Last summer, I read “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” a New York Times bestseller written by Mark Manson. In the book, Manson advocates for the acceptance of struggle, denial and failure, arguing that all monumental successes in life come as a product of these monumental failures, and it is only through moments of action and “not giving a f*ck” do we reach those successes. One of my close friends had also read the book, and she found it a rewarding read, as did I.
But she had qualms — she could not relate to the message. I was confused, as I found the author’s advice universally applicable. In response, she told me that very few people in this world can afford to navigate life with a “whatever happens, happens” mindset. Manson promotes relentless risk-taking and acceptance of failure, but my friend rejected both as unrealistic, given that there are certain mistakes from which she and other women would never be able to recover from. Manson’s model relies upon a safety net that catches one’s every fall, and she interpreted that safety net as one specifically built for white men.
While her criticism dealt specifically with male privilege, its lessons also apply to white privilege. Privilege elevates one above another, and in our social hierarchy, those at the top can do whatever they want without having to listen to a social superior. Systemically, the workplace grants men a longer leash than it does women, and the same is true for white people. Privilege affords both groups the ability to travel through life with the comforting knowledge that, should they fall, an institutionalized safety net exists to catch them. In short, white people grant themselves the ability to act without fear of permanent repercussions.
Our country is undergoing a reckoning with privilege that has long been ignored. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and most recently Rayshard Brooks, among others, were murdered by police officers who used their privilege to evade or mitigate repercussions, a fact exemplified through their fabricated police reports.
Consider Derek Chauvin, who faces charges of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the case of Floyd’s death. Before allegedly killing Floyd, Chauvin accumulated 18 prior complaints during his 18 years as a Minneapolis police officer. Although details of the internal affairs complaints aren’t available, news reports show that, of those 18 complaints, only two resulted in disciplinary action. Neither came in the form of suspension or confrontation, but rather, Chauvin merely received two reprimanding letters. If a police officer faces 18 citations and their worst punishment is a strongly worded letter, they begin to think they are untouchable. The Stanford Prison Experiment infamously publicized this phenomenon of unchecked authority. Chauvin was likely unconcerned with the consequences of his actions because he never faced any. In another form of dodging punishment, Thomas Lane, arrested for his role in the Floyd murder, was released from prison on bond.
The same category includes U.S. President Donald Trump. He is a man who, during a national crisis, retreated to his bunker, tear-gassed crowds for a photo-op and blocked access to the White House. He tweeted a 1967 white police chief’s words: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He said Floyd would be looking down proudly on our country because of recent improvement in employment statistics. He acts without fear of repercussions.
We are witnessing legions of Black people voice the horrid fears they encounter on a daily basis because of their race. White fear and racism prevents Black friends from safely shopping, jogging, sleeping and protesting.
Therein lies a key distinction that our country has drawn between races — white people can make mistakes with minimal fear of punishment. In the U.S., Black people are harshly punished, not just for their mistakes, but also for simple daily activities.
I can go on long runs in my hometown with little attention paid to my surroundings. I’ve walked city streets late at night with no fear of who may be watching me. I can golf, drive and work knowing that police officers will likely not consider me dangerous. But my experiences are unrepresentative of the realities that millions of Black Americans face. Now more than ever, we all must become something bigger than ourselves. Self-serving lifestyles blind one to an experience outside of their own and inhibit evolution on a societal level.
If a white individual makes a mistake or commits a heinous crime, they are often seen as “bad apples” or forgiven entirely because, as the white public opines, one act could never represent their character. If a Black individual does the same, however, many will say their true nature is shining forth and that such misbehavior was always inevitable. Racial disparity in prison sentencing proves this point — if a Black person and a white person make the same mistake, the Black person receives a glaringly harsher punishment. There’s a reason why only white people, never Black people, are ever referred to as “bad apples.” There can be no individual “bad apples” when 244 years of American history has classified the entire orchard as “bad.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” “chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile — in other words, the right to be human.” In addition to granting white people domain over this country, white privilege has made it acceptable for white people to settle at mediocrity, and be rewarded for it. Our country has preached equality, but its version of equality is one that requires Black people to be “twice as good” as white people, Coates writes. In other words, our country has molded an environment where Black people can only exist on the extreme ends of the spectrum — if a Black civilian is not uniquely extraordinary, they are derided. The idea of Black mediocrity has been erased from the narrative.
I recently saw a tweet of a white man offering a can of Pepsi to a line of police in riot gear, mocking the infamous Kendall Jenner TV ad. Pretty crass, right? What seemed like a lighthearted joke was enabled by privilege. My first sobering thought was that the situation would end much differently if the man offering the Pepsi were Black. The man in the video faced no punishment. Breonna Taylor, on the other hand, was asleep when she was murdered.
“The right to be human,” which is the heart of Coates’ quote, proclaims humanity as the right to make mistakes and be unremarkable if one desires, yet still enjoy a full and wonderful life. If that is true, systemic racism has quite clearly stripped Black Americans of their right to be human.
That we must evolve is clear. There is so much we can and must do in order to correct our country’s many flaws. We all operate as individuals, responsible for taking our own stands against immorality. In doing so, we must all recognize that both action and a lack thereof breeds reaction. Racism is a form of selfishness as racist actions nearly always fail to consider the reactions they provoke.
My friend opened my eyes to a perspective I didn’t know previously existed. In the spirit of our conversation, I implore you to reconcile how we evaluate and judge others. I suggest that we all start with a thought exercise: think of the person you love more than anyone else, and ask yourself whether they could ever make a mistake so grievous as to justify them not coming home tonight. Most of you will say no. We all undoubtedly wish for our loved ones to be able to falter and live to see merit in mistakes. There is an immense amount of work to be done until that thought is a reality for every American.
Tripp Burton (21B) is from Noblesville, Indiana.