I live in a Minneapolis suburb, though I am far enough away that I cannot see the smoke. I cannot hear the protests. My sleep is not disturbed by the sounds of gunfire and sirens. While the murder of George Floyd has angered me, I have been separated from the cacophony of a world aflame.
I have felt helpless and rooted in place, and it has forced some introspection. I know I do not truly understand the emotions or thoughts of the communities affected by this murder. So I have been listening. As I hear the anguish, the powerlessness, the frustration, and as I read what it’s like to fear a similar fate as George Floyd, I have been reminded that I have lived a privileged life compared to many people in my country.
A decision lay before me: to live within the comfort and protection of my privilege or to use it for something positive. I chose the latter.
I took what I heard and wrote this.
I am not black.
I am not of eastern Asian descent, nor Slavic or Middle Eastern, nor a member of most of the other wonderful ancestries that humans are blessed to have.
I am not Muslim, nor a member of any of the non-Christian religions that bring people comfort across the world.
I am not female, nor any of the other genders we are discovering in our DNA.
I am not gay, and I do not fit into any of the sexual orientations that close-minded people refuse to acknowledge.
I am not missing any of my five senses or four limbs. My brain doesn’t process the world in a way that requires additional interpretation.
I’ve never been impoverished or homeless.
I am a straight white male living in America and there are very few words that we use to modify that description. We live in a country that must label people to remind them they are different than a particular type of person – that they are other. That they do not have my privilege.
I recognize that in the United States, I have more privilege than all of these wonderfully different ways to be human.
I will never be called some of the vilest words in the English language. They will never be used on my children. The strongest words people think they can use to hurt me are “beta male”, “cuck”, “blood traitor”, and “liberal scum”, epithets paler than the skin of the people who hurled them. They forget that our shared privilege means there are no truly horrible words that people can use to hurt us.
I can trace my family ancestry to some of the earliest religious colonists, back across the Atlantic, to Old World Europe. I do not know what it’s like to have my history reduced to 400 years, with the important events limited to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.
My grandparents and great-grandparents never told stories of family stolen from their homeland. I have no concept of not being able to research what holidays my ancestors celebrated, what languages they spoke, or where they lived.
I do not know what it’s like to be one of the last of my people or how it feels to live on a scrap of property that’s a fraction of the land my ancestors once roamed. My culture has not been eradicated by colonization, war, or slavery.
The citizens of my family have never been interred in an American concentration camp. I’ve never had my children taken from me and lost by a government that didn’t think tracking such things mattered. I’ve never seen my caricature used in patriotic propaganda.
I can be stopped by three police cars and know that I was not profiled by my skin color. I know this because it has happened twice to me.
I do not know what it’s like to be presumed guilty until proven innocent and dragged into the street. I’ve never seen flashing lights and considered getting shot. I’ve never had my hands up and expected to die. I’ve never had to say, “I’m not resisting” or “I can’t breathe.” I’ve never had a gun planted on my corpse.
I have never feared a racist mob or been taunted with threats of lynching. I’ve never seen my parents attacked for having two different colors of skin. I’ve never seen people posing with the dead body of someone who looks like me.
I have no idea whether my ancestors were called an “infestation” or “rapists and murders”. I have no idea whether their immigration was threatened by the military or whether they were told they should die within sight of America’s freedom. I have had the privilege of assuming that none of these happened, and it’s very likely that’s true.
I can visit almost any small town in America and blend in as though I belong.
My lifestyle has never resulted in protests in the streets or proclamations that I was hell-bound. I’ve never received threats because of who I loved. I’ve never been denied a bathroom because my body didn’t conform to a binary delineation.
I do not know what it’s like to be overlooked for a job due to prejudice. I do not know what it’s like to be asked to do something demeaning in exchange for a job. I have not had a manager treat me differently because he assumed I would cry.
It is not presumed I am in my job for reasons other than qualifications. I have not been a number in a quota nor a required diversity box to check.
I have never been groped in the office. I have never been sexually assaulted or raped. I don’t have to fear walking alone.
I’ve never read a book, looked at a computer, listened to music, or had a conversation without my senses intact and my body whole. I have never had store aisles too narrow for my wheelchair or crutches. I’ve never struggled with stairs. I’ve never seen my affliction mocked by a candidate for President of the United States. I’ve never feared that I would be killed because my brain works differently than others, but I am scared to death for my autistic son.
My calls for equality have not been labeled as “a war on Christmas”, “femi-nazism”, “political correctness”, or “the end of White culture”.
I’ve never been assumed lazy because I needed government assistance. I’ve never been accused of scamming the system because my body was no longer capable of handling a full-time job. I’ve been too proud to file for WIC.
