Out of ignorance, many believe acknowledging white privilege means they are being called racist. As a woman myself, I thought understanding gender discrimination meant I had some insight into racial discrimination also. But it took a black man being shot and killed while out for a jog for me to realize I have absolutely no idea what it is like to be black in America. And it is becoming clearer to me what having privilege, specifically white privilege, means.
Non-black people cannot truly understand what it is like to be black in America today.
And recognizing this lack of knowledge and experience is really important right now.
For Ahmaud Arbery, running down the street — something nearly every human being does — was not compatible with life. Ironically, in the pursuit of health, Arbery met death. In America, blacks cannot walk (RIP Trayvon Martin,) run (RIP Arbery,) or sleep (RIP Breonna Taylor) without being shot and killed. Indeed, Taylor was shot eight times by police while sleeping. I am loath to wonder how many shots would have been fired had she been awake.
Most of us learn to run as toddlers. I have always loved to run. I run to chase my children. I run to get out of the rain. I run when I am afraid. And I run, simply because I can. I remember contemplating suicide as a teenager while running. I remember finding solace on my run after that first miscarriage. During the most difficult times in my life, there is nothing that has helped me feel safe and grounded more than watching the sun rise on an early morning run. Never, not even once, have I ever been afraid to run. Never, not even once, has anyone chased me with a gun. And never, not even once, has a gun been pointed at me while I was running.
Safety is an illusion for black people in America.
And that is the very definition of having white privilege.
White privilege is about waking up not being black. It is about going to sleep not being black. It is about being given a ticket by the police for not signaling when changing lanes and not being black (RIP Sandra Bland.) It is about standing in the window of your home and not being black (RIP Atatiana Jefferson.) It is about having a car break down on the side of the road and not being black (RIP Corey Jones.) It is about shopping in Walmart not being black (RIP John Crawford.) And it is about reading a book in your car and not being black (RIP Keith Scott.)
Then, one story jolted me into the reality of being black in America like no other before, that of Clifford Glover, a 10-year old boy from Jamaica, New York. On Saturday morning, April 28, 1973, Add Armstead was walking to the junkyard where he worked with his stepson in tow, when an unmarked car pulled up beside them. Carrying his wages from the day before and concerned about being robbed, they ran. Despite the fact that Clifford stood only 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds, Officer Thomas Shea, a white man, shot and mortally wounded him.
At the time, Shea said the Clifford turned around and “appeared to have a gun,” though ballistics did not support that story. According to a former Queens prosecutor, Albert Gaudelli, “The bullet entered his lower back and came out at the top of his chest. He was shot T-square in the back, with his body leaning forward. He was running away.” A jury composed of 11 white men and one black woman acquitted Shea of murder regardless of the fact Clifford Glover was running away when he was shot and killed.
The deaths of Clifford Glover and Ahmaud Arbery are separated by 47 years in time, yet little has changed. Despite a viral pandemic, black folks still cannot run without being gunned down in the street. This is the crisis our nation should be talking about.
The press chooses to focus on the fact that black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of white Americans while searching for the reasons black people are more susceptible. But we are asking the wrong question. People discriminate based on race; COVID-19 does not. In reality, the virus has merely exposed the great divide already existing in our healthcare, housing and justice systems, which have been designed to benefit those of us who are not black.
Our nation cannot take meaningful steps toward equity if we refuse to name what stands in the way. Blackness is not the root of inequity — racism in the system is the primary problem. White Americans must acknowledge complicity in maintaining systemic racism and the epigenetic trauma it inflicts upon black Americans. To be sure, Clifford Glover and Ahmaud Arbery have taught me the meaning of white privilege in a way I never understood before. Isn’t it past time to change the conversation about the responsibilities of holding privilege in America? My message boils down to this: We can be good, kind, loving people who have benefited from a system steeped in white supremacy and still have the humility to say — this must stop.
Dr. Niran Al-Agba is a pediatrician in Silverdale and writes a regular column for the Kitsap Sun.