This past January, I got caught with my pants down. This is what happened:
My sister had celebrated a “milestone” birthday late last year (her 29th – again) and had asked, as a birthday present, that all her siblings and her dad watch her run in the Houston Marathon on January 19th. The marathon starts early Sunday morning, and there was no way to get to Houston after Shabbat in time for the marathon, so we all decided to meet in Houston for Shabbat. My sister lives a long distance from synagogue — too far for my dad to walk — so we arranged to stay with some family friends who live about half a mile away from the Meyerland Synagogue. We all had arrived Thursday night, and Friday was occupied with shopping for Shabbat food, picking up runner’s credentials, etc. After the Friday morning ordeal, some of us decided to go sightseeing and some of us (me) decided to go back to our hosts to relax.
Our hosts have an alarm system, which they had told us they would disarm, and had given us one key. When we came back from shopping and unlocked the door to go in to the house, the alarm went off (they had gone out and had forgotten to leave it disarmed.) It took us some time to find the code to disarm the alarm. After waiting for a few minutes, and not getting a call or anything, the rest of my family decided to go sightseeing. We had a discussion about the key. I told them to take the key, because I was going to be staying in the house. They told me to keep the key. I asked how they were going to get into the house if I was napping or showering, and they suggested just leaving the back door unlocked, which we did.
I do not travel well and was feeling under the weather (hence my decision not to participate in the sightseeing activities) so I went upstairs to attend to personal needs in the lavatory. Maybe five minutes later, the doorbell rang. Since I had my pants down, I was in no condition to go open the door. I did start to conclude my business in the lavatory. About a minutes later, the doorbell rang again, and I yelled that I was indisposed and would be down in a minute. A few moments later, two police officers entered the house (they had responded to the alarm and found the back door unlocked) and demanded to know who was in the house. I yelled that I was a houseguest and was upstairs in the lavatory, and they ordered me to come downstairs with my arms in the air immediately, and not to waste time washing my hands or anything else. Unhappy about not being able to wash my hands, I complied. Eventually, I got downstairs, provided my ID, explained what had happened, and they were satisfied.
Later on, I shared what had happened with my brother-in-law, a Houston native. He told me that if my skin color had been different, I might very well not be alive to tell this story.
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I thought long and hard about sharing this embarrassing and self-effacing story, and decided to share it, because it is a commentary on my own cluelessness about my white privilege.
We live our lives largely oblivious to what it means to be a person of color in the United States. My ability to tell this “humorous” story above about the silly and frequent mistakes we all make as we go through our lives is an example of my white privilege. People of color have no such luxury. They live in constant terror of making silly mistakes, which might suck in the police and end in tragedy. Over and above that, they, like all the rest of us, are subject to all sorts of random circumstances beyond their control which might suck the police in, and when the police are sucked in, people of color are not extended the same “benefit of doubt” that we white people are.
Twenty dollar bills are the most commonly counterfeited bill in the US, because the amount is large enough to make a counterfeit operation economically feasible yet small enough for people not to pay careful attention to whether a bill is counterfeit. Let me correct that previous statement: for people to pay careful attention if you are white. If you are a person of color, you had better believe that people pay careful attention to even $10, $5 and $1 bills to check whether they are counterfeit, because people of color are “more dishonest by nature and bear watching” (scare quotes to denote sarcasm, not a direct quote.) I deem it quite likely that at least some of us (in the US) have handled a counterfeit $20 bill over the past few years, whether we knew it or not (see here.) The sheer non-remarkability of it is an example of white privilege. You can be sure any person of color, even before the events of last week, is keenly aware of the risk of running across a counterfeit $20 bill by accident.
We go through life taking things for granted, like the freedom to shop without being automatically suspected of shoplifting, or the freedom to wait our turn to be served in a professional’s office without having white people “skipped” in line ahead of us, or even the freedom to relax about making our very human mistakes because the consequences usually are of no real consequence. And these are just three examples of things we take for granted — we take so much for granted that we can’t even enumerate what we take for granted. Imagine living every single day of your life, from the minute you are born to the minute you die, without being able to take any of the above for granted, and in constant terror.