Discovering I was White: Joshua’s Story

by Joshua Day

When I was little, my great-aunt told me our however-many-greats-granddad was Abraham Lincoln. Gosh was that exciting. It wasn’t true, of course, but we were tall and White and Very Serious and it made loads of sense. We took the idea of freedom Very Seriously, just like him. We must have gotten that from his side of the family.

Maybe one day I would grow up to have a beard and get assassinated, which sounded very exciting. In the meantime, everyone thought I was a great kid. Very smart. I heard that a lot. No one ever wondered what I was up to in public, which I didn’t think about at the time, because I didn’t know it was a thing that happens to other kids. But it does happen. It happens all the time, usually to kids whose skin is dark. Even though they’re good kids and they’re just doing what everyone else does, they get mean looks and people ask them mean questions.

But you know, I was a little computer programmer. My programs weren’t any good, because I was just starting, but I loved doing it. No one doubted I was a programmer. No one ever said, “Kid, no way you program computers.” And one day, when Harry Potter came along, everyone thought I looked like him. “Yer a wizard, Harry.” That’s what my life was like; it was like everyone thought I was some kind of wizard, with secret smarts. I kind of did look like a wizard sometimes. That was cool. It fit with who I was, deep down, devoted to thinking a lot and helping people. If I tried to show people that I was a good programmer (I was, eventually) they always believed me. I never wondered why that was. I mean, don’t smart kids just kind of look like me, right? Gangly and White?

I was really proud of America. We didn’t pay tax on tea and we ended slavery and we fought the Nazis. We were pretty cool. I guess we beat up all the bad guys already.

Then something weird happened that didn’t make any sense. We were going to go to war with Iraq, again. When I was in kindergarten I was very concerned about a war with a Bad Guy named Saddam. Now I was a big High Schooler, and something seemed wrong to me. No one on TV was talking about having a “just cause” or worrying about the innocent. They said, look, what if Saddam (why did we call him by his first name?) built a bomb that could blow up New York City, and what if he actually blew it up, wouldn’t we wish we had gone to war with Iraq then?

But that just sounded silly, like what if Ron was secretly an evil wizard and Voldemort had good intentions?

Something rolled into view. Something big. Something actually evil. Suddenly it made sense that these guys they wanted to kill were all brown. They looked different and talked different and worshipped different. These guys were always the “bad guys.” Even in Narnia they were bad guys. Why were the brown guys always bad? Why do “bad guys” wear turbans?

Obi-Wan was tall and White. Dumbledore was tall and White. Luke was tall and White. Harry was gangly and White. Gandalf was tall and White. Merlin was tall and White. Was that why I looked like a wizard — because all the wizards looked like me? That’s like finding out Darth Vader is your father. That’s like finding out that we didn’t just end slavery, we were the ones who had slaves. Were we the baddies?

What Lincoln did was great. He acted with a real passion for freedom, even for people he didn’t like that much (he had as low a view of Black people as anyone back then, but even his willingness to free them was radical.) If you ever really admire a political figure (which might be a bad move) he’s a pretty good choice.

But we didn’t keep going. We passed Jim Crow laws. We disenfranchised Black people. We excluded people of color from the “good” parts of town and the “good” schools. We didn’t overcome racism or wage slavery.

The guys who fought on the Union side, they weren’t sure what they were fighting for, but when it was done we all agreed: No one gets to own anyone anymore. If people are still treating each other as less than human now (and they are) then I want to live my whole life like I’m shoulder-to-shoulder with those guys on the battlefield. But I’m lucky and I don’t have to fight. I’m even luckier, because years of hindsight have helped clarify the moral landscape. They won the war — and we still haven’t won the peace. We’ve got to learn what it means to love people, to desire their freedom and their highest good, and we’ve got to do more than just feel it. We have to live it.

So I’m not a wizard and Lincoln’s not my granddad, but I have something almost as good. When the police pull me over they’re polite to me. I can move freely through public places without anyone noticing me. If I offer an idea, people around me hear it on its merits. Sometimes I feel invisible and small, but like all forms of invisibility it’s a superpower, and it’s called White Privilege. It doesn’t feel like much from the inside, but imagining what life would be like without it, it becomes pretty obvious that those of us who have a bit of privilege need to start using it for people who don’t.

Right now, there are White supremacists trying to make Black kids feel like it’s normal for them not to be treated right, preparing them for a grown-up life of accepting the fact that they’re not going to be respected because their skin is dark. It’s not invisible. It happens right before our eyes. When we see our privilege for what it is, we understand it. And whatever privilege we currently have, whether it’s being White or male or American or Christian or straight or anything that works to protect us socially, we’ve got to understand that we were handed a certain measure of power. Instead of pretending that we earned it, or that we deserve it, we need to figure out needs to be done — by listening to people of other races, to non-Americans, to non-Christians, to women — and start doing it. Sometimes it’s a small thing, like a new conversational habit we can use to keep people safe. Sometimes it’ll be big, like getting a new policy passed.

Maybe we can live into White privilege and really take advantage of what we’ve got — so we can make sure all our neighbors, especially the ones suffering under hatred, get all they need. The temptation, year after year, decade after decade, is to take the privilege we’ve received as normal and the mistreatment of other people as ordinary. We have a choice. We can take what we’ve got and hand it to the people who aren’t getting their share. We can use our power and privilege to maintain the status quo, or we can work toward a more just society.

Image credit: Rockpool Publishing