I AM WHITE.
For that reason alone, I was born to privilege.
I’ve been acutely aware of my privilege since my teenage years when my family’s financial situation worsened significantly and I couldn’t claim “privilege” strictly in the material sense. We’d never had a lot of money but now we didn’t have enough to feel buffered from America’s cruelty.
Unconsciously I swung into action, mentally piecing together compensating identifiers of worth to make up for the loss. I was terrified of being considered expendable, meaningless, less than human, unworthy of even the basest respect.
Terrified of being treated the way I’d seen black and brown people treated my whole life.
I went into survival mode.
I had no affiliations with elite institutions (though my parents did). I’d dropped out of high school to become a model; a job I hated and felt degraded by.
I was living on a very small salary–my income from modeling was totally unpredictable, I had no health insurance and no landlord would lease to me in New York City. So I was stuck in a packed apartment with other models owned by the agency.
I had (and continue to have) chronic depression, which technically means I can check the disability box.
So it boiled down to the whiteness. I’m also tall, thin by American standards, and blonde. On top of all that, I have a convincing way of playing the prototypical imperious white female–the women we now call “Karens”.
Those attributes alone worked out well. Society perceived a value. Cops have always been accommodating. In luxury hotels and stores, with less than $20 to my name, I’ve been treated like a viable customer; I’m often able to upgrade my seat assignment on an airplanes free of charge. The benefit of the doubt is almost always mine.
This both disgusts me and makes me feel safe enough to function in a world that’s always overwhelmed and frightened me.
The part of me that’s disgusted chose after college to go into work that takes on systemic racial oppression. I worked for years on expanding access to living wage employment to New York’s poorest communities. For two years I worked exclusively with NYCHA residents; another two with Public Assistance recipients. In New York City, these groups are almost entirely comprised of black people.
That doesn’t make me a “good person”. It’s how I was raised and I feel it’s a mandate for those of us who enjoy any sort of privileged status. Plus I’ve never stopped leaning on my white privilege whenever I feel insecure in the world.
Now I’ve moved into the mental health advocacy space. I tell the world about what it’s like to live with depression and encourage others to speak out too. The mentally ill, especially those with serious conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar 1, are invisible and/or despised for the most part, just like minorities. They are shot and killed by police who mistake illness for criminality. With a bipolar loved one and my own functional depression, my work here feels right and long term.
All this is a long way of saying that becoming a member of the vulnerable class in America by not having health insurance or job stability for a number of years “radicalized” me for good. I think it’s safe to say I’m now further left than almost everyone I know. And I try to live those values everyday because social justice colors the lens through which I see the world.
I will never understand what it’s like to be black. I couldn’t possibly.
But I came across words from Carla Wallace, who is white, and doesn’t like the term “ally” in an article in the New York Times that describes my feelings well. She’s a co-founder in Louisville, Kentucky, of Showing Up for Racial Justice, an activist organization focused on mobilizing whites to work for an end to racism and white supremacy.
“In this moment, white silence is the greatest impediment to those in power making the changes that are needed,” Wallace said. “I don’t use the word ‘ally’ because that tends to create a situation where I’m helping someone else.”
It’s not her help that’s needed, she says.
“It’s about me joining whatever power I have with the power that black and brown people have. It’s about, what is our mutual interest in working for a different society? … We must move from it being something that we do when we have time on a Saturday to something that we do because our lives depend on it.”