Check Your Privilege at the DoorMay 9, 2020
As a white woman, I will never understand what a black person’s experience of America is. But last year, one short walk to the Emergency Room gave me a profound gift: a glimpse into their world.
My one-year-old baby had taken a bad fall down the stairs. No serious injuries were obvious but I brought her to the ER to rule out internal damage and brain hemorrhage. As I carried her little body, exhausted from crying, in my arms across the dark, rainy parking lot, fear suddenly gripped my heart.
“What if they see her bruises and think I beat her? What if they think I’m a negligent parent? What if they don’t believe me? Will they call CPS?” I know hospital workers are trained to detect child abuse and will notify authorities if they suspect it.
My logical brain quickly chimed in: You don’t look or act like a child abuser. You are white, well-dressed, well-spoken, confident and responsible. Using my people skills and channeling my inner “Karen” in case I needed her (aka: “I want to speak to the manager”), I spoke confidently and clearly and to the medical staff. They understood the sense of urgency and quickly admitted us to a room.
The doctor listened to my full story, asked lots of questions, explained the latest research studies involving 50,000 children and brain trauma and all the warning signs to look for, got my full informed consent, and did a full physical examination on my baby. They kept us for two hours for observation and gave us the highest medical care available. In the end, my daughter had no injuries, and it was a positive experience.
Put Yourself In Her Shoes
As we waited, I imagined what a young, poor, black mother might feel walking into the Emergency room that night (I’d like to believe she would have received just as high a standard of care as I did). But, I wonder… would she worry about being treated fairly and respectfully? Would she fear having to beg or fight for help in a crowded ER? Would worry the doctors would see the bruising and suspect she beat her child? Would she be concerned the medical staff might call CPS or even the cops? Perhaps she would hope a black nurse was on shift that night. Or, God forbid, she might not even bring her baby into the hospital knowing the risks of being accused of child abuse and having her child taken away from her. Just thinking about this fictitious woman makes me weep.
Systemic racism in America is not fiction.
Did you know that in the US, black women are more than three times more likely to die in childbirth compared to white or Hispanic women, regardless of income or education? Why is that? I’ll give you a clue: It’s not because they are three times higher risk for death during childbirth than white or hispanic women. Racism may not always look overt, angry and hateful. It can look like neglect in medical care, denial of justice, discrimination in the workplace, or simply white Americans looking the other way.
It’s true that I have no grid for what black people experience, but in those 5-10 seconds, I got a glimpse of the anxiety, distrust and panic I imagine many black people may feel every day living in America today. Not 50 years ago. TODAY. I silently acknowledged my privilege and felt deep empathy for those who do not have it.
Call It What It Is
As a white woman, I never have to worry for more than 5-10 seconds about receiving quality medical care. I never have to fear that my husband will be safe going out for a jog in broad daylight. I never have to wonder if I will be treated fairly when a cop pulls me over. I never have be concerned that my kids will be bullied or discriminated against for the color of their skin. And thousands of other situations I will never have to worry about, simply because I am white and privileged.
Recognizing privilege is the first step in combating systemic racism. If there is no problem, we can never find solutions. The persistent attitude of white people to avoid, ignore or deny systemic racism and privilege negates the black experience and further exacerbates the division in our country. It’s time to check our privilege at the door.
There is no shame in admitting privilege. What matters more is what we do with our privilege. I used my white privilege to help my baby receive the medical care she needed and deserved. I will also use my privilege to speak up for those who deserve justice and respect who are denied those basic, unalienable rights.
That is the most American thing we can do.