White privilege. Male privilege. Class privilege. American citizenship privilege. I claim all of them. I’ve used them all. And, I thought until very recently that I had acknowledged them and that I’d paid them forward. I was wrong.
Last week the George Floyd protests and the COVID-19 pandemic came together to give me a swift kick to my conscience. As with many insights, it began with something as simple as a walk to the beach.
Since the shelter-in-place order more than eighty days ago Kathy and I have limited our outings. And whether it’s Kathy grocery shopping in big stores with one-way aisles or me taking a bike ride on the least populated routes possible, we always wear masks. We’re old enough to be in the high-risk category, so we’ve avoided crowds. We didn’t attend the Black Lives Matter marches, though we were there in spirit, and we didn’t even leave our house Memorial Day Weekend because of the crowds throughout the neighborhood.
So, midweek on a beautiful sunny afternoon I donned my mask, stuffed a couple cold beers in my backpack and headed down to Ocean Beach, four blocks away. I needed the sun. I needed the fresh air. After crossing the Great Highway I veered off to the right as I always do, taking a narrow trail up into the dunes that overlook the beach. Once I crested the final dune, I was astounded at the number of people spread out on the wide beach below –- more people than I’d ever seen on this section of Ocean Beach.
My first reaction was, “When the hell did this become Newport Beach?” I was used to settling into an isolated spot in the dunes and doing some meditative writing while watching the waves crash below. I’d look up to see an occasional jogger passing by the shoreline, a handful of parents and kids, a couple teenagers tossing a frisbee. Now I could see hundreds of people spread out north and south as far as the eye could see.
I rationalized at first that I was simply reacting to the social distancing dictate. I’d become accustomed to seeing crowds as a danger, the main culprit in spreading COVID-19. But, when I looked closer I knew that wasn’t true. Beach patrols were actively enforcing distancing of each small group. They were nearly as effective as the distancing circles that had been chalked out on all the big park meadows around the city the weekend before.
No. My first reaction to the crowd of beachgoers was far more selfish than that. I felt like my space had been invaded — though even that wasn’t entirely true. Up in the dunes I saw two guys sitting forty yards behind me, and a couple fifty yards to my left. That was it. But I was so selfish that I wanted the Ocean Beach view I was accustomed to, not a Newport Beach look-alike.
Minutes after I sat down, alarmed by my unexpected sense of entitlement, I took a second look. This time I saw a lovely panorama of humanity at play. I thought of the kids from the East Bay or Hunter’s Point, families from hot-summer places like Walnut Creek, Union City or Fremont, parents taking advantage of their slowed work schedules by heading west through San Francisco out toward the cool breezes and cold surf of Ocean Beach. For many it would be a rare experience, for some even a once in a lifetime.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think they had every right to be here. But my first thought was of myself. Instead of sensing and celebrating the joy of all these people, I was disappointed in not finding the solitude I’ve enjoyed here so many times, for so many years. So, where did my sense of entitlement come from?
When I mentioned this troubling experience to my nephew Adam he put it into the long lens of history. (He’s been reading H.G. Well’s The Outline of History.) “The problem as I see it lies deeply within human nature, our tribalism. Two million years of evolution and 200,000 years of human growth have resulted in a species that heavily relies on a small group which protects itself, and this isn’t something that a mere 5000 years of human civilization changes.”
I agree with his thinking. And, in no way is either of us offering up historical context as a defense of racism or exceptionalism. But, it does help define the source of racism, as well as class-ism and patriotism – a context we need to apply toward understanding the source of our attitudes and reactions.
Bestselling futurist writer, N.K. Jemisin said in a recent Time interview:
“When I contemplate existential evil, I don’t see some abstract devil, I see people torpedoing themselves just to maintain a status quo and systemic advantages that actually in the long run aren’t helpful for everybody. White people don’t really benefit that much from racism. And the majority of men aren’t benefiting wildly from patriarchy. These are systems that encourage people to act outside their own best interests.”
The flipside is that systematic racism is very real and very harmful to those that are its victims. This is a recent post by Shola M. Richards, a middle class Black American:
“When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner taking a break from the joylessness of crisis homeschooling.
But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong.”
So where does this leave us? Does my sudden sense of entitlement at Ocean Beach put me on the same level as white homeowners who would call the cops if they saw Shola Richard walking alone through their neighborhood? No. But, I have to acknowledge that the same dynamics are at work. I see a crowd that doesn’t belong on my beach. Others see a Black man who doesn’t belong in their neighborhood.
Shola Richard’s self-awareness –- knowing he’s safer going for a walk with his young daughter and fluffy dog – is necessary for his safety, perhaps even for his survival. My self-awareness –- knowing that I have an underlying sense of privilege — is equally necessary, not to my own survival but toward a more enlightened society, one in which one’s privilege doesn’t turn into prejudice.
Understanding the privileges my gender, race and nationality have afforded me – and equally, understanding the lack of privilege denied others — is like understanding history. We cannot grow individually if we do not understand our inherent flaws just as societies cannot grow without understanding their flawed foundations (i.e. the Confederate statues that must come down).
How did we get here as a civilization is much the same thing as understanding how I got here as the person I am today. Circumstances, the confluences and erosions of time, the pivotal crises or incidents that turned you, or history, in one direction or another are crucial to our growth, even our survival.
Just as many people demure at history – ‘it’s in the past, what can I do about it?’ – many refuse to become self-aware — ‘I am who I am, what good does it do to figure out how I became who I am?’
I’ve never denied that I’m a lucky man, but I have been half-blind to the source of my good fortune.
N.K. Jemisin: “All societies could be great, and they aren’t because people gotta be assholes.”