How To Stay Alive In America

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1.  Be privileged.  (This post could also be titled “Examining My Privilege”)

“Privilege” the word makes people very uncomfortable.  “White privilege” the phrase spins some people into denial so rapidly it will make you dizzy.  So let’s not talk about it.  I don’t want to piss everyone off so early on.  We’ll just skip it.

2.  Don’t be a black male or black for that matter.

That makes you uncomfortable too.  Just a little, right?  I mean why wouldn’t it?  That’s like saying black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by the authorities.  Oh.  As a black female I certainly have my work cut out for me.  Patriarchy is one hell of a drug.  But what that also means is while I have been harassed by the authorities because of the color of my skin, occasionally I will be harassed and then flirted with while being detained against my will.  Yes.  That happened.  You think you feel uncomfortable because of street harassment?  Imagine street harassment in a uniform.

3.  Live in an affluent area.

I’ve talked about how great my neighborhood is.  Because it is.  I am a metro ride away from downtown DC and just that address has awarded me more opportunities than most of my cousins who live in less affluent locales.  Where my Dad originates from in Pennsylvania, the average house sells for $187,000.  Where my Mum originates from in Alabama, $89,000.  In our neighborhood in Virginia the average house sells for $550,000.  We’ve been in our house for 31 years (back in 1983 we could almost afford it).  But that still didn’t stop a wayward neighbor from accosting myself and a friend once for taking photographs of the beautiful cherry blossom tree behind his house.  It wasn’t located on his property.  It was cluster property.  He just decided we did NOT belong.  Yup. I got Trayvoned in my own neighborhood.  I’ve lived here for 30 some years and according to some newbie, I don’t belong.  And no.  It didn’t feel good.

4.  Have parents who understand the value of education.

My Dad attended Stanford on a full academic scholarship (class of 1970).  He was gifted in basketball and performed in his high school modern dance troupe (which he swears gained him entry into the school … not his basketball skills despite playing for the university).  He was awarded that opportunity which opened many doors because his father had moved the family to California in order to enroll in a program at Stanford through his job.  My paternal grandfather attended Penn State on a football scholarship under Joe Paterno as an assistant coach and Rip Engle as a head coach.  So not only have parents that are athletically gifted, but they should also be fearless with a lust for life and serious hustle.  You’ll need a pinch of luck for good opportunities to come your way too.  Getting out of small town Pennsylvania is tough.  My Mother has her Masters too.  She came from an impoverished background with many siblings and an absent father in Jim Crow Alabama.  I truly believe my parents are wonders of the world.  Because the world is simply not set up so that blacks succeed.

5.  Have a parent who’s home.

My Mum didn’t work until my sisters and I were older.  So we didn’t get away with much.  But at the same time, having one parent at home is incredible privilege.  We are strictly middle class but we got by on one salary for a portion of my life.  I work in tv today because my Dad had a skill to pass on to my sisters and I and he did that instead of giving us allowance.  He taught us work ethic and professionalism at the age of 16.  You can’t get into tons of trouble when you’re working a production assistant job on the weekend and your mother is home during the week.  But once again, that’s privilege.  Having those doors opened to you at a young age means that you are damn lucky.  Little ingrate I was, I pooed pooed on it so much because I hated lugging camera equipment around all summer long while my friends were lounging at the pool.

But imagine what life is like if you’re born to two people who never finished high school.  Imagine living in a household where education isn’t stressed and opportunities simply aren’t there?

5.  And now a fun one:  Have a cute dog.

You think I’m joking but I’m not.  Piper is so cute she immediately disarms anyone who comes across my path.  People are ten times more likely to smile at me when she’s by my side.  But even she reeks of privilege.  Pure bred shih tzus aren’t cheap. (I’m a shelter dog lover myself but the she is my sister’s dog and the breeder is my sister’s best friend).  Her hair requires more maintenance than my own to keep her cute and fluffy.  So even having a disarming sidekick is privilege.

6.  Don’t shoplift.

Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care if you or someone you knew went through a shoplifting phase!  Seeing a lot of hands in my personal friendship circle.  A ton.  You know who didn’t go through a teenage shoplifting phase?  Me!  I watched my white friends come to school with new loot every day.  Some even got caught.  No big deal.  A few of my friends have said essentially the same thing.

“I’m a white girl.  Nobody is looking at me.”

One friend quit because she got bored.  It was just too easy and you know what?  You have no appreciation for the value of stuff when there’s no struggle.  I personally never went through that phrase because my weekend production jobs provided me with spending cash.  I know for a fact I was the first girl in my high school with a Kate Spade handbag AND it was bought with all my own money.

But I had also been told by my Mum that her heart would be broken if I ever decided to shoplift because,

“They’re already always watching you.  Just know that.  And we don’t need to steal.”  Well neither did my white friends!

But nobody died.

7.  Live your life letting insensitivity bounce off of you.

If I had a dollar for every time I ignored an ignorant comment directed towards me based on my race, I’d be rich.  If I stood up for myself every time I had an insulting comment hurled towards me, I’d be dead.  This is not an exaggeration.  This is not a joke.  Over the summer I had a racially motivated run in with law enforcement which left me bawling my eyes out in some shitty little town in southern Virginia.  I called my Dad and he was so startled he got off camera immediately and tried to calm me down.  He kept insisting

“But you’re alive Aja!  You’re alive!”

Meanwhile white friends were telling me to fight the charge.  Fight the system.  Stand up.  All I could think is,

“You guys are so lucky.  You are so privileged to have no idea how this feels.  You are so lucky to be so blissfully unaware of what happens to mouthy little black people in the hands of the ‘authorities’.”

I never want to visit that armpit again.  So it was worth it not to fight.

Even as I was gathering my thoughts for this post, I was listening to white colleagues bemoan the protesters in DC for blocking the roads with their silly little protest over the death of a black kid.  They were mocking and I sat there growing more and more irritated by it.

Being a quirky, mostly disarming black girl from a strong and interesting background is a privilege that I REFUSE to take for granted.

Michael Brown simply didn’t have that privilege.

–  Aja

LastwordsMichaelBrown(Image from here)

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2 thoughts on “How To Stay Alive In America

  1. Pingback: How to Stay Alive in America -

  2. This is great, Aja. You are fortunate to have been born to such great parents, and the apple obviously doesn’t fall far from the tree. We need to hear more stories like this from people like you. When folks say we need to have a dialogue about race in this country, I always wonder what exactly we should say. I think what’s needed most is for people of color to tell their stories, because stories create empathy, and empathy is the core of morality. I must confess that I, as an educated white liberal, was not aware of the depth and extent of racism in this country today. Silly me, I thought we’d made a ton of progress since the 60’s and before. But it feels as if racism is becoming more bold and more overt. I hold the media (Fox News) responsible for much of this, but white complacency plays a part too. I have an adopted African-American-Vietnamese son who has had to cope with being adopted into a white family with good intentions but little experience with black culture and navigating life in the south as a black male, and I have seen him struggle. I have always been sensitive to injustice, but recent events are truly devastating.

    Like

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