I learned a lesson on privilege. Understand, intellectually, on a cognitive level, I had been aware of white privilege and how the same world can be a very different place to us depending on how the world relates to us. But I'd never before had it illuminated for me so vividly and personally. I'd like to share it.
In the late 1990s I was a white guy from suburban midwest living in New York City and I was involved in a five-year relationship with another midwestern transplant. He is African-American.
There were two delis nearby, Deli A and Deli B, they were about equal distance from my doorstop. My lover, Victor would always want to go to Deli B. He'd passively steer us there when it came time to pick up a pint of Ben & Jerry's or what have you.
I preferred Deli A. It was cleaner, prettier and had a better selection of everything and nice produce, which Deli B did not stock at all. I didn't know why Victor always wanted to go to Deli B. He wasn't a particularly expressive individual. And, very much unlike myself, wasn't inclined to share information until it was pried out of him. And so the choice between the Deli A or Deli B became an unspoken test of wills between us over some time.
But finally I just confronted him. "What's up? Why don't you ever want to shop at Deli A? It's nicer. It's cleaner. I like it better."
He told me, "The owner of Deli A watches me like a hawk. He follows me around. He thinks because I'm black I'm going to shoplift."
I was floored. I'd never noticed. It was absurd. How could that owner imagine such a thing? Victor had plenty of money to buy what he wanted. He would never steal. And he worked on Wall Street, he had a good job. He was well-dressed and conservatively groomed. There was nothing in his appearance to suggest he didn't belong on Wall Street, or that he would ever shoplift.
I mean, I knew such things went on. My friends of color had told me these stories.
And yet, there I was, shopping away, picking my produce, totally oblivious to the completely different experience that he was having right in the same room with me at the same time. Because the owner's eyes were not focused on me, I was not paying attention to what the owner was looking at: my lover. Because I hadn't lived my entire life under suspicion I wasn't sensitive to the tells that he'd felt all his life; people were watching him.
The revelation was very humbling to me. How could I not have noticed? How could I not have seen? Me?! I'm an evolved person! I'm a liberal. A DFH! Enlightend! I had read and studied such things in college. I had followed the stories of the Korean Deli boycott and the Crown Height riots with a heavy heart and much sympathy for the African American communities and their grievances. I felt their pain. At least, I thought I had.
But somehow, I missed Victor's.
I felt terrible. And of course, the debate was over. I'd never ask him to be in an environment where he felt uncomfortable, nor would I want to give my money to a proprietor that treated my lover so disrespectfully. We shopped at Deli B from then on.
I guess my point is, we may think we understand what privilege is about. We may think we "get it."
But it's a privilege to be able to shop obliviously while displays of disrespect are all around you. And it's a privilege we exercise unconsciously. People get to take it for granted because they have the luxurious option to do so. We can engage in issues that do not personally concern us when they ping on our radar. And allow them to drift from our minds at other times.
But there are other people who can't enjoy the luxury of ignoring the daily indignities and slights and messages of unworthiness. For those people they pop up on their radar screens daily and are bright flashing lights that cannot and will not be ignored. This is their experience and it's valid. We should always remember that.
We really can never fully understand what the world looks like from other peoples' perspectives. We can try, but we may never fully get it at all. And it may surprise us what we miss.
Update: What a wonderful experience to read everyone's stories in the comment thread; sad, beautiful, infuriating and inspiring among them. Thanks for sharing. This is really a great function this community. We can all agree, racism sucks and we should all be treated with respect as individuals.