I don’t remember all the words that my friend Alexandria used but I remember the feeling they gave me. I was out catching a movie with a group of friends that included two black women, two black gay men, and me—a straight, white man who was now utterly failing at a newly learned dance move, the Nae Nae. Saxton, who looked incredibly cool doing it, was teaching me. While he was helping me figure it out, Alexandria made a comment (in jest) to the group about my awkwardness which she attributed to my whiteness. This was the fifth or sixth time that she commented about the color of my skin. I felt incredibly uncomfortable and singled out all of the sudden. The whole group looked to me for my reaction to her comments. With a flustered tone I asked her, “Why do you do that so often? Bring up my skin color?". With a giggle she said, “Oh I do it to all my white friends!”. After that, we walked into the movie and didn’t talk of it again.
In the weeks since, I’ve been trying to put into words what I felt when she called me out. I felt shame for just being myself. I believe it was the smallest taste of what it’s like to be a person of color. Feeling (or for many POC, being) excluded because of the color of your skin is awful. I felt powerless because my skin color is an aspect of my identity that I have no control over. That encounter may seem insignificant compared to what Alexandria and other people of color experience throughout their lives, but it was very informative to me. The truth is, when compared to the experiences of women and POC, my experience with discriminatory situations is small. That truth helped me reframe my interactions with Alexandria. I don’t believe there was any malice in her words or actions. In fact, I think making light of my skin color was a very normal thing for her. Though, I also believe she understood where I was coming from and won’t make it normal thing in our friendship in the future.
My privilege gives me the expectation that I can speak to anyone about anything without fear of retaliation.
One aspect of my privilege that I am now aware of is my ability to challenge those around me. When I speak I expect to be heard. It only took a handful of jokes made by Alexandria for me to feel the need to speak up about it. I wanted her to hear my words and understand how her words affected me. My privilege gives me the expectation that I can speak to anyone about anything without fear of retaliation. This expectation gives me an unfair societal advantage over people who have been conditioned to believe that their opinion is lesser. Alexandria is not one to take comments or jokes about her race lightly. She rightly expects that those around her will treat her with respect. The difference between us is that she has had to actively fight stereotypes and stigmas to reach the same mindset that I’ve taken for granted my whole life.
I’m sure it wasn’t her intention, but Alexandria widened the lens through which I see the world. She helped me grow my empathy muscles and with that, a better understanding of white privilege and how it plays a role it my life.
And to be honest, I did look ridiculous trying to do that dance!