Listening to Our Ghosts: Pilfering with Privilege

Thursday, August 21, 2014 - 9:40am

Listening to Our Ghosts: Pilfering with Privilege

Following the suggestion of Courtney E. Martin to "talk to" my own "ghosts" (To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown), I find myself preoccupied with the "demonization" of Michael Brown, the implicit suggestion that stealing some cigarillos could justify his killing. There is a wrenching in my gut every time I imagine the scene in Ferguson, a tangible grief over the loss of yet another young life. I think of my own children at that age and recognize how accidents of birth and circumstance, and, yes, privilege, have brought them all into full adulthood alive and well.

And here is the hard part, where my ghosts rise up to instruct me: I remember every minor crime I have ever committed, as well as those of my white friends and family members, for which there were only minor, if any consequences, and for which we certainly did not risk or lose our lives: every petty theft, every traffic violation, every trespass, every illegal purchase and use of drugs and alcohol.

I can’t stop thinking about the shoplifting girls in high school, children of affluence, who swept through boutiques and specialty shops on a class trip with fingers so sticky that the school got a call of complaint from the merchants’ association the next day; their collective losses had been substantial. Although my memory is a bit fuzzy on this, I believe a bake sale was held to raise reparations funds to accompany the letter of apology that was sent. No arrests or prosecutions, no one chasing the young ladies out of the stores, no police searching for them on the streets, not even a whisper of violence. A bake sale.
We Americans are familiar with the disparities in perception, prosecution, and punishment of crimes depending upon the race of both victim and perpetrator. Our scandalous record is well-documented and even relatively well-reported. We know, and can no longer claim or feign ignorance. We know. And yet, not much changes.

Somewhere near the core, and certainly at the heart of this issue is our failure to see that we are One. As long as we can define another human being as "other" — not me, not my son — we lengthen the distances between ourselves, heightening and fortifying barriers of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, political persuasion, whatever category resonates with our fear and insecurity; we humans seize on just about anything to distinguish ourselves from each other in order to feel less lonely, more loved, as if we belong. And all of this just results in more judgment, distance, intolerance.

As I consult with my own ghosts, I try to imagine what might help bring us humans together, help us to see our inextricable connection to each other and to understand how warped a system of justice is that metes out such vastly unjust consequences for the same acts.

I have been struck in recent days with the massive success of the ALS fundraising “Ice Bucket Challenge” — a lighthearted effort to raise money for and awareness about a heart-heavy, dreadful, and deadly disease. I am wondering if a similar campaign, albeit involving more personal risk, could help change both our national conversation and the perceptions that continue to fuel bigotry, intolerance, and fear, both conscious and not.

So here’s a suggestion to nip all of this finger-pointing and self-absolution in the bud and help build bridges of connection and healing. Let’s take a collective breath and share our Pilfering With Privilege stories, white America. Lovingly invite each other to step up, listen to our ghosts, and acknowledge our own capacity for poor judgment, for making mistakes that are a breach of the law. What have you done that could have escalated into serious trouble if discovered or seen through a racial lens? How has your own privilege protected you and your beloveds? What bad decision did your child-self make before you became hard-wired for sound judgment, as most humans do, somewhere in your early to mid-20s?

Let me be the first to tell my story of Pilfering with Privilege. I didn’t palm cigarillos; I stole candy. Not only that, my crime was a betrayal of trust. From time to time (OK, it may have been frequently), I stole a Mallo Cup from the box of candy-for-sale with which I was entrusted during recess when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I have no idea why I did this. Had my own demographics been different and had I been caught, at the least I would have been expelled, at worst prosecuted, possibly ending up in a juvie program somewhere. And then there are the shoplifting girls. Imagine what the response would have been had they been black, especially black males?

How about you? What story is your ghost whispering in your ear? Muriel Rukeyser observed that the universe is made not of atoms, but of stories. Perhaps telling our stories of the common experience of youthful indiscretion can help create a world of connection and compassion for all of us in our frailty, reinforce our common humanity, stop us from dividing the world into "good" ones and "bad" ones, help us claim and honor the truth of our Oneness.

Please feel free to make yourself vulnerable on this page or anywhere else you choose. If enough people were willing, we could start a public Pilfering with Privilege campaign; those sufficiently brave and technologically able could video their story and post it on Facebook. Dumping ice water on ourselves for a worthy cause in a public forum is a very good thing to do, but, let’s face it, .it’s relatively easy and essentially self-congratulatory. Confronting and acknowledging even one small part of our place and privilege in a structurally unequal system is much more difficult, but is an excellent, courageous, and transformative thing to do, for our good and the good of all. Any volunteers?


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Sharon Browning

is the former executive director of Philadelphia VIP (Volunteers for the Indigent Program), the hub of pro bono legal services in Philadelphia. She also taught for fifteen years in the Sociology Department at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. She is a trained mediator, as well as a retreat facilitator, spiritual guide and teacher, focusing on the needs of marginalized individuals and groups. She is currently working on the JUST Listening Project.

