A couple weeks ago, our friends Nick and Heather were here visiting and we went downtown to eat lunch. After, Ferrett said that we had to take them to the most amazing men’s clothing store, Albert’s, which is downtown.
Albert’s customers are mostly African-American, and it caters to people who want to dress with style and flash. The window displays always have suits in sherbet colors, with matching shoes. The fashion is decidedly urban, and a lot of fun.
So the four of us walk in. I immediately felt the tension in the air as the clerks all turned to look at us. It was a game day; lots of people downtown who usually aren’t. This was two big, very white guys, with their wives. Were we there to ridicule? To make trouble? I could feel them holding their breath. I felt self-conscious and awkward, like I was invading in a place I shouldn’t be. It took a lot for me to smile and step the rest of the way into the store.
It quickly became apparent that we were just enthusiastic shoppers, and everyone relaxed and visited with us while Ferrett tried on a flashy jacket (alas, it didn’t fit him through the shoulders in a way that would have required too much tailoring) and the rest of us wandered around admiring the suits (most of which weren’t in exotic colors) and shirts. It was all good, and we departed with warm well-wishes.
And as I left, I realized that, for most African-Americans, particularly black males, that tension we felt when we first entered the store is the reaction they get almost every place they go. The only difference? For them, it generally doesn’t fade away. The entire time they are in a business, people are eyeing them. Tense. Waiting for something bad to happen. They face that kind of tension day after day.
Lots of people look askance at the notion of white privilege—this so-called privilege hasn’t afforded them a nice car or a good job or the ability to buy a house. But that’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about privilege. I’m talking about the kind of invisible ease with which people can move through life. The average white person doesn’t think about the fact that they are welcome in their local grocery store. That no one follows them around, watching their every move.
That if they pick up a toy gun in the kid’s section of Walmart and carry it with them to grab a gallon of milk, they don’t have to worry about someone calling 911 and getting them shot dead in the automotive section.
It’s these small things, so invisible as to be considered just “how life is” that I’m talking about when I talk about privilege. Yes, there was that study where they sent out identical resumes, half with white-sounding names and half with black-sounding names, and the ones with white-sounding names got responses at a rate more than double. Yes, there is the pervasive inequality in the terms for mortgages given to black and white people with the same credit scores and incomes. There are lots of those big things that need to be addressed.
But the little things, the invisible things, the things that allow white people to move through their lives unhampered, they have barriers for black people. And we need to be sensitive to that. So that it can change.