Things that white privilege allows you to do

An open letter to white people

In David Foster Wallace’s parable, “This is water”, he tells a story of these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

Well…here we go.

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I envy you.

I envy you not because your median household wealth is 10x’s that of mine. I don’t envy you because wherever you decide to move that neighborhood appraisal goes up, education is great; you have a Starbucks, Traders, and Wholefoods all within walking distance.

My green-eyed monster is not creeping because in many places around the world your whiteness affords you the benefit of the doubt while my blackness, too often, affords me suspicion.

Nor does my discontent come from the mere fact that even though I may be more qualified for a job, business engagement, or any form of career advancement — -you would still likely get the opportunity before me.

I don’t envy you because your physical aesthetics set the bar for the perceived standard of beauty or because you can take things of black culture — — flip it, profit from it, and say that you created this new sensation i.e., rock and roll, twerking, and the discovery of the “hair bonnet.”

My envy comes from the simple notion that your privilege allows you to do some of the most basic shit in life — -and live.

February 23rd, Ahmaud Arbery was out doing something really basic — -jogging. Yet this 25 year old Black man wasn’t allowed to stay healthy and active. During his jog, two white men, civilians, assumed he was a burglar, chased Ahmaud down, demanded he tell him who he was and what he was doing. His resistance led to him being gunned down in the streets seconds before the police arrived. Beyond the lost of life, the next greatest grievance, the father and son murders have yet to be arrested at the time of this writing.

Several years ago, I too was jogging in my neighborhood. And on my way back home, police officers followed me for about a block. I remember that feeling of angst, nervousness, and despair created because I was a black man jogging mid-afternoon in a gentrifying neighborhood. Since that day, I have not jogged on the streets.

Some people, often white people, like to pretend that racism doesn’t exist anymore. Some say their is only one race, the human race, therefore they don’t see color. Others proclaim to be an ally, yet they never speak against racial injustice or show any empathy or sympathy towards the black struggle. Then there are those who choose to believe us speaking out for equity, equality, and inclusion; or calling out systemic injustices, is a ploy of a victim mindset.

If you are one of those quasi-liberal minded white folks that believe we have had progress, I implore you to wake up. If you are color blind, I ask that you see my color, because while there is much beauty, pride, and brilliance in being black…there is much pain, tribulation, and suffrage that was cast upon my blackness.

If you believe you are an ally, but only promote your feminist or LGBTQ initiatives, please talk to a Black woman or Black LGBTQ person. Try to understand how their race impacts their intersectionality.

The reality, especially in America, arguably around the world — -racism is the largest pandemic that is killing us slowly. It has been a cancer to this nation since August 27, 1619 when the first enslaved Africans landed in Jamestown.

Here is a very short list I comprised of the basic things your white privilege allows you to do:

Wear a hoodie while walking from a convenience store- Trayvon Martin

Play video games late at night with your niece or nephew- Atatiana Jefferson

Exercise your right to bare arms and carry a concealed registered weapon- Philando Castile,

Have your 12 year old child play in a park- Tamir Rice

Hang out on a street corner- Eric Garner

Sit in your apartment- Botham Jean

Crash your car and ask for help- Johnathan Ferrell

Walk home- Mike Brown

Mouth off to cops- Sandra Bland

Reaching for your wallet- Amadou Diallo

Talking on your cellphone- LaTanya Haggerty

Leaving your bachelor party- Sean Bell

Walking on the sidewalk- Ezell Ford

Jogging- Ahmaud Arbery

This list could grow and fill a large text book due to the number of deaths of black people attributed to fear, systemic racism, and varying forms of bias.

While situations of life and death seems to be a far extreme of privilege, for many people of color it is not.

If you had to flee for asylum, your privilege will likely keep your children in your arms and not taken away from you to be locked up in cages like those families forced into separation at the U.S.-Mexico boarder.

Privilege allows white mothers to receive sympathy and help for opioid addiction and not looks of disgust and grossly sentencing to prison like black mothers addicted to crack cocaine.

When we consider crime in general, this is the same privilege that allows majority white criminals that commit white-collar crimes, that according to the American Association of Certified Fraud Examiners and the FBI, attribute to more than $300 Billion dollars of losses per year.

Unlike street level crimes that typically have a one-to-one impact, white collar crimes have severe and long lasting impact on society. Criminals of these crimes receive shorter sentences, sometimes house arrest, or simply have to pay fines. People like Paul Manafort who stole millions of dollars, lied repeatedly, showed no remorse, and had a recommended sentencing of nearly 50 years — yet is only serving 7 years. In addition he may receive a pardon from his homie, President Trump, due to COVID-19.

Where as a black person who mistakenly voted because she did not know her right to vote was revoked until she completed her probation, she was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Her appeal was recently denied and she is likely not going to receive a pardon due to the pandemic.

Privilege allows varying industries to have marginal gains in racial and ethnic representation, to the point to where these marginal gains are accepted as a best faith effort. Privilege allows for you to implement policy, whether official or not, that states a black person’s natural hair coils and pattern are considered inappropriate for the workplace or school setting, but yours is not.

Consider for a moment that your privilege allows you access to more investor capital, better procurement budgets, better loan rates, or even access to business loans at all — -thus allowing you to startup an enterprise faster and potentially have a longer run toward success.

If you are reading this and you feel my message is a broad brush stroke that isn’t fair, judgmental, and doesn’t apply to you — -know that is likely your privilege stepping in to protect your thinking and perception of the world.

This isn’t to say that you have not or may not have challenges in life. You have likely encountered hardship at some point. I’m not saying you haven’t had to work hard for what you have obtained or your level of success. I am not saying you have not had a bad encounter with the police or confrontation with a neighbor.

What I am saying is that you privilege allows you access to the liberties America proclaims is for all. Your privilege provides you an advantage in this capitalistic society. Your privilege allows you to live.

Truth is we all have privileges. I have the privilege of knowing the world around me is systematically built not with me in mind. Some call this a handicap, but my perspective is to think of it as an advantage because I see an opportunity to build a world where equity is the norm. My privilege in being black has given me the resilience to keep striving for more and not to give up.

In one of his most famous quotes, James Baldwin said:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.

Now that I think about it, this is not envy I am feeling, it is the rage that Baldwin is speaking of. My hope is that at some point you too will be in the same state of rage as we, black people, are.

That would be a privilege truly worth fighting for.


Louis Byrd is also Chief Visionary Officer at Goodwim Design, a hybrid design studio developing technology solutions that positively impact culture and people.

Tea Lover | Creative + Engineer | Director of Experience Design @VMLY&R | Chief Visionary Officer @ Goodwim Design | Woke before it was a trend!

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