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Taking a poke at this weeks show "Driven by Flavor" I will say this about the country I grew up in. "You are what you eat". Technically speaking, Hollywood movies and television production are a religion. But the Lord I worship say's things like this;
Proverbs 26:20
For lack of wood, the fire dies out;
and when there is no talebearer, strife subsides.

Not turning in all of money collected for a charity[during Halloween(instead of trick or treating)]: used to buy candy. Maybe wouldn't be considered illegal but definitely immoral and punishable. Child/teen of color probably would be persecuted---at least.

Drunk driving, lying to cops when my bro accidentally shot a BB gun at a school bus, trespassing ... All would have been dramatically riskier and could have changed the course of my life if I was not a white woman of privilege.
Thank you for this article.

This seems well intended -- but I'm not sure stories of little girls stealing marshmallow candies quite touches it. I don't think stealing was the issue. I think the police wanted people to see a large young black man acting in an intimidating way in that shop -- and rush to think that lethal force was the necessary response. I think you need to deal directly with the fear people have of black men. Of course racism is bound up in actions and reactions -- but people won't recognize the real issues in a little girl stealing penny candy.

Thanks for responding, Tamara. I am having a ‘both, and’ response to your thoughtful comment. When my own children were in one particular elementary school, there was a disproportionate response by teachers and administrators to the behaviors of the black kids in their classes…much less latitude for what was deemed normal ‘kid stuff’ for the black kids. I am wondering where the fear you describe originates, and how perceptions of difference are reinforced in pretty much all of our social institutions, at very early ages. Any thoughts?

While I certainly live with my own unprosecuted ghosts of privilege, this reflection regarding the fear people have of black men is apropos. As much as I would like to not do so, if I am out walking and one or two or more black men are walking on the opposite side of the street, my feaful response is automatic.
It is necessary to address these conditioned and learned responses through education. After all, we are what we learn. As I approach my later years, my thoughts are that these reactions are likely ethnocentric in nature and taken to extremes through culturalization. Extraneous survival mechanisms which can be changed.

Gretchen has the knowledge changed anything?

As a college student in Boston (already so much embedded privilege in just that phrase), a hurricane was predicted and most of the city was shut down, windows boarded up in preparation. The storm detoured out to sea early,though, and we were left with a windy and largely quiet city. I and a half dozen or so of my friends walked from our apartment right down the middle of Commonwealth Ave, in search of a bar that might be open. We found one in Kenmore Square; we drank too much. I imagine we were a loud and messy group making our way back up the middle of Comm Ave late that night.
If we had not been a group of white college students, the few cars out might not have just swerved to avoid us. They might have beeped, gestured, or even threatened to hit us. Someone certainly would have alerted police about the 'gang' that was obviously out looking to loot some businesses. Making it home alive that night and unassaulted by any officers was a function of the privilege that lives in my skin.

Dear Sharon,
Thank you for voicing so eloquently another possible pathway for navigating a response. Our collective awareness at this time is ripe with potential and I so appreciate your calling attention to the fact that any response that perpetuates "us and them" or fails to penetrate the overarching mentality that contributes to these occurrences, is short-sighted or lacking in genuine impact (my interpretation).
I'd like to add that in addition to stories of our own indiscretions, we may also benefit from sharing stories of how we feel vulnerable and judged. I see no benefit in trying to compare our sufferings (let's face it, some are life and death and some are simply perceived), but it opens up a conversation about how all of our judgements have an impact. Yes, we may need to examine our assumptions and judgements about specific groups in the process of raising awareness, but in the end, it is judgement itself that needs to be examined, no matter where it is directed.
This is where I am at in my reflections at this time. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Dear Stephanie: I agree that narratives of competitive victimhood are not helpful. Even as I wrote this piece, I was thinking of white people I know who have felt the full force of prejudice because of class or mental health issues.
I also appreciate your highlighting the role of judgment in all of this, which, as you point out, is related to our own sense of vulnerability and worth. When we feel good about and have compassion for ourselves, we are less likely to condemn others. How do you think we might encourage each other to be more vulnerable? How can we make it safe to acknowledge mistakes, our frail humanity?

Dear Sharon,

The questions you pose are the questions that are guiding my observations and reflections these days. The only (likely incomplete) answer I have for how to encourage vulnerability is to exercise vulnerability ourselves. I think that as individuals learn, by practice, to relax into the tension we feel when we are vulnerable, we are carving a space for others to do the same.
I was watching the movie "As good as it gets" the other night and I was touched by the overarching theme of humanity in the film. Have you seen it? At one point, Greg Kinnear states, if you look at someone long enough, you discover their humanity. For me, there is a pearl of truth in this statement. For this to happen (for us to discover one another's humanity), I see a need for focused face to face interactions with people, where we learn to really see them... and not only our own ideas or projections of them. With the intention of course being that we work to apply this ability in all of our interactions. This takes time, attention and practice... and for me, it is taking a tremendous amount of inner work.
I have read about your work with JUST Listening and from what I gather, this approach is consistent with many others that are working on this effort. I have seen similar threads in the work of Peter Block and Parker Palmer and likely many others, myself included. I am at the very beginning stages of devoting much attention to these questions and I am encouraged by the collective dialogue happening. My greatest desire is to be having these conversations in person, where I believe the real magic and transformation happens.
So that's what I'm working on from my little corner of the world!
In appreciation,


