A few years ago I was on my way to a Sunday afternoon party when I remembered that I needed to bring some snacks. Taking the same route I took every day to work, I knew I would be passing an Aldi, and decided to stop there. I parked, grabbed my “Aldi quarter” from the ashtray, got a cart, and started down the aisle.
After a few minutes of shopping, I began to get a strange feeling that continued as I moved through the store. It didn’t take me long to realize that everyone was looking at me. Not overtly staring, or pointing and whispering, or anything like that, but definitely looking at me. Everyone.
Then it hit me. This Aldi was smack in the center of a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Driving the same roads every day I no longer even noticed that most of the billboards and storefronts were in Spanish, and that all of the pedestrians were either Hispanic or African-American.
Now, in case you hadn’t figured out from my picture or my name, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody whiter than me. Maybe Edgar Winter. Maybe.
So no one could fault my fellow shoppers for taking an extra look and wondering why I was there. Nonetheless, I went about my shopping without a problem, checked out, and was soon on my merry way.
I arrived at my destination and relayed what had happened, along with the enormous revelation it had produced. Hoping their collective consciousness would be raised just as mine had been by this unique experience, I told my friends, “Now I know how minorities must feel.”
This memory resurfaced in recent days, bringing with it another revelation: what a bunch of bullshit.
I have absolutely no idea how minorities must feel. How could I?
- I have never worried about being able to vote when I go to my polling place.
- I have never applied for a job without the absolute certainty that I was being given equal consideration to every other candidate.
- I have never been reluctant to go outside — on my porch, down the sidewalk, to the grocery store, the playground with my grandsons, or the mailbox — because of the possibility of gunfire.
- I have never worried about my faith or place of worship coming under attack.
- I have never had my citizenship or the status of my residency questioned.
- I have never gone to a store, bank, gas station or other establishment and been followed in case I was a shoplifter.
- I have never had to verify or defend my gender or sexuality, nor fight for the right to marry the person I love or to start a family.
- I have never faced any roadblocks to buying a home, nor to where I wanted to live.
- I have never been afraid to get in my car and drive anywhere, secure in the knowledge that I would only be stopped if my lead foot got the better of me.
In other words, when you’re white like me, it is all but impossible to truly understand the struggles of those who aren’t. The worst prejudice I’m going to encounter in a coffee shop is someone thinking I’m too fat to be getting a cupcake or too old to be drinking regular coffee at night. But no one is going to say that to me, much less call the cops.
We hear a lot about “white privilege” these days, and that’s good. Because although it sounds like something just for the über rich, all of us regular white folk have it, too. Unfortunately, most of us haven’t realized we have it because, like anything we’ve had since birth, we consider it a birthright.
Guess what? It is a birthright, at least in the United States. You’re probably more familiar with its original name: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … with absolutely no qualifiers regarding skin tone.
So on this day of revelations, I pray more will be forthcoming. I know I need to better understand the divides — racial and otherwise — in our society, and figure out how to do my part to make them a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what that means, but hopefully talking about it is a good first step.