Checking my Privilege

I grew up in a small town in Northeast Ohio where 98.1 percent of the population is white. The most diversity I have had up until college was the one African American student I graduated with in my class of almost 400. My university’s track record is not much better.

I have lived my life in a little white bubble. However, I had the absolute privilege of joining the African American Alliance and Social Justice groups from my university as they marched from East Cleveland to the Lake Erie lakeshore to protest police brutality.  This “All in Again” march and rally changed the way that I view diversity and my approach to the Black Lives Matter movement.The route I took to the meeting point took me down Superior Avenue. As the numbers of the crossroads neared and entered the fifties, I began to feel afraid. I was in the area where most of the news reports of shootings and thefts took place, the area that my father warns me not to go to. An area that was predominantly African American. I was in a car, with people in cars beside me going about their daily business, and yet I was terrified to stop at a red light.

Why in the world was I scared? The people around me did not care about me anymore than they cared about the other random people driving their cars. They probably didn’t even notice I was there.

When in my life did I learn that I was to be afraid of being a white woman alone in a predominately black area? Who taught me?

The fear I felt seems ludicrous to me now, but in the moment it didn’t seem all that silly. Once I met up with the other protestors, all of a sudden  I felt safe. Why did I feel safe with this group of predominantly black people, yet when I was enclosed in my car, I was terrified?

As we began to march towards the picturesque Cleveland skyline, the protestors started chanting.

“We need peace in our streets,” they chanted.

I have never known a place where I did not feel safe walking at any time during the day.

“No justice, no peace,” they chanted.

I have never known a place where I did not feel like justice was in place. I have never been in a situation where I felt that I did not get a fair punishment.

“Hey, Hey. Ho, Ho. These killer cops have got to go,” they chanted.

Have I ever felt threatened by the police in my hometown?

“One hundred and thirty-seven  shots? How do you justify that?” they chanted.

This chant was referring to the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were killed by Cleveland Police officers in 2012 after leading police on a nighttime car chase. 137 shots were fired by six police officers that night. If I, being blonde-haired, blue-eyed and light skinned, and had been evading police that night, would they have fired 137 shots? Would they have even fired one?

I talked to others who were protesting. Some of the people that I talked to had lost friends to black on black violence or had been victims themselves of racial profiling. They all told me how important this was for them to march, because they believed that their mission was something worth fighting for. They believed that a change was needed. 

As we marched, horns honked from the street in support. A man standing outside of a store gave us fist bumps. A woman, walking down Euclid Avenue and minding her own business, raised up her fist in the air, reminiscent of a black power pose, silently advocating for our chants.

Being a part of this movement made me question my own white privilege and my own racial biases. Why did I feel scared driving in East Cleveland? Would I ever see some of the things that these people have seen, like a friend dying or being pulled over simply because of the color of their skin? Would a cop ever kill me with 137 bullets fired into my car because I am white?

Before the march, I was in support of the Black Lives Matter movement simply because I believed that what they were saying was true. It made sense to me that people of all colors, creeds and races should be treated equally. However, I did not know the extent to which I was partaking in the very behavior that they were trying to change.

I avoid eye contact and shy away when I am alone and see a black person walking towards me. I don’t know why I do it, but I do. I don’t always stop my friends or family from using the n-word. I fail constantly in acting on my own philosophies and what I tell others to do when it comes to race.

I am flawed, but I will get better. I will do more to address my own racial biases and tendencies. I will work harder to be an ally instead of part of the problem. It won’t be easy, but I believe that I can do it. I will work hard. 

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