Once, as I was putting the final touches on the live auction program for my sons’ school, one of the committee moms expressed surprise when I told her that I wanted to get more Black parents involved the following year.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I don’t really ever think of you as Black. I’ve always just seen you as one of us.”
One of us.
Us, the private school-going, Range Rover-driving, Net-jet-flying, fundraiser-throwing white elite.
Please don’t think for a minute that we have the same experience when we step off this campus, I thought. Do you imagine that affluence trumps race out there in the real world? Because honestly, it is the other way around.
When my kids were in elementary school, I was the only Black room mom. So, as such, I made sure that our classes celebrated Black History Month by studying Black scientists and inventors instead of only athletes and entertainers.
When they were in high school, I was the only board member to insist that we create a diversity, equity and inclusion committee to deal with the racism our students, parents and faculty were experiencing on campus. I devoted myself to ensuring that each of our school’s young Black kids had a platform to speak their collective truths. And when they were brave enough to stand up and describe the hurt and loneliness of being the only BIPOC one in their class or at a school social gathering, I felt that pain at a cellular level, for it was my pain, too.
And yet some have accused me of being a hypocrite. I was on a talk show recently to discuss race in the classroom. During a short break, one of the moms on the “other side” of the issue questioned my sincerity because, according to her, I seemed to be doing fine.
“You live in a good neighborhood, you were a successful business owner, and you sit on the board of one of the most prestigious private schools in California. If this country is so racist, how do you explain all that?”
That was not the first time someone has taken note of my privilege and used it to dismiss my progressive stance on topics like racism and equity. It happens all the time online (just look at the comments on my articles), and now and then someone questions it to my face.
I’ve heard rude statements like, “But aren’t you mixed anyway?” Meaning, I suppose, that the white half would cancel out the Black half, and all my troubles would be over. I’m not mixed-race, by the way; both of my parents are Black. In fact, I was born in the Negro ward at the Illinois Research Hospital, so there’s that.
The fact that I was married to a successful white man also comes up a lot. As if I had any choice of who I fell in love with 26 years ago; rich or poor, tall or short, Black or white. And as if that white man I married somehow by proxy made my brown skin less threatening to those around me.
In these instances, I often have to fight the impulse to throw down my Blackness like a gauntlet and challenge them to a duel. I want to get up in their face and, in a clear, steady voice, dare them to ask me how many times I’ve been called nigger. (At least 20. Mostly by people driving by in pickup trucks ― I hate to stereotype, but it’s true.)
Or tell them about the time I had an appointment at a new salon but when I walked in, the white proprietor looked me up and down coldly and said, “Mistake in booking. We can’t take you today.”
Once I was the only person at my table to be charged a $10 “service fee” when my (white) dinner companions and I got our separate checks. And then there was that moment I’ll never forget while touring a public school in Malibu. When I asked about diversity, the principal looked me dead in the face and told me, “It’s a very homogenous community, and most of our parents would like to keep it that way.”
I would like to tell them how I heard my heartbeat in my ears then and how the air around me turned to jello. And how I didn’t have time to brace for the anger and humiliation that came barreling toward me like a gut punch.
Malcolm X famously said, “What do you call a Black man with a Ph.D.?
Answer? You call him nigger.
Meaning, of course, that when it comes down to it, regardless of my platinum card or the car I drive, irrespective of the neighborhood in which I live, regardless of how articulate I might seem, all I am and all I ever will be to some people is Black.
I wager if you ask any Black person in our country, they’ll have stories like mine. Remember that salesperson who refused to remove an expensive handbag from the sales case when Oprah Winfrey asked to see it? (Yes! Oprah.) Or how about that fancy Los Angeles seafood restaurant that, for years, had a reputation for seating all of its Black customers in the back (this is something that has happened to my family and me several times at different establishments).
What about Black people being detained for loitering in front of their own houses (which happened to my sons two years ago)? How about being stopped and assaulted by the police while walking their dogs (this happened to Nikkita Brown in Chicago two weeks ago). I could go on and on, of course.
And even with all of this, there are the people who think that I should just shut up about race and be grateful. And don’t get me wrong, I am grateful. I understand how fortunate I am to have the access and resources that I do, and I don’t take any of it for granted.
But my privilege doesn’t keep me safe from the emotional, psychological and physical harm that is waiting for me the moment I turn on the news or walk out my front door. Couple that with the fact that I have Black sons in a country that seems to hate Black men. The way I see it, I have no choice but to call out the racism we all live with as loudly and as often as I can.
Privilege, though, is not confined to money or pedigree. Although most people generally think of privilege as socio-economic, that’s just one of many categories. Of course, there is white privilege, but there’s also colorism. Colorism, favoring light-skinned people over darker skin tones, is real and present in both Black and white communities.
Often, because I am light-skinned and female, white people assess me as “safe” or exceptional and Black people think I have it easier. Unfortunately, they’re right. Light-skinned women are sentenced to 12% less time behind bars than our darker-skinned counterparts, and a University of Georgia study shows that employers prefer light-skinned Black applicants to dark-skinned ones.
We could also talk about gender privilege (men still get paid more than women for the same jobs, and that’s a fact).There’s cis-hetero privilege, educational privilege, ZIP code privilege, right-handed and able-bodied privilege, age, hair privilege.
Given all of this, perhaps that committee mom could be forgiven for thinking that she and I are alike. But because we share certain privileges (socio-economic, cis-hetero, able-bodied, right-handedness, etc.), she’d blinded herself to the all-important identifier that still separates me from her. The true privilege is that my Blackness can slip her mind from time to time, but the world we live in won’t ever let me forget it.