TL;DR: I’m white. I got 6 months probation for assaulting an officer when I was 17. When I was 19 I was found not guilty for a DUI, and when I was 22 I was found not guilty in a second DUI. I skipped 104 days of my senior year and passed in the bottom percentile of high school, but got into every college I applied to. I used the N-word. It wasn’t until I transitioned my gender that I gained some perspective on discrimination and now the question to ask is: how can we get people who will not experience discrimination over things they can’t change to understand what we are fighting for in the name of Black Lives Matter?
I grew up in a larger conservative suburb in Massachusetts. My town specifically had a large and growing Guatemalan population but few black people. I was influenced heavily by my father, who would use words like “Spic-nics” to describe their gatherings and would eventually play a role in demonizing Middle Eastern folks in the aftermath of 9/11. He eventually succumbed to his own drinking at the age of 53 – angry, drunk, and alone on a hospital bed. It was easy to ignore privilege while I was younger, and it wasn’t until probably high school that I even noticed there were other people that weren’t white in my town.
A product of my parents, I was into partying a lot in my teen years. I regularly would either host parties when my parents weren’t home or go out as often as I could. Without getting into too many details, one night the police broke through the basement door of the house we were partying at – and the homeowner was Latino. When the cops broke in, I kicked the door back at the cops in defense, then put up my hands in defense as I took a club to the legs. I was arrested – this was only the first run-in I had with the police, but the fact that I survived the night there was even more than many black people could say. The end result was that the kid who threw the party was deported with his family, and the house went up for rent and became a frequent target for the police in the coming years because it was rented to other Latinos. After the initial arraignment and a few months of drug testing, I eventually was let go in pretrial. My friend’s grandfather used his connections in town to get the assault charges, the alcohol possession charges, and the drug charges completely erased. It was like it never happened.
As an immature child at the time, I proudly boasted about this. The system failed, but not in the way that it fails black people every day. It didn’t falsely accuse a black man of rape when it was a consensual relationship, and it didn’t wrongly sentence 1 in 9 people to death row this time. It failed in a way that a chance for rehabilitation might have actually done some good – the slap on the wrist of monthly probation fees and 2 drug tests in a 6 month period did very little for me. I cheated the drug tests, my parents paid the fees, and I still partied every day of my insignificant life. White privilege was the system failing me by letting me go when millions of others rot behind bars for petty misdemeanors.
As the partier I was, I used my mother’s job at the doctor’s office to steal doctor’s notes, forge signatures and get out of school. I excused so many absences that the assistant principal would pull me aside like I was a charity case. Eventually, I stopped sending in notes. They thought I had mono. I passed high school in the bottom percent of students because I couldn’t be assed to care. In my final semester, my mother told me I could either find a job and pay rent or go to college. I wanted to join the military to “make a man out of myself” because of my repressed feelings of gender that probably complicated and exacerbated my need to drink and do drugs, but I digress. So I applied to five schools. One school gave me a scholarship to join them, which I declined to instead go to a nearby state school. Every single school accepted me and gave me money in some form because, despite my low attendance and low grades, I had one of the top SAT scores in my class.
We always hear about the low-income minority kids who rise from the rubble and achieve greatness by studying hard and working on their futures. I don’t think its a conspiracy to say that all that work is usually in vain. If I could get into school having done no extra-curricular activities, finishing with poor grades, why should minorities have to work harder than me? Why can’t they just…go to school like the rest of us privileged white kids get to? Why did I get financial aid and a ride on the easy bus to higher education?
College itself was an entire period of privilege as I went off the rails with freedom, but a few specific instances really defined it. The first was my DUI. I was caught with 6-30 racks of beer, 4 bottles of hard liquor, 8-40oz bottles, and some weed. The passenger side flooring of my car was filled with empty beer cans because we had already been drinking at one location and I was designated to carry the alcohol to the next. I swerved all over the road and eventually got stopped in a tiny town that didn’t have any street lights.
They asked me if it was my dad’s alcohol, and they calmly made me do a breathalyzer test and field sobriety test. I failed, was gently taken into the station without cuffs, and released on $40 bail within a few hours. I still had time to go to the party I was initially going to. I used the financial aid refund I received from the school to pay for a nice lawyer – at a whopping $3,500 retainer. Within 6 months I was given a not guilty verdict and cleared completely. Without a single shred of doubt in my mind, someone who previously assaulted an officer and been caught with that much alcohol underage should have been given the book. Instead, it was an empowering stance for me. For a short while, I was untouchable.
Somewhere between then and my junior year of college I was out with some friends at a bar and we got in a fight with some other (white) college kids. I could not for the life of me remember what it was about, but I do know this: somewhere in the fight a black man’s car was caught in the fray, and in his attempts to disband the fight he ended up taking a beat down. The kids we were fighting ran away while we had a 3-on-1 showdown against this man that could kill us all with one hand individually. He handled a 10-foot downed parking sign and waved it at us trying to get us to stop for one second — that was when he lost his balance, and I ran up and kicked him in the jaw and said: “Fuck you N—.” In what I can look back on now and say was my grossest display of racism, I was the top dog. I could not lose – until my friends accosted me on the drive home for using that word. They dropped me off and told me they didn’t want to hang out with me anymore.
