I didn’t fully understand the privileges that I enjoy as a black female in America until a recent incident, punctuated by the shooting death of Michael Brown, made it all the more clear.
Yep, you read that right—I’m touting my privileges as a black female, not my woes, which are typically what are written about and expressed.
I’ll start with the incident: Long story short—my black male friend and I were having drinks at a restaurant when I got into a pretty saucy exchange with an older, drunken man about the venue’s music. In an inebriated, four-minute slur of sorts, he stuttered on and on and desperately tried to prove some insignificant point. Boy, did I feel chastised and harangued—but more importantly, I was annoyed.
My friend waited longer than I liked to tell the guy to essentially stop speaking to us. “Enough,” my friend said, but in my opinion, that “enough” was several minutes too late. Plus, his delivery lacked the scorn I felt this drunken man deserved.
My friend explained to me his rule of thumb: that I should have ended the conversation with the stranger the minute it became antagonistic. He also said that his potential involvement—particularly as a black man—might not have ended peacefully or justly. He suggested that in the future, I should try to look the other way if a person who isn’t in a clear state of mind tries to speak with me. As luck would have it, the drunken man returned, and after ignoring him, I was able to see that my friend’s advice worked.
That wasn’t the first time I realized that black men in this country have had to learn to navigate these waters much differently from how I’ve had to as a black woman. Black men live by a different set of rules that at times fly in the face of how I tend to live my life.
By nature, I am never opposed to ruffling a few feathers in the name of fairness and doing what’s right. I speak up for myself—at times emphatically. Injustice makes my insides churn, and I’ve spoken up many a time when I felt that a police officer was being overzealous or condescending or exerting power out of pure ego and not necessity. (Much as I imagine Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Michael Brown did—to varying degrees—when they were approached by white civilians or confronted by white law enforcement.)
But black men have to be extra cautious about how they respond to adversity—hell, they have to be extra cautious about how they conduct themselves in most situations. I remember how broken I felt when another black male friend of mine—who has a hefty frame—explained to me that he always makes it a habit to cut sidewalk corners wide as not to startle white women. He always tries to crack jokes and appear congenial because he’s aware of how his looks might intimidate white people.
I’ve seen this self-editing performed by several black men in my life, but it never, ever gets any easier to watch. That they must alter their behavior to make white people feel comfortable makes me want to give a collective hug to all black men, but it also makes me feel helpless and a bit guilty, since I’m not necessarily subjected to that sort of anxiety.
It also makes me want to lay claim to my privileges—to declare them, so to speak, so that this acknowledgment might shed light on the injustices that people who don’t look me sometimes endure. In the powerful letter that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote while jailed in Birmingham, Ala., he described how he was most appalled by those people who maintained their neutrality in the face of moral injustice. If you sit back and continue to benefit from the status quo and you’re not speaking up about how the privileges you enjoy are harming others, then you are part of the problem.