Thursday, August 14, 2014

When Your Privilege Begins to Hit Home

As the descendent of 1960s liberals, I was raised with the idea that it was important to fight injustice.  Often that means continually exposing myself to painful truths that can violently rattle my sense of self as I confront my own biases.  As I watch the horrific events unfold this summer in Gaza and Ferguson, Missouri, I am grateful to my friends and colleagues on social media who have shared their stories and insights to deepen and complicate my and perspective.  

And yet sometimes you have experiences that bring home certain societal truths and revelations about privilege more painfully than any Facebook post or Salon article possibly could.

Tonight when I got on the train, I realized I forgot my keys.  I am not the most organized person, so this is hardly a rare occurrence.  Normally I would just buzz in when I got home, but I knew my roommate had to be up at 3:00 a.m. for work the in morning. So instead I texted my other roommate, asking him when he thought he might be back from rehearsal.  I never heard from him, but I figured he usually got home around 10:30-11:00, and I could just hang out and journal about my feelings on the stoop till he got back.

But time kept passing and soon my phone was going to die.  There is a power outlet in the foyer, so I thought if I could get someone to let me in I could charge my phone while I waited for him to come back.  When I finally saw someone come up the steps, I attempted to sneak in behind him.  That was probably an awkward and rude thing to do, and the guy got really pissed.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m sorry” I stammered, “I forgot my keys--I didn’t mean to--”

“I don’t know you,” he said angrily.

“I know.  And I’m sorry,” I said.  “I live in 1L--I can show you my ID.  My name’s on the mailbox.”

“I don’t care.  I don’t know you!”

“Let me show you my ID.”

“I said I don’t care!” He said. “You’re in.”

“Thanks--I’m really sorry--”

“Don’t talk to me. You’re a stranger to me.”

“I know.  I know.” I held out my hand. “I’m Lisa.”

He stormed past, slamming the door right next to mine.  

A couple of things ran through my mind while I sat slumped in the foyer waiting for my roommate (the outlet turned out to not be working).  First, the universal sad truth of New Yorkers of how we barely know the people in our own buildings.

But then on a deeper level, I thought about my own audacity at expecting to be able to simply slip behind someone I didn’t know to get into a building.  As a petite white girl, it’s difficult to imagine a situation when anyone would consider my presence behind him at 11 o’clock at night a security threat.  For my idiotic mistake of forgetting my keys and momentary rudeness, the most I was likely get was a dirty look from my neighbor who let me in or annoyance from my roommate for waking her up.  Both of which, might make me feel shitty, but wouldn’t kill me.  

If I were a person of color, I might not have been shot.

I started to think about Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell, people barely younger than myself who were shot and killed in the past year for trying to seek help from strangers after suffering serious car crashes. Because for some white people in this country the presence of a black young person is such a threat that they feel they need to lethally neutralize that threat as if it were a rabid dog.  

And this is not right.   

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