Is there reverse privilege?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates had a typically thoughtful post last week on crime and race:

I was just reading this entry from Ezra Klein where he notes that fully half of his friends have been mugged. That is just a shocking number to me. I got to thinking back on my days in the District, and I couldn't even think of more than three or four people who I knew that had been mugged. As I reflected more on it, I came to a very uncomfortable--if obvious conclusion--if you're a mugger in D.C., a young, white, bookish blogger probably looks like the perfect mark.

For most of my tenure in D.C., I was going to Howard University. This was before the advent of gentrification, and it was generally thought that Howard students, themselves, were easy marks. But me and most my friends knew that to be a simplification. It's true that if you walked through, say, Clifton Terrace star-gazing, if you're roaming the streets acting like it can't happen (as us ancient hip-hop heads say), you were very likely to get stuck. But as anyone whose spent some time in the city knows, if you moved through the streets with purpose, if you kept the ice-grill on and looked like you were all business, if you kept that sixth sense of yours buzzing, the chances of you actually falling prey were pretty low. I may have had one encounter my whole time in D.C. You may attribuite that to me being 6'4, but the same was true of virtually all of my friends because they tended to be, like me, kids who didn't have a thuggish bone in their bodies but were still intimately acquainted with, as Dre would say, the Strength of Street Knowledge.

In reading all of these blog postings about crime in the District, I am beginning to understand--to some extent--the fear that white folks must have of black crime, as something different than the fear that black folks have. I live in Harlem, still a relatively unsafe section of New York, but having lived in Harlems all my life, I acutally feel almost as safe there as I do here in Aspen. I know that violent crime most often happens in situations in which people know each other, or in situations in which someone looks like a target. I tend to not hang with criminals, and I do what I can to not make myself a target.

But how would I feel if I knew my skin color alone made me an easy mark for the most degenerate elements of a community? Heh, probably the exact same way I'd feel driving through the small towns of Texas. That's not entirely fair--random street crime is still more common than hate crime. What I'm driving at is this: For the first time in my life, I have some sense of what the white guy who is ignorant of all things about black people is thinking when he drives through certain parts of town and rolls up his window. Because his very whiteness makes him an easy mark, he has to fear things in a way that I never do.

White people writing about race are always walking a minefield, so I'll have to ask you to assume my goodwill here, and forgive any infelicities.

I've been talking a bit about privilege recently--how the ways in which their dominance makes their lives easier become invisible to the members of the dominant group. It's interesting to contemplate a sort of reverse privilege, in which some key component of the dominant group experience is somehow emotionally invisible to other groups.

I think it's safe to assume that minorities and women know more about life in the dominant group than the reverse--if for no other reason than the ways that media centers around their experience. But that can be tricky. Have you ever noticed how Europeans think they know way more about life in America than they actually do, because they watch our television and movies? I'm pretty sure that I know more about men's world than they know about mine--but I'm also confident that I don't actually know what it's like to be a man.

I don't know what to do with that insight, except to note that probably, this makes the actions of the dominant group seem more malicious than they are. While we were at Aspen, Ta-Nehisi and Kenyatta and I talked about the fact that most white people have some older person--a relative or a family friend--who is an extremely good person, and also says racist things. Most of us don't confront those people, except perhaps in a "Now, grandma, you know you shouldn't say those things*" kind of way.

I assume that this looks, from the outside, like we endorse or at least accept those opinions. But most people I know have wrestled with the problem. That most of us have concluded that we can't raise an 85-year-old might be cowardice, but to me it feels like choosing my battles. Building racial harmony in the nation's nursing homes is not high on my list of priorities. And if you become the Family Flake, the one who picks fights with Uncle Howard every Christmas, you lose any opportunity for more gentle persuasion.

I really don't want this post to come out as "See--black people don't understand how hard white people have it!" Rather, I'm continuing what I tried to say in this post: that both communities, because they have a less than perfect understanding of the others' experience, are more suspicious of each other than they need to be.


* For example only; my grandmother is a lovely woman from whom I have never heard the slightest racist utterance.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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