspired by the fellows quoted above). She’d read and appreciated the piece, we subsequently connected on social media, which led to my invitation to her to participate with me in a no-holds-barred conversation on the topic of race and privilege, and their inexorable impact on the freedom of ease and expression of persons of color. She agreed.
We covered myriad angles over those three interviews, from facts and statistics to the erosive emotional impact of racism, and she offered tremendous candor and illumination, both to me and the reading audience. But I found this – what she had to say in reference to the limited perspective of not only the aforementioned men, but even, to some extent, her interviewer – to most succinctly encapsulate the racial disparities found in our fractured western societies:
“White people are normally very uncomfortable when the subject of race comes up. They are quick to point out that they have black friends, that they have never done anything overtly racist, and that may be true. But you are all recipients of privilege, whether or not you asked for it. Recognize that every day you live in a bubble of protection, the world’s biggest, deepest, most secret old boys’ club. You do not face discrimination in housing and employment; there are no health disparities when seeking medical attention. You are not followed in stores, nor is it assumed you can’t afford to shop. You are not profiled and marginalized by law enforcement, and you are much more likely to survive a confrontation with police with not just your dignity intact, but your very life. #CrimingWhileWhite is a very real hashtag, and exposes the instances in which people of other cultures were given the benefit of the doubt we typically are not.
“When you accept these benefits, and don’t speak up and speak out; when you quietly accept this privilege, when it doesn’t make you uncomfortable to know an entire segment of the population is being oppressed, losing not just opportunities but, at times, their very lives, then you are complicit in racism.”
A smack-in-the-face statement. A reluctant reality. A truth that dares to suggest how we may each be witting or unwitting participants, shining harsh, unremitting light on the almost naïve concept of “freedom for all.”
Because “all” becomes relative when even the simplest of freedoms – to live, drive; barbecue in a park, wait in a coffee shop, move into an apartment; call your mother from a hotel lobby, rest in your school library, swim in a community pool – are all determined by the “good will” of privileged whites with no special authority other than cellphones and prejudiced entitlement. When compiled statistics indicate the presence of bias when police use force, with a disproportionate number of blacks and others of color being killed by law enforcement officers, the concept of “getting over their black thing” becomes not only caustic ignorance, but an abdication of moral responsibility.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his letter from a Birmingham jail, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” But what happens when it’s demanded yet still denied? And how do whites who accept their complicity as recipients of privilege contribute most effectively to changing that narrative?
I put it to Regina, figuring if anyone could offer clarity, she could.
“I continually borrow this quote ‘When those unaffected become as outraged as those affected, things will change.’ We need a rainbow coalition: LGBTQ, Native Americans, Latinos, the privileged and underprivileged; the Occupy Movement. We can’t do it alone. We cannot make as large an impact alone as we can under an umbrella. When fighting a war, you need the rear guard, the infantry, air and sea support; troops on the ground. […]
“What you can do is help change local laws, help push laws through congress and state houses; help do away with the grand jury system; help more blacks get elected as DAs. You can get actively involved in making public schools better so they can offer the level of education every kid deserves. You can organize and participate in community town halls so you’re made aware of what blacks in your communities are experiencing. You can step outside your world to get an honest picture of the world we live in every day. You have privilege and power; use it. Then we’ll have reason to believe you are our allies … without that, it’s just talk and good intentions.”
Stepping outside your own world to get an honest picture of the world in which someone else lives is the very definition of empathy. And empathy is the antidote for everything.
And it’s not just America that needs this prescription. Though a British friend recently assured me that racism wears a very different face in the UK than the US, which I have no doubt is true, American racism being its very own unique and nationalistic cauldron, a recent study commissioned by The Guardian/ICM indicates that similar biases and prejudicial behaviors toward blacks and other ethnic minorities are found even in the more densely compacted diversity of Britain. How those play out may be particular to the area in which they exist, but the impact on the freedoms and enjoyment of life of persons of color is, unfortunately, mirrored wherever it occurs.
Which means both the problems and the solutions apply whether here, there or anywhere. And while the problems seem to stand in high relief, the solutions…?
“Talk and good intentions,” much like the well-meant but utterly tepid “thoughts and prayers” offered after every mass shooting, are ineffective panaceas extended when we can’t, won’t, simply don’t offer what’s really needed. The hard stuff. The stuff that takes a different kind of muscle. Real commitment. Real change. Action. Action. Action.
So change the narrative. Take your privilege and power and use it. Much like our individual contributions to avert climate change include every step we employ to lower our carbon footprint, each step we take to avert and obliterate racism, to more powerfully ensure the freedoms of every person, will have impact. They will add up. They will make a difference. Don’t take time to do the math, don’t tally, don’t wonder; just become as outraged as the affected and begin.
The oppressed demand it. Freedom demands it. We should all demand it. Because freedom is just another word if its grace isn’t extended to all.