I like to think that I was a pretty good kid. Always did my homework, said my prayers before bed every night, never got into fights. Except for this one time, one day in the second grade — the first time I ever got sent to the principal’s office.
I know exactly why I got sent there. I threw a stick at a boy named John in my P.E. class. It was pretty unlike me, and I don’t remember why, but I definitely did it — I can remember the moment now just like it happened yesterday.
I was scared to death when we got there. The only principal whose office I’d ever seen was my dad; he was the principal at a different elementary school one town over. And I don’t remember what our principal said to us that day, but I remember what I said to him. I lied. I told him that John had been the one to hit me. And the principal believed me, John got paddled, and I got to go back to class.
It’s one of my most shameful memories from childhood. I’m ashamed because the guilt of that lie stayed with me all throughout my life, but I never did anything about it. I could have confessed to the principal anytime during the years I was at that school. I could have accepted the lesson I deservedly had coming to me. But I never did.
Instead I learned a different, more insidious lesson — that white kids get the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t until decades later I learned the other side of that lesson: that black kids like John do not. As I’ve begun to understand what white privilege is, I’ve remembered the times when I took advantage of it in my own life. To get away with breaking laws, to slack off in school, to use an already-corrupt system to bend the rules even further in my favor.
Why bring it up now? Because I see the hurt, and the brokenness, and the fear that people I love and respect deal with on a regular basis, because the system that protects and supports me doesn’t treat them the same way. Because I’ve just started to understand the monumental weight of institutionalized racism on our society, and the obligations we bear because of it. Because I see family members, and old friends, bristling at the focus on the struggles of black people, offended by their own incorrect assumption that because we say that black lives matter, that theirs do not. Because coming to these understandings have fundamentally changed who I am and how I see the world. I don’t know what to say to those friends and family yet. But I want them to see the journey I’m on, in the hopes that they’ll understand it’s not too scary to attempt for themselves.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t even have a good ending. I only have the understanding of the role that privilege has played in my life, and the hope that if more white people can admit their own, we can begin to agree that we are all equally broken, all equally to blame, all equally responsible for making it better for generations that follow.