Yesterday another editor and I were driving back to Chicago from a heartening weekend in the Twin Cities. We are two women holding varying degrees of privilege, depending on the situation. We checked into an airbnb, met hosts who were happy to see us. We went to a neighborhood with the trappings of community very familiar to us—socially-conscious hummus, free range chocolate, happy hour craft beards, sincere, genderqueer customer service. A volunteer-run bookstore opened its doors and let us read words and sing songs. We wandered the city, propped up by the so-called sharing economy, and it’s not an overstatement to say we were thoroughly welcomed everywhere we went. We didn’t talk about it, but I’m sure she’d agree that we both took for granted that we wouldn’t be seen as suspicious by anyone wearing a badge and carrying a gun. I drive a car whose parts and paper are up-to-date. We both work a variety of gigs that we call “hustles,” and though we’re busy, most tasks can be done from the comfort of our laptops.
We’ve each of us been seen as “brave” by people in our lives. The overuse of this word would be laughable if it wasn’t offensive. She’s been a refugee, I grew up working class. We’ve moved through and across borders called states on our own at different points, and have not always been welcome in all places. But we moved because we could, because we were looking for the world, for possibilities. Yes, there was some courage required, as well as naivete, hope, and luck. And of course, there was privilege.
If privilege and courage were congruous, I might believe in that world I was searching for more than I do today.
What I believe in now is that I’ll likely never be punished for my crimes. I have shoplifted and driven around with expired license plates. I have been pulled over for speeding. It never occurred to me that I’d be tased or shot or arrested.
There’s courage in living another day when your fines are accruing on a car in the impound lot, when the collection notices pile up in your mailbox, when you’re waiting to get on the visitation list at the prison so you can see your brother’s face, when you’re wondering when your case worker is going to get you into the supportive housing you applied for months ago, when your unemployment check is going to run out any day, when you’re worried about affiliations assumed when you wear certain colors. A few of these have been my hardships; most haven’t.
Alton Sterling sold CDs in a parking lot. Philando Castile had a broken tail light. I know few details about the series of life situations that led them to experience their last moments on earth as crimes punishable by murder. I do know, because I have been made to know, which means I have made the choice as a white person to pay attention, that to be born black in this country’s racial caste system of white supremacy is to be made to fight and fear for your life.
A person with a badge and gun has the privilege of knowing they can expect compliance from people who do not possess these objects. Compliance by murder is cowardice. Privilege—its excesses, its scarcity—begets different standards and requirements for bravery. I welcome the day when those tasked to serve and protect summon the courage to do exactly that. Until then, I dwell in possibility.