I’ve never wondered where my next meal was coming from or whether I would have a roof over my head as I slept.
I have never been yelled at for speaking an additional language. I have never been considered suspicious for not speaking English.
I have never been followed around a retail store because of the color of my skin, my accent, or my attire.
I am a straight white male living in America, and my privilege has sheltered me. There is a long list above this, and I realize I’ve taken things for granted. I cannot change my skin nor my gender nor any of the other physical things that make me who I am. So what can I do?
I can listen.
I can be curious to learn about different cultures and religions. I can listen to their stories, their joys, their loves, their fears.
I can be angry and sad and horrified when a person of color is killed in police custody. I can believe that most cops are sickened by the evil character of those who disgraced their uniform.
I can accept that Black Lives Matter without vomiting some reductive “all lives matter” bullshit. I can care for people who are suffering without my compassion coming at the expense of others. We all have enough compassion to go around.
I can tell the difference between peaceful protestors and rioters causing terror for pleasure, and make damn sure others understand this, too.
I can comfort my neighbor as her childhood neighborhood in Minneapolis burns.
I can add my voice to a growing list of colleagues who are calling for more than just internal communications about the George Floyd murder.
I can help people like me understand that “privilege” doesn’t mean we didn’t struggle. It doesn’t mean people think we grew up in mansions. It doesn’t negate our lives in rural areas where we had limited access to civilized America, people lived in rundown trailers, or relied on hand-me-down clothes. It means we weren’t at a disadvantage because of the color of our skin.
I can affirm that we still live in a world – fifty years later – that judges people by the color of their skin, not by the content of their hearts.
I can recognize that racism did not end with the election of Barack Obama. I can define the birther movement as a successful strategy to mobilize and embolden racist America.
I can write a novel that features a diverse cast of characters, not because I want to tell someone else’s story, but because I think we need more heroes that don’t look like me.
I can recognize that religions and other belief systems are filled with good people with similar ideals.
I can remember that helping people get ahead does not put me behind. I can remind us that a greater number of successful people in our country is better for us all: spiritually, financially, and most important, morally.
I can refuse to laugh at jokes about rape and racism and the dehumanizing of people.
I can educate, not attack.
I can recognize that most of the television I saw as a child – and the commercials, the movies, the toys – featured white people predominantly. I can articulate that other kinds of people were not seen as marketable or not believed to have substantial buying power as a community.
I can recognize that I did not appreciate the location of my wedding, the freedom to have it, or the lack of protests.
I can listen to music from other lands. Watch movies with subtitles. Read books by authors around the world.
I can refuse to place the Covid-19 blame on people of eastern Asian heritage.
I can believe that our military is comprised of honorable people. I can listen as they describe what it’s like to hear the suggestion that they should turn their weapons on American citizens or innocent refugees. I can embrace them as old fears and survivor’s guilt return yet again.
I can share the common language of laughter with everyone I meet.
I can work with Boy Scouts to help them understand what it means to be responsible human beings.
I can call people on their bigotry. I can listen and respect when someone offers to help me understand my own bias.
I can offer a hand, a dollar, or a friendly smile to someone who needs it.
I can refuse to stand on the backs of others on my way to a better life, in this world or the next.
I can help people understand that the condemnation of atrocious acts is not a political matter, but the responsibility we have as moral human beings in a compassionate society. I can both respect authority and hold it accountable.
I can hire people who bring a different perspective.
I can take the descriptor “aggressively feminist” as a compliment and wear it as a badge of honor.
I can help people understand what it’s like to raise a child with severe autism.
I can help people understand how to react when a loved one reveals a portion of their true self that they’ve hidden. I can be an ally to those cast out because their own family didn’t understand.
I can provide understanding or empathy or love when attacked by someone with dementia, PTSD, or other afflictions that are not their fault. I can be angry at the condition, not the person.
I can remind people that taking a knee is not about disrespecting the flag or our military.
I can use the pronoun that a person prefers and accept them the same as I did before. The writer in me can delight in another way to describe people.
I can attend the wedding of two people in love.
I can hear the fear in my friends’ voices when they worry about being prosecuted, attacked, or murdered for simply existing. I can share the anger of those who have fewer rights.
I can help ensure that the stories of the under-privileged are not only told but heard by people who haven’t experienced the entire, wonderful breadth of humanity.
I can respect people and their feelings because they are humans.
I can help.
I can listen.
I can listen.
Our family has been fortunate to embrace – and be embraced – by members of nearly every group of people mentioned above. Some we call colleague, some we call friend, some we call family.
Each we call human.
I’ll end with an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s “Human Family”, something that has resonated with me since I first heard her read it.
In minor ways we differ, in major we’re the same. I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, But we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.
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© Michael Wallevand, June 2020