WHITE PRIVIlege Math
It wasn’t the first time I was mugged. Or sadly the last.
But it was the one that changed my life. Thankfully not because of terrible physical harm or loss. But nor was it something slight.
Jason and I were returning from hiking Mt. Toubkal south of Marrakesh. Our train arrived in Tangier late at night. We planned to find a cheap hotel to crash at and then take the ferry to southern Spain the next morning. Tangier had a bad reputation for crime, we wanted to minimize our time there.
They targeted us immediately as we got off the train. More travel wise than we’d been the first few months of backpacking, we kept our eyes forward and walked with purpose without stopping. Trying our best not to engage them and hoping to leave them behind. But they were not to be denied.
It was over relatively quick. Though the lead up took a while. The men loudly fighting with the hotel owner downstairs, charging up to our room, retreating, then pulling a knife on Jason when he went to get water, then returning to our room threatening to kill us.
In the end it was hardly much. Screaming and pushing and we threw some money at them and got the door closed and they left. No blood, no vast sum lost. Almost inconsequential.
Except for one thing. When I looked into one of the men’s eyes, I saw whether I lived or died in that moment rested in his hands. Our murder was on his mind as clear as a photo.
The thought of dying wasn’t new. I’d had accidents, brushes with death. The uncertainty of my survival wasn’t a new experience. Nor was the possibility that another human might cause me harm.
What was new was seeing that he could get away with it. The way he smiled while thinking it; he was showing us that he could do it and never be caught. No one was coming to help us. For all I knew, he was friends with the police, or there were no police who cared, or he was the police.
He made it clear I was an alien in a place where aliens were afforded no safety. Which meant the only thing preventing him from taking my life was his own whim.
I experienced a kind of humility in that moment. Not simply the grace that life is beyond my control, but that a whole system, a whole world might take my life and no one in that world or system would take note. It was the feeling of being utterly powerless. That was the first time I’d experienced a system which had no regard for my life. I was 23.
That is white privilege.
I got to go the first 23 years of my life without knowing what that felt like; I got to form my entire identity without that experience being a part of it.
In fact, I had to buy a plane ticket and fly across the Atlantic, take trains and ferrys and a miserable 6-hour truck ride in the back of a pick-up with ten other people, literally go to the other side of the world and back-pack into almost nowhere, before I experienced what black Americans experience EVERYDAY in America from the moment they’re born.
And once you experience it, it stays with you. You do not forget what it feels like, or the look in the eye, or the way a person stands when they know they can kill you and get away with it. It is a type of power over another that NO ONE in a free country should experience. And that NO ONE should be allowed to carry.
To say it should go without saying should go without saying, but there is no such thing as a free country in which some of its citizens know law enforcement could kill them without cause and get away with it.
That is the definition of NOT free. Because fear of authority then has a voice in your every single decision.
Where you go, how you talk, what you wear, who you look at, how you look at people, who you hang out with, and on and on. Once you’re aware that someone COULD kill you without consequence, your freedom has been compromised.
It doesn’t matter how many good cops there are.
Every single black American has to live their entire life knowing they could run into the bad one. And there’s no way to tell. Because the police aren’t doing the job of weeding them out. They’re protecting them.
It shouldn’t take centuries or decades or thousands of dead or hundreds of protests for change.
It should take ONE death for the entire system to change.
Because everyone should be morally outraged by the possibility that fear trumps freedom in America. But it does and has and continues to do so.