When I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last winter, I checked my jacket and bag before entering so I could enjoy the art unencumbered.
That’s exactly what I had to do metaphorically before I could enjoy Ta-Nehisi Coates’s powerful memoir “Between the World and Me”. I had to check my white privilege at page 1 so I could truly understand Coates’s masterpiece. Except checking my white privilege was harder that dropping off my jacket at the counter.
According to this Everyday Feminism article checking your privilege is a honest reflection on what unearned benefits society has given you usually due to your identity. For me, I launched into Coates’ work because it was the Summer Read at Mount Holyoke College. And it was a rough start, because I was annoyed at this black writer saying that the white “Dreamers” (those who uphold the American Dream) are and have been destroying the black people in the United States for centuries. He reminds the reader throughout his narrative that the nonviolent 1960s civil rights movement glorified every February is the furthest thing from over.
As a modern white “intersectional feminist” girl living in the suburbs, Coates’ words stung. Why? Because I was carrying my white privilege with me on this journey. I was annoyed that all whites for centuries were being given the heavy mantle of shame and blame for racism. That classic hidden racist line “Not all whites”—that was me at as I began to read.
Honestly, before I began reading “Between the World And Me” I thought I was decently woke about racial matters. I’d read Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and the constant news reports of black people killed by the brutality of the police. I thought I wasn’t part of the problem, however Coates’ writing convinced me otherwise. Cognitively, I knew that racism was a problem in the United States, however Coates’ life experiences really explained the effects in a way accessible to this white girl.
As a child, feeling that he devoted one-third of his brain to physically staying safe on the streets, being beaten to obedience by his parents in an effort to keep him safe from white authorities, how he traveled to France as a grown man and felt momentarily free from the racial oppression. Coates illustrates a lifetime of racism, both blatant and insidious, and works to explain to his son (whom the book is addressed to) that fighting against this prevailing force in American society is essentially a lost cause.
Here’s my take on privilege (which Coates may disagree with), oppressed people should advocate for themselves and tell their narratives (which Coates did so eloquently and beautifully), however it is crucial that those with more privilege assist the movements of the oppressed to break down the status quo. Without an accurate narrative from the oppressed however, everything can quickly go downhill into white saviorism. It’s important for white people to read books written for black audiences for this exact reason.
My possession of a light skin color gives me privilege, this is the status quo in the United States as Coates continually reminds his readers. If I refuse to acknowledge that, I’m no better than the college students who refused to integrate schools during the 1960s. They wanted their status quo to be upheld, without questioning. They accepted their white privilege, without questioning.
As Coates himself says “To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.”
We can not simply absolve ourselves of our historic sins, we must actively and sincerely repent of them, checking our white privilege at the door. It’s much harder than checking a jacket, but the reward for our nation will be so much greater.