I’m ashamed to admit that it took me more than four decades to learn the above sentiment, and probably I’m still in the long hard process of learning it. In my twenties, I remember refusing to join the Gay Straight Alliance at Syracuse because I thought they were too hard on straight people. When my feed erupted with grief about Ferguson and Charleston and all the other white atrocities of the past few years and my friends all called out for white people to wake up, I’m ashamed to admit that it hurt my feelings. I’d been doing my best to fight racism and I wanted credit for that, like some kind of get-out-of-racism-free card.
That’s white fragility—we’re so used to not having to think about our racial identity that it feels upsetting when someone asks us to examine our role in things. My entitlement was in thinking that for acknowledging the existence of racism, I should somehow get a pass, should get some kind of gratitude. The poets asking white people to wake up weren’t necessarily even talking about me, but I felt indignant anyway, entitled to credit and rewards for caring about justice, which is really the bare minimum of what every human being should do.
Those at the top of the privilege pile (Here I’m talking about white people, but this also applies to male, straight, cis, Christian, and all of the other American entitlements) we feel hurt when we’re questioned because we (unconsciously, I hope) think that our status entitles us to be the ones doing the questioning, the shaping, the defining of even the most deeply personal parts of other people’s lives.
The thing that makes me the angriest about entitlement is the way that we colonize other people’s identities. We superimpose our idea of what people should be and refuse to let them define themselves. That is an evil coercion that threatens and warps the basic, unique, loving perfection that each individual is born with. I would love to see what we’d all be like without the personal colonizations of the power structure.
One of the most sickening examples of white entitlement is the idea I keep hearing from white people that if people of color “showed more respect” to the police, they would not be hurt. This is an abuser’s mindset, and there is absolutely no way for abused people to win it. As someone who grew up with abusive parents, I can understand a tiny fragment of what this might feel like. You bend and twist and hide and equivocate to try and please your oppressor and create some kind of safety for yourself. You learn the moods and whims and warning signs and you shrink yourself down as far as you can go, but you always, always still get hit, hurt, punished. Or in the case of so many people of color, murdered by police.
The insidious idea beneath all of this is the same one that fuels rape culture: the assumption that if something bad happens to you, you must deserve it. My mother broke my heart when she suggested that Trayvon Martin must’ve done something we didn’t know about.
People embrace this false reasoning to protect themselves from the sadness all around them, and I can feel compassionate about that, but it isn’t okay the way it allows us to turn a blind, callous eye toward the people who need us most. Blaming the victim is what allows all cycles of abuse to continue, what makes the fight for fairness feel so impossible.
But I’m mostly writing this to expose my own very regrettable blind spots. Last spring, in a fight about something only vaguely related, a former friend said that I’d failed as a teacher because of my entitlement and cowardice. Mean, but not entirely wrong. There were a million things that made me a bad fit for the classroom, but there was also this:
In retrospect, I think I felt entitled to a level of respect from the children that was not directly proportional to my basic person-ness. As a white person with primarily black students, I think that on some level I expected the kids to treat me better because some creepy, awful part of me thought I was better. In times of stress, ugly things came out of my mouth that I will never forgive myself for. At my last school, I got livid when parents would rather talk to my African American grade partner, despite the fact that she had four decades of experience on me, vastly more insight into the children’s lives, and was generally all-around awesome. (She tried so hard to convince me that I was a good teacher, to prop me up as I collapsed under anxiety, and I should probably write her a letter of thanks.) I went into education to fight the achievement gap and be a resource for African American children, and I am deeply ashamed of how much gratitude I thought I deserved for that.
White entitlement is only a tiny piece of the sociopolitical tangle of life in those classrooms, but it was a thread. I’m not telling you all this to ask for absolution, but to share some important missteps on my road to imperfect but steadfast allyship. I’m so ashamed, I’m so sorry, and thank you for sticking with me in spite of my failures.
To change things, we all have to be able to check our assumptions and examine our underlying motivations, our ugly inherited selfishness about our place in the world. Today, I try to be always ready to say I’m sorry, always ready to listen. I feel so grateful to everyone who has been a bridge for me, who has let me cross over into other circles and cultures and make stupid mistakes so I can get better. It’s a very lucky life, and I’m going to keep trying hard to honor it.