Dear Kim Kardashian West:
As you bask in the adoration and applause for the part you played in Alice Marie Johnson’s freedom, I’m sure I’m the last person you want to hear from (not that you even know I exist). But I’d like to thank you for proving to the world that white privilege is so overwhelmingly powerful, it can get an audience with the president, break into a prison and help a black woman escape a life sentence.
As a frequent critic of yours for everything from pretending that you stumbled across a brand-new hairstyle called “Bo Derek braids” to your semiblackface makeup, I would also like to make sure you know one thing.
You did not free Alice Marie Johnson.
Donald Trump did not free Alice Marie Johnson.
White privilege freed Alice Marie Johnson.
In no way does this diminish your laudable efforts, Kim. In fact, it makes them more important. Prior to your act of heroism, people of the Caucasian persuasion rejected the idea that they benefited from being born white in a nation constructed on the idea of their supremacy. When people of color point out the inherent entitlement that accompanies whiteness, we are often dismissed out of hand.
But with the release of Johnson, you definitively proved, once and for all, that white privilege has real-world implications. From now on, whenever people deny it, I will sing the new Negro spiritual:
Go down, Kardashian
Way down in Wypipoland
Tell Orange Pharoah
To let Alice Johnson goooo ...
I’m still working out the lyrics, but you should understand that the concept of white privilege is not something black people invented to cast aspersions or play the victim. The phrase originates from Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (pdf), meant to explain the default social advantage that grants white people certain unseen benefits. In the essay, McIntosh explains:
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
Even though you somehow made the White House a stop on the Underground Railroad, I know that large parts of black America have been reluctant to commend you for your activism. This is because we sometimes get tired of hearing about white saviors. We recognize that, oftentimes, the hero who saves the victim from the burning house is the one who set the fire. Such is the case with Johnson.
Alice Marie Johnson is not free because the powers that be finally recognized the injustice of her sentence. Black celebrities, Yale Law students and campaigns on Change.org had been advocating for her release for years. Alice Marie Johnson is free because a rich white woman convinced a rich white man to commute her sentence.
Neither you nor Trump is responsible for the incarceration and unjust sentencing of Johnson. However, the system that allowed you to waltz into the White House and successfully petition for her freedom is the exact same system that put her behind bars in the first place. She was in jail because of white supremacy, and white supremacy freed her.
That is why we are hesitant to offer you praise.
Johnson was given a life sentence for conspiracy to possess cocaine and the possession of cocaine. Even though, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, black people are less likely to use cocaine than white people, blacks are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug use, according to a report by a Human Rights Watch senior counsel published in Stanford Law & Policy Review (pdf).
Much of what we describe as the systemic racism embedded in this country’s criminal-justice system is that black people do not have access to the same resources as our white counterparts. If you’re rich and white, even if you break the law, you are much less likely to suffer the consequences of those actions.
Even when it comes to pardons, whites are four times more likely than blacks to receive them, according to ProPublica. In any discussion of injustice, we must acknowledge that money and whiteness are a literal “Get out of jail free” card in this country. It is an undeniable, quantifiable privilege.
I certainly understand why some wypipo find it difficult to accept the presence of privilege. In her essay, McIntosh even explains that she was meant to remain oblivious to it. But admitting that white privilege exists should not imply that white people are inherently bad. With that recognition, however, white people can use their privilege for more than just low-interest mortgage loans and outing Negroes loitering in local Starbucks cafés. They can use it for good.
And that’s why I want to thank you, Kim. You used your white privilege for good.
I know there are some people who will say that your new campaign against mass incarceration is just a PR stunt. But I don’t care if you put your advocacy for a black woman’s freedom in the same category as the recognition you receive for a curiously perfectly lit Instagram booty shot. Johnson probably wouldn’t even care if you created your own Harriet Tubman Snapchat filter; she is a free woman.
But you and the world must also recognize that the social order that allowed you to skip the criminal-justice system’s single-file line and sashay into the Oval Office is the exact same system that incarcerated Alice Marie Johnson in the first place.
You proved that white privilege is real. Hopefully, white America will see that.
Probably not ... but thanks anyway.
P.S.: Please let Kanye know that Alice Marie Johnson’s sentence was not a choice.