Today, I want to offer a few sources and a story that I think might help White people understand the meaning that being White has. I think a lot of White people tend to group people of other races together and not to see them as individuals. W. E. B. Du Bois refers to this tendency in his book The Souls of Black Folk, which had a profound impact on me when I read it in college nearly 30 years ago. In this book, Du Bois describes a feeling of “double consciousness” that he carries with him. On the one hand, he sees himself as he is, the individual he knows himself to be; however, he also always sees himself as others, specifically White people see him. He explains in an article for The Atlantic Monthly (now just The Atlantic) what this feels like:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.
This video does a good job of unpacking how this idea manifests itself in racism:
Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” introduces the concept of White privilege. If you think about the ways in which the list of privileges is NOT true for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), then you can begin to have an understanding of double consciousness.
White privilege can sometimes be hard to understand for people who experience hardship due to some other part of their identity. For example, this article unpacks understanding White privilege and poverty. I will share a true story here in order to unpack what I mean.
This happened when my son Dylan was a baby, so it was about sixteen years ago. We were barely hanging on financially because we both had to commute from our home in Gainesville to jobs in the Atlanta-area. We had one car that worked at any given time. We couldn’t afford to move, but we also couldn’t afford the 40-mile commute each day, either. One of the bills that didn’t get paid was auto insurance. One morning after I dropped off my younger children at their child care center, I was pulled over by a White police officer for some reason that I forget. He naturally found out that I didn’t have insurance when he ran my information. He impounded my car and gave me a ticket that I would have to pay off in installments over the course of many months. He told me point blank that if I hadn’t had my child in the car with me (my oldest daughter), he would have arrested me.
Obviously, this story is pretty embarrassing. I don’t like sharing it here because it still makes me feel shame, even though my biggest crime was not being able to afford to pay for auto insurance. The whole thing would have been different if I had money at the time. That’s a lack of privilege. But if I had been Black? Well, I am certain that he would have arrested me, even though I had my daughter with me. And she would have gone into the custody of the Department of Family and Children’s Services. I am not sure what I would have done from there because if I couldn’t afford a ticket, I also couldn’t have afforded bail. Given that my oldest was in my custody after a divorce, I might even have lost custody of her. I might even have died.
A lot of assumptions would have been made about me because of my race. As ashamed as I was about being in that position of poverty, and considering how I internalized feeling like a failure, I can only imagine how much worse I would have felt if my race had been a factor. I have no way of knowing, actually, because I’m White. I don’t even like to think about it because as bad as that incident was, it could have been so much worse. That’s White privilege.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the layers of oppression that exist when multiple traditionally marginalized identities converge in one person. Crenshaw explains the term in the TED Talk below. Please watch it until the end. I promise it’s worth the 19 minutes.
Intersectionality is why I say that my experience being pulled over would have had a different result if I had been Black. If I had been Black, the racism road would have intersected with the gender road and the poverty road to create a wreck that might have changed the trajectory of my life. I’m not trying to make an excuse for not having auto insurance. Yes, I should have had it. But I don’t think I should have been arrested or lost my life for it. To be clear, I hadn’t caused anyone harm as a result of being uninsured (aside from myself)—I was not pulled over because I had caused an accident. It’s been a while ago, but I don’t think I was doing anything unsafe, though it is true that I did use to drive a little too fast when I was late. I don’t think I should even have been punished as severely as I was—what if, instead of giving me a ticket that would result in a fine I could not pay, that officer had shown compassion and directed me to some social services that could have helped me secure the insurance I needed?
But I know that the punishment I would have received would have been much greater if I had been Black. At best, I would have gone to jail. At worst, I could be dead.
As Kimberlé Crenshaw says, “If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem.”