An Accident of Privilege

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My son was in a car accident. Aside from being shook up, he’s fine, it wasn’t his fault. It is an odd and helpless thing to wait in the line of traffic caused by your own child’s accident. The only thing you know or can see is the family vehicle sideways in the intersection surrounded by emergency vehicles and personnel. Blinding lights spinning, alerting, drawing attention and concern.

Once I managed to find a close parking space, I stood on the southeast corner of the intersection as instructed by the authorities. While the police officers conducted their investigation with my sixteen-year-old, his texts came: “Are you here?” “I don’t know what to do.”  Before talking with Brooks, I was asked if I wanted to have an ambulance at the scene. He was not to be released without my permission. I stated that I would take him to get medical attention if he needed to go, but if it didn’t seem an emergency, I trusted them.

The helpers were wonderful. The helpers provided instruction and direction, from the fire-persons to the police officer, the tow truck driver to the insurance company. Each next step accompanied by a smiling face and watchful eye and kind words and appropriate clucks of concern.

Yet, I wonder, the woman at fault, the driver with no insurance. Was she treated with the same consideration, the same dignity? Were the emergency personnel as concerned for her well-being as for my son’s? I hope so, I have no reason to believe she wasn’t.

Our privilege came in handy today. The pale of our skin, the smiles on our faces, the shaking of hands and gratitude. We have room, we have margins, we have insurance and extra vehicles.  We have options, while a fender bender is an inconvenience, we will not be ruined financially. We have a policy with provisions for uninsured motorists. We have resources. We have hope. We have privilege.

What if Brooks was not a white young man with means, what if, instead, he was a Latino or Black young man, a Muslim? What if he didn’t have a stay-at-home parent with a vehicle to hop into at a moment’s notice to retrieve him and provide comfort, to talk with the police?

I don’t know. But what I do know, our privilege helped. I was present within minutes. Proof of registration and insurance in the glovebox. A nice, large vehicle providing cushion for the blow, with airbags and sensors and leather seats. Our privilege was valuable, indispensable. I am grateful my child is safe and we were treated with respect.

This privilege card, I carry, can be played at the right time. When the stakes are high and we are backed against a wall, I hold the power to play the white card, to play the wealthy card, to play the good citizen card. In the way our nation is set up, our systems revolve around my family’s color, white.

For each white male, young or old, are dozens of black and brown males without the same protections. I cannot speak for my city, but countless stories play across my Twitter feed of another man of color, boy of color without the same protections of privilege, their skin shade an automatic sentence of guilt.

My privilege, our experience today plants seeds of tension in me, an uncomfortable and tenuous tension that begs me to take a firm and severe consideration of truth. The truth is, I can sleep at night because my boys are white. I can sleep at night because my boys have resources. I can sleep at night because my boys will be given the benefit of the doubt and will have a fair shake at justice. I recognize my fortune for having white children, for being a white family with means, with resources, with ties and privilege.

I want to carry this privilege well, wielding it with care and deep humility, recognizing the benefits. I must stare the privilege down, while educating my children, through discussion and awareness. I carry the tension tight, each fists bearing the weight of the questions and unspoken answers, the nuance and truth staring back ugly, with vicious humility. I believe, somehow, in our ability to recognize our preferential treatment, we are at the heart of dismantling the unequal and punitive systems. When I am aware of my privilege, I can be more aware of another’s lack.

My privilege, my boy, will always have justice on his side. He will always hold the assumption of innocence. He owns the ability to move about this earth with confidence and freedom from fear, as a white, cisgender, heterosexual male.

I pray, I hope, as his mother, I can impress upon him the gift, the responsibility this is, for I will never understand.

9 thoughts on “An Accident of Privilege

  1. Not to take away from the seriousness of this matter, but I got in a fender bender with a young white male PRIEST. At that point, this middle aged white girl became a young black man as far as the police were concerned… so tell your son to watch out for priests out there on the road! They trump everyone! Thank you for this insight and for writing it all down.

    1. Oh my gosh! That is crazy! Thanks for sharing. I love it – but sad for you. Equal treatment is just a good idea all around.

  2. I’m reminded of when Jael had an accident when she was a senior in high school. As a dark skinned Indian in a white community, she was treated badly until her white father showed up. Then everything changed. My, oh my.

  3. I struggle with these same feelings for my son (who is tiny yet and not out in the world). This was a good thoughtful look at one of the random little ways that privilege affects us/our children.

    This may sound like I’m being unnecessarily picky, but I think you need to be very careful calling privilege a card and implying/stating that it is active. Your son (and you, and me, and my son) gets the benefits of privilege without any card carrying/flashing. That’s why it’s so insidious–even when we’re trying to be conscious about it we probably still don’t know when it is benefiting us. And when people who don’t “believe” in privilege hear us talking about it like it’s an active thing, they point to that and say things like, “I never use my privilege card, so I’m not part of the problem.” Make sense?

    I don’t know what the whole solution looks like, but I do think that making as many privileged people possible aware of how deeply and dangerously unjust this biased system is has got to be a start!

    1. Thank you Christa. I see what you’re saying. I do see our privilege as a card, in that, our privilege is not something we’ve earned or chosen, it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. The trick I’m trying to figure out is what do we do with our privilege? How do we make the world better with our privilege? I think it boils down to becoming solid and good allies and learning what that means.

  4. It’s in everything, isn’t it?

    I saw an older white man at a private pool yesterday wearing a “got privilege?” t-shirt and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s good to draw attention to the idea and continue educating, and it was a hilariously perfect venue in which to do so.

  5. You didn’t list a factor that is equally important . . . mastery of the English language. Even if you have all of the other “privileges”, and an accident is not your fault, it is extremely stressful and there is a lot of fear that an inability to communicate could have terrible consequences. I have gone to accident scenes to help friends for whom Englishbis not their primary language. I don’t really do anything except give them confidence tthat there is someone who understands them.

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