I grew up thinking I had a really hard life. I was a survivor. Oldest of five? All of the pressure! All of the extra responsibilities! Babysitting my little brothers and sisters! I always played the victim. I didn't get into my school district's Talented and Gifted program even though I knew I was brilliant. The coach didn't played me enough even though I was clearly the best on the team.
I tried to use my victimhood to motivate me. I took all of the hard classes in high school to prove I should have been a 7-year old TAG kid who rode the bus once a week to a special school in a faraway location. I ended up making all-league basketball my senior year. But really, the victim look was pathetic on me.
Between the lines you can see my privilege oozing out. A college prep education with plenty of extracurriculars. In high school and college, I worked jobs for gas money and movies, not food or rent. A spacious home in a quiet, safe neighborhood. Two parents who loved each other and a larger family who loved and supported me.
A friend once said about the kids in our neighborhood, "We had everything we needed, and a few things we wanted, and nothing more." We had a little more than most, but I didn't know that until much later. There truly isn't a better way to grow up.
Into my forties, I am still realizing all the ways my life has been charmed. It has been a slow process, this unearthing of my privilege. Kind of like digging through sand with my bare hands. The sand is always shifting and the bottom still isn't in sight.
I remember being a senior in high school and an Asian friend explaining to me the concept of "Driving While Asian." We were sitting in AP English with our copies of Things Fall Apart and he kept insisting that cops targeted him and other minorities on the road. They would pull him over for no reason, and even occasionally harass him. This was my introduction to racial profiling and I thought he was being completely ridiculous. I could read a book about blacks in Africa and believe their oppression, but I couldn't accept it was still happening in my own country.
A few years later, after I met Ed, I watched him get pulled over by cops needlessly and ridiculously. I saw it with my eyes in real life, and I could no longer deny it. I started doing most of the driving and handling all interactions with law enforcement. It was easier.
And later we had kids and lived in a little town called Reston tucked deep into the DC suburbs. Reston was supposed to be this shangri la of the south. Constructed in the early 1960s by an eccentric and idealistic millionaire, it was explicitly unsegregated and meticulously planned. Quite diverse in terms of race and income, it really did live up to most of its hype, but privilege didn't disappear completely.
Reston was comprised of several neighborhood villages. Each village included different types of housing, a central shopping area, and often an elementary school and park. The villages were connected by roads, but also by a system of wooded trails for biking and walking. We spent a lot of time walking and biking those trails with a young Noé and Asher. Besides the public parks, most neighborhoods had their own private playgrounds. Technically, these playgrounds were only for the kids that lived in the neighborhood, but no one really enforced that rule and kids were free to play anywhere.
The boys LOVED one of the private parks in particular, nestled right against the Reston trails near our home. I think it was the fast, twisty slide that warmed their little hearts the most. One day, Ed came in with the boys after a walk. Everyone seemed upset. When I inquired, Ed explained that they were kicked off that beloved playground by a neighbor. I was shocked - I'd taken the kids to that park many times without incident. I knew a lot of the moms and kids who played there and we were always made to feel welcome. When I expressed my outrage, Ed just mumbled something like..."it wasn't the first time this has happened." I was welcomed to this private space with my kids, Ed was yelled at and told to leave with these same kids. Repeatedly.
Oh...there are so many more stories to tell. The Greek laundromat owner in our Queens neighborhood who screamed at Ed for every ridiculous infraction whenever he went in to do our laundry (and I thought for the longest time he was just trying to get out of helping with the laundry). The time when I had to go rent an apartment without Ed because our friends who were leaving us the apartment sheepishly admitted they were afraid the owner may not rent to us if Ed was there. (Yes, in retrospect, we should have never played that game, but the rent was SO good and the location was SO great...a New Yorker's dream).
The funny thing about Ed is that he never cries foul. He never once pointed out what became fairly obvious - like most other POC in this country, he was being singled out for the color of his skin, so I came to these realizations on my own. Perhaps more slowly than most.
There was this process of realization for me with every incident that went something like this:
1) my oblivious denial of racism in the world, or at least in *my* world
*racist act occurs*
2) initial confusion and disbelief
3) realization and stark anger
This process has been condensed for me now to - initial confusion and then quick anger. I can sniff it out pretty fast now.
It's to the point now where I often do things, just because I know I can get away with it, to remind myself of my own privilege. Nothing illegal or really even wrong, just dumb stuff, like going into a nice restaurant that I'm not eating at just to use the restroom. And then as I'm walking through the restaurant, I think...this is about where Ed would get stopped.
I just can't believe there are white people in America who deny the existence of the privilege the color of their skin affords them. But then, I can. Because I was one of them. It all comes back to being willing to understand the experience of POC in this country. Reaching out, listening to them, and believing them.