As a biracial child who spent part of his youth abroad, Barack Obama learned the feeling of otherness and became attuned to how he was perceived by those around him. As a politician, he knew well that many white people saw him as a vehicle for their hopes of a post-racial society. Even if those hopes were somewhat naïve, they came from a sincere and admirable desire, and he was happy to let those sentiments carry him along. Part of the bargain, though, was that he had to be extremely careful about how he talked about race, and then only on the rarest of occasions. His race had to be a source of hope and pride—for everybody—but not of displeasure, discontent, or worst of all, a grievance that would demand redress. No one knew better than him that everything was fine only as long as we all could feel good about Barack Obama being black.
So when he made his unexpected remarks about Trayvon Martin on Friday, Obama was stepping into some dangerous territory. By talking about his own experience as a black man, he was trying to foster both understanding and empathy, to explain to white Americans why the Martin case has caused so much consternation and pain among black Americans. The petty (and not so petty) daily suspicion and indignities and mistreatment black people are talking about? Even I, the most powerful human being on the planet, know them well.
In doing so—and by saying "it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching"—he may have implicitly encouraged white people to think about their own privilege, the privilege of whiteness. Privilege is a dangerous word, one that raises lots of hackles, and one Obama himself would never, ever use. But it's inescapable.
Despite the way people react when the word is introduced, acknowledging your own privilege doesn't cost anything. I grew up in a home with lots of books, in a town with good schools, in a country with extraordinary opportunities. I benefited hugely from them all, though I created none of them. I may have earned my current job as a writer, but compared to the labors of those who wait tables or clean houses or do factory work, it's so absurdly pleasant you can barely call it work at all. But more to the point, in all my years I've never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I've never been accused of "furtive movements," the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I've never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That's not because of my inherent personal virtue. It's because I'm white.
I will never have to sit my children down and give them a lengthy talk about what to do and not to do when they encounter the police. That's the talk so many black parents make sure to give their children, one filled with detailed instructions about how to not appear threatening, how to diffuse tension, what to do with your hands when you get pulled over, and how to end the encounter without being arrested or beaten. I can tell my children, "Don't do anything stupid," and that will probably be enough. I worry about them as much as any parent, but there are some things I don't have to worry about.
Because of my privilege, I also don't have to concern myself with how strangers are thinking of me when I leave the house, because their thoughts will bear on me not a whit. Amir "Questlove" Thompson, drummer for The Roots and bandleader for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, wrote last week about how he is constantly made aware of the fact that, as a large black man, he makes other people uncomfortable. "My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it's a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it's safe for me to make people feel safe." Privilege means not spending any mental energy worrying about how you make other people feel by your very presence. Privilege means never having the thought even occur to you.
My privilege as a white man is to be unnoticed if I choose, because when I step into an elevator or walk through a store or pass a cop on the street, I'm an individual. No one looks at me and says, "Hmm—white guy there," because I'm the default setting. I'm not suspicious, I'm not a potential criminal, I ring no alarm bells in anyone's head. And that is a gift. Even as an adult, Barack Obama, the "articulate and bright and clean" Harvard-educated lawyer, had something in common with Trayvon Martin and every other 17-year-old black kid: the presumption of suspicion with which they found themselves treated. They couldn't just be themselves. To so many people, they were a type, and a bad one at that, or at least assumed to be of a lesser station. So a fellow guest at a posh party in 2003 could walk up to state Senator Obama and ask him to fetch the man a drink. Has that happened to you?
Privilege is also not worrying that the deeds of other people who are like you in some way will reflect poorly on you. As Jamelle Bouie wrote last week, at times like this, some conservatives will always bring up the idea of "black on black" crime as a justification for the presumption that young black men are criminals, but we never speak about "white on white" crime. The reason? When a white person robs a liquor store or beats someone up or commits insider trading, we see it as just a crime, not a crime that has anything to do with the whiteness of the perpetrator. Since white is the default setting, there's no such thing as white crime. Each white criminal is just himself.
And retaining your individuality means you're granted an exemption from some kinds of costs. Last week The Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote a remarkable column arguing that it's perfectly reasonable to treat all black men like criminal suspects, since there are some black men who commit crimes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted, Cohen was "arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax" that black men should be forced to pay. Sure, most black men are perfectly law-abiding, but since some aren't, you sir are just going to have to put up with getting stopped and frisked, getting followed by store security, and getting pulled over even when you haven't been speeding. If you're white, that's a tax you will never have to pay, because you will be treated as an individual.
As a white person, I'll continue to enjoy this privilege almost no matter who I am or what I do. In my heart I could be the most kind-hearted humanitarian or the most vile sociopath. I could be assiduously law-abiding or a serial killer. I can dress in a suit or in torn jeans and a hoodie, and no one will react to me with fear or suspicion, because if they don't know me they will assume they know nothing. I am myself, nothing more or less. That's privilege.