The first time I remember (because I’m sure there were many other times before this one as there have been countless times since) experiencing the full brunt of my white privilege, I didn’t realize it right away. In fact, I didn’t realize it until years later.
Upon reflection, January 20, 2009 was distinctly different from most days of my childhood, even though it started just the same. I went to school. I took the bus home. I walked a quarter of a mile up the street to my best friend Ashley’s house. We would always sit in her driveway and make masterpieces in chalk or we would play make believe and her house on top of the large hill would become our castle and we would both be princesses. Sometimes we would go adventuring through the woods until it got dark and I would retreat due to fear of the unknown. She was always braver than me.
However, as I said, this day was different. When I entered Ashley’s house, I saw her family huddled around the TV holding each other and crying as they watched something I couldn’t make out on the screen. As I moved closer, I noticed it was Obama’s inauguration; I had forgotten all about it. Ashley’s mother beckoned me over to join them and I sat awkwardly a few feet away. I couldn’t place my discomfort at the time. At 10 years old I couldn’t explain why observing my best friend’s inexplicable joy over a man with skin just like her immigrant father’s accepting the most powerful position in our country made me feel intensely guilty. I know now it was because I didn’t feel the same way, I didn’t need to.
Unfortunately, this was not the only time this guilt consumed me. The acute sadness I felt as we discussed the Ferguson shooting in U.S. History class could not be compared to the fear I saw illuminate in Ashley’s eyes. Despite Ferguson’s ongoing significance, I am embarrassed to admit that it did not have a large impact on my life after that day. However, I watched how Ashley continued to hug her older brothers a little tighter before they would leave to go out at night and I noticed how she would drive a little slower through our overwhelmingly white suburbia.
In these instances, and many others, I am reminded that although we used to play the same roles in make believe, the lives Ashley and I lead will never be the same. I have found the privilege in my skin color and I have even found the privilege in my guilt. While Ashley’s race has before brought her pride and fulfillment, it has also brought her ever increasing fear.