White Privilege

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There's a very nice note in the comments section for my post below this one from a gentleman who was kind enough to read my memoir:

I read 'The Beautiful Struggle' a few weeks ago (& enjoyed it very much, & found it very affecting: sincere big thanks). In many ways, our childhoods and adolescences couldn't be more different: I'm a white guy from a comfortably affluent family who grew up a few years after you (crack still a power but very much on the downswing) in a medium sized, uglily-segregated city in the midwest. 

I was given all sorts of privileges withheld from you, and grew up in a much less hostile world. I'm a little uncomfortable making comparisons: I'd be an awful jackass to diminish your experiences in any way. With that said: while in objective terms, our middle school years were very different, I really recognized atmosphere you portrayed, and that recognition had a lot to do w/ how effective it was for me, despite different settings. I'm not sure exactly what point I want to make: certainly not that privileged white boys can be self involved, though there is a little of that ... something vague and ill-thought-out about universality and uniqueness in how adolescence is experienced, I guess.

I want to stress that I really appreciate this note. While I wrote thinking mostly about a young black kid who might find himself in the sort of situation I found myself as an adolescent, I also wanted the book to be open and hoped that people who were nothing like me might find something in there. With that said, I want to offer something that may do well to tie up the past week of discussion.

I don't want to speak for any other black person, or any other black writer, but it needs to be understood that my identity isn't founded on the losing end of "white privilege." I understand the use of that term for social scientists and perhaps literature critics. But I generally find it most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege--not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one's death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc. In its most general invocation, I'm often repulsed because I think these sorts of questions often break down in the face of actual individuals.

The world of the individual--and often the black individual--is the space where I write. It is true that I can tell you how racism--indirectly and directly--affected my life. But you should also know that I truly believe that I had the best pair of parents in the world, that I had six brothers and sisters (sometimes more) who took care of me. That my mother taught me to read when I was four, that my father put me to work when I was six. That my brother Malik taught me D&D when I was seven, that my brother Big Bill fed me hip-hop from the time I was eight till this very day. That my house was filled with books which I was given the privilege to dive in and out of. That my father published and printed books which gave a sense of Do For Self.

That at Lemmel Middle School, I had teachers who went to war on my behalf. That I was a drummer for Sankofa Dance Company, and learned, not simply how to play, but how to shave a goat-skin and construct a drum-head. That I used to rhyme with Big Bill up on Wabash, and for all my awful flow, no one kicked me out. That the same boys who tortured me in seventh grade, repeatedly saved my ass in eighth grade. That throughout my young life someone more street-wise than me often took me under their wing and looked out.

In short--you need to know that I was privileged. I can run you all kinds of stats on the racial wealth gap and will gladly discuss its origins. But you can't really buy two parents like I had. Money can buy experience and exposure--but it can't make you want those things. It can't make your parents curious about the world. It can't make them moral, compassionate and caring. It can't make them love their children. As I have moved on up, in that old Jeffersonian sense, I have seen families who allegedly were more privileged. But ultimately I find merit in who they are as humans. I am unconvinced that money trumps all of their flaws

White commenters who were financially "better off" than me should assume only that, and no more. They should certainly not assume they were more privileged. I certainly do not. It is the privileges which I experienced, as an individual, that brings me here. If you read something on this blog, or in one of my books, that resonates, holler at me. Don't apologize. Don't feel guilty. The guilt isn't about me anyway.  Address me straight up. You didn't do anything to me. And fanatically believing in "Coatesian Exceptionalism," I can't even concede that you had more than me.

I was privileged. I got love for you. But I would not trade with you:)

Bon weekend, folks.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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