I felt gross and vile because I had never used that word as a weapon like that before. Whether or not that man was okay I will never know, but I do know that I likely left a scar on his mind that will stick with him forever. Even in what is now almost 10 years since that happened, I shudder at the thought of the person I used to be, There was another instance I blurted out the phrase “Sand N—- Orange” when describing new names for colors with a group of friends. They stopped talking to me immediately after that. For someone who never really had any experiences with racism, that word was somehow always at the tip of my tongue at the most inappropriate times. It was a weapon, and it was never received well. There are towns and colleges where people would be accepted for their use of that word and how I used it. I think I was fortunate to not be in those groups so I could have the sobering experience of self-realization. It definitely stuck with me – my actions of injustice and my callous use of a word I had no business knowing. I was evil.
When I got my second DUI a year later I was 6 months out of the closet and living my life as a trans woman. I had already gone through the parts where my family shut me out and a few of my friends stopped calling. I had been scared to enter certain bars, and I would opt to stay home and party in lieu of going out because of how I was perceived. But when I was pulled over, the cops used my identity as a weapon against me – outside of internet aggressors and some off-base commentary, it was the first time I really was experiencing a different side of things. I didn’t have my name changed or my license updated. They called me sir and ripped off my wig on the side of the road. When I told them I was not going to submit to a breathalyzer, they began to hit me and agitated their way into having me screaming in pain on a snowy pavement in a tank top, bleeding out of my head.
In the jail cell, they made sure to put me with the boys. There was nobody else in the cells, but they assured me that was where the boys went. Then, they stripped me naked and said it was because they were afraid I would commit suicide. They laughed at me through the glass as I shivered in the icebox. I wasn’t angry – just scared. Nobody knew I was in jail. I hadn’t been in contact with my parents in almost a year and my friends thought I made it home. I could have been murdered – much like the closed investigation on the guy who “killed himself” in the same jail cell a year before. They did everything they could to ignore my pleas for a phone call, and when I got it I didn’t have any phone numbers off the top of my head so I had nobody to call. I was their property and they let me know as much. Eventually, I did get out with the help of some smart friends, but that wasn’t the end. I was found not guilty in that case too, even though I had crashed into a snowbank. I had a free public defender.
Despite being transgender my whiteness pushed me through the system with breakneck speed. I had 180 days no license as the law demanded but it washed away from my record in no time at all. The arguments to defend me were loose and in my opinion not substantiated, but the cops couldn’t use the right pronouns long enough for the judge to stop getting confused. She eventually just looked at me and said “are you going to do it again?” and I was let go.
Since then I truly did turn a new leaf. When I started focusing on myself and eventually went back to college I reconnected with my family and graduated. I turned into someone who eventually hit all of her goals. My mother showed up with flowers at my ceremony. I bought motorcycles, got a job driving cars for a rideshare company, and moved to California. All of these things were only possible because of my privilege, which is something I can say confidently in retrospect and self-reflection now. As the years went on and I grew into myself I was able to have experiences that removed me from who I was. But I don’t get to say sorry to the guy I kicked or apologize for saying something racist to my friend in college. Not only do I still not deserve some conscience-clearing exercise, but they will never be able to escape that at some point they were subject to it.
My years between the last experience and now have not only had immense privilege but immense hurt as well. Being transgender is no walk in the park and I regularly fear for my life in everyday situations. My last ten years of living my truth have had horrible experiences I am not speaking about here, but even still I could never truly know what it’s like to be a black person — like the ones who don’t get out of two DUIs, or get killed in street fights because of their skin color and predestination for low-income neighborhoods bred into drug trading and crime by design for gerrymandered votes. Me being told I’m a “F—“ on the street and online is only a small fraction of what it’s like to be reduced to your skin color. All I have is sympathy. All I can do is sympathize with a group of individuals globally about being hated for something they can not change, and do not want to if they could.
As a transgender woman, I have felt like it’s my duty to recognize my privilege and use it as a weapon against the people of the world that allowed me to get to where I am because of the sympathy I share. However, if it took all that time and all of those experiences of hate in my own life to get here, how can someone who is not transgender and not black even remotely begin to understand? How can we reasonably expect people to change the racist ways that benefit them when they could never see the view from the other side of the fence?
The angry person in me would tell you “by force.” The angry person who has faced the abuse of power cops have would tell you that violence IS the answer. If they will not listen, will they see? If they will not learn, will they succumb? The angry person in me wants to tell you that businesses deserve no quarter, looting is a consequence of inequality that falls on the hands of the people in charge, and peaceful protest accomplishes nothing. It demands peace instead of asking for it from a force that has shown no capacity for it in 400 years. It relinquishes asking kindly for stones to throw. But this answer doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of what this revolution will be. This answer doesn’t acknowledge that our tools already exist. Thurgood Marshall said, “Lawlessness is lawlessness. Anarchy is anarchy is anarchy. Neither race nor color nor frustration is an excuse for either lawlessness or anarchy.”
It’s important to acknowledge that though the constitution wasn’t written equally for the people of color, or used equally for the gays and queers or the disabled, it can be used by us. The true way to salvation on the path we are on is to not give up. As long as we continue to have boots on the ground speaking up for our minority groups, we can be loud enough to demand change. If a few buildings burn or businesses get looted, they will be remembered for their sacrifice to the greatest revolution of modern times. They will only speak volumes about the anger we have and allow to us to be heard on behalf of the black people that are being brutalized in the streets in a court of law. We can bend the law that is designed against us to work for us if we push hard enough.
What is happening now is inspiring every kid being raised now to get involved. Every time a parent has to explain why they must go to another Target instead of the one they are used to, a future leader could be born if educated correctly. When our courts are represented by the people it swears to serve, it will finally find justice.
And I think that’s worth fighting for.