I’ll start by saying that, as a white male from an upper-middle-class family, I am very privileged. I don’t have to worry much about my safety, since nobody wants to assault someone who looks like they could assault you right back. I don’t have to worry about traffic tickets, since cops barely even see a white guy speeding past in a grey sedan. I don’t have to stress about money, because my parents are wealthy enough to bail me out of any financial situation I get myself into. I grew up with this safety net all around me, without even realizing it was there. As a kid, I genuinely believed that the world was fair, and that most people just wanted to help out. It wasn’t until high school that I saw how wrong I was.
In 10th grade, I had a friend named Chris. Chris was one of the most talented musicians I had ever met. He was also black. Chris and I were in a band together at the time, so, in addition to the time we spent hanging out and goofing off, we spent a fair amount of time practicing at each other’s houses. This meant we needed someone to drive us and our equipment around (guitars, amps, etc.). Most of the time, my mother would drive us, but one day, she wasn’t available. So, Chris’s sister drove us. It wasn’t a long drive, probably only 10 minutes, yet during this 10 minutes she was pulled over for speeding. Not by much, less than 5 miles per hour, and in an area that every sped through. I’d just gotten my learner’s permit at the time, and I drove down the same stretch of road very often – it was about a quarter mile down a residential street, but one of the widest streets in town, even though there was only one lane each way. The speed limit was 30, but everyone always went closer to 40 or 45, because it was one of the safest streets to do so. But for some reason, I had never been pulled over there. Nobody in my family had ever been pulled over there. Speeding on that stretch of road was a crime everyone I knew committed, but none of them had been punished for it.
Privilege can be strange, because it’s very hard to see when you have it. It’s only when you see how someone lacking the same privilege is treated that you begin to understand just how uneven the playing field is. After the ticket, I started noticing more and more the ways that I was treated differently. My friend Chris eventually got into a music program at Alabama State, with a generous scholarship. We were all excited for him, and made jokes about how he’d be the next Jimi Hendrix (minus the overdosing, hopefully). In the years since we’d started playing together, Chris’s skill at the guitar had only improved, and I think he had the potential to do something truly amazing with his talent. Then, less than two months after he started at Alabama, his scholarship fell through. I didn’t even know that could happen. I had figured, once they gave him the scholarship, all he had to do was be reasonably successful at school. But apparently, some minor paperwork hadn’t been filed correctly, so the whole thing was cancelled, and my friend suddenly couldn’t afford to pursue his amazing talent. He came home, and got a job working at a restaurant. For a while, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t fight harder to keep his scholarship, why he didn’t find a way to pursue his dream, no matter what it cost him. Eventually, though, I realized that he and I were playing by entirely different rules. Where I had been raised to dream big and aim as high as I could (because I was already sitting higher up than many people could hope to climb in their lives), he had been raised to deal with reality, and to work hard to make the best of whatever life threw at him. He’s now married, serving in the Navy to provide for his wife and son. Chances are, he’ll have a comfortable enough life, and be able give his kid(s) a better start than he had. Still, I can’t help but wonder where he’d be now, how many platinum records and sold-out stadiums he’d have if he’d had the privilege to pursue his career in music.