In high school I was often counted on to provide a ride when someone wanted to cut class, to be the one who could get by the security guards to pick something up during school, or generally be able to talk us out of a pickle. I earnestly tried to help my friends learn the combination of exuded self-confidence that you were doing the right thing to avoid being stopped and humility that a lesson was learned and no other punishment was needed when caught. But a number of my friends didn’t seem able to pick up on those lessons.
Today I offered to run down to the teen area on the first floor of a library to carry a spare chair up to a second floor conference room for a project I’m evaluating. The head of teen services shouted out not to let anyone give me guff for moving that chair, then followed up with a half-jest, whole-truth, saying “Oh wait, your a white male so you won’t be stopped!” Memories flooded back from my high school years. I know enough now to realize it was not likely the quality of my teaching or the ability of my friends to learn that allowed me to roam the halls of my high school unfettered while they were regularly stopped. But at my 80% black high school, it was the color of skin that afforded me privilege to generally avoid being stopped and always to talk myself out of real punishment when stopped.
Some years back I bumped into an old friend from high school who expressed surprise to see me, and especially to hear I had earned my doctorate. Many thought my cleverness would eventually catch up to me and I would end up in jail. All else being the same, those would have been the safe odds had I been born with dark skin. Grace of God that I didn’t end up in jail? No … more likely the original sin of man in the U.S. Yes, I had great mentors, but so did many of my friends.
I can’t change the past, nor can I reject how privilege has benefited me. I can only choose how I will apply that privilege in building a future.