I have many stories but the most recent one occurred two years ago, as an adult. I waited at a traffic light for the light to change. After two cycles, it became clear that it wasn't working. Georgia law is to treat the non-working light as a 4 way stop. So I waited again and then moved forward. A police officer pulled me over and wrote me a ticket. I knew that I was right and tried to present my case AKA I argued. I got out of the car to walk to him as he wrote the ticket. My family was sure that they were going to see me in cuffs, arrested. But I wasn't. Got the ticket, went to court and won. But had I been an African American man vs. a white, educated, upper middle class woman, I could have been killed. My heart aches that we view shootings of young Black men through a different and racial lens, in my opinion. Let's change this together.

Hi Sarah: Thanks so much for your comment; sharing our stories is important. Does your aching heart have any ideas about how we might change this together? I am hungry for us to let our imaginations fly, and an aching heart is excellent fuel for that process. Thoughts and ideas?

I have many stories but the most recent one occurred two years ago, as an adult. I waited at a traffic light for the light to change. After two cycles, it became clear that it wasn't working. Georgia law is to treat the non-working light as a 4 way stop. So I waited again and then moved forward. A police officer pulled me over and wrote me a ticket. I knew that I was right and tried to present my case AKA I argued. I got out of the car to walk to him as he wrote the ticket. My family was sure that they were going to see me in cuffs, arrested. But I wasn't. Got the ticket, went to court and won. But had I been an African American man vs. a white, educated, upper middle class woman, I could have been killed. My heart aches that we view shootings of young Black men through a different and racial lens, in my opinion. Let's change this together.

Like the memory of chalk screeching on a chalkboard, now I will work to clear my mind of the memory of Philadelphia private school cliques along with the gangs and groups that crowd out and stomp on the lives of those around them.

Here is mine...I was pulled over by the police when I was a senior in high school coming home from a party. It was small town Iowa. I should NOT have been driving. The officer asked me about the party - I lied. He knew who my dad was and told me to say hello to him (I never did that) - No ticket - not even a request to get out of the car and walk a line (I would not have passed). One of many such stories of my own, and many layers of, privilege.

I'm not religious but two sayings come to mind as I have not enough room to write my Pilfering story. "he who is without sin may cast the first stone"
and "there, but for the grace of god go I".
We are all thieves, when we get angry we steal the peace of mind of others and ourselves, when we lie we steal the truth of the day could have brought and on and and on.Forgive yourself you will treat others better.

Hi Debora: I think you raise a really central point. If we do not have compassion for ourselves, we don’t have compassion for other people. Pity, maybe. Judgment, often. But not compassion.We are all in the same boat together.

I was one of those shoplifting girls. We never got caught. Our mothers realized something was going on and warned us to get rid of those clothes that we did not purchase but they did not turn us in to the police. I also stole coins from a neighbors house and lipstick when I was with my parents shopping.(I got caught and it was mortifying but no legal consequences) We did a lot of alcohol and pot in junior and high school. I do think back with regret and some shame and have often realized, especially when visiting in prisons in recent times, how privileged (I use to call it lucky) we were then. It took me longer to realize that if I were not white it would be a different story.

Dear Mirror Wisdom: You also raise the important issue of the role that parents play in solidifying privilege by shielding their children from the consequences of their behavior. I know, as I am guessing many readers do, of parents who made the sort of arrangements you describe so that their offspring suffered no repercussions from some fairly aberrant behavior. What systemic change is needed so that this doesn’t happen and there is a uniform, age-appropriate, and compassionate response to the follies of all our youth? And thoughts?

Let's see...the political push by N. Carolina's GOP/Tea Party politicians to renew some old "Jim Crow" approaches to eliminating votes from African-Americans and the elderly...who may not drive and therefore no "photo ID" card;...People contributing more than a quarter-million dollars within a week to help the cop who killed in Ferguson, MO, with accompanying email messages from "donors" which belittled and rudely treated the victim and his family, so much so that the website decided to shut down; and as Americans, so many of us fail to learn from the negative aspects of our recent past decades...Truly a sad and continuing lack of social evolution based upon recognition of past failures and pain inflicted on so many by so few....Amen!

Or perhaps we are witnessing the death throes of old ways of being? I keep hoping….

The story I want to share is about a moment when I was forced to face my white privilege. My twenty-something son had a job for a few weeks as a paid canvasser for our local Congressman. Each day he was given a packet of campaign materials and specific addresses to approach--to knock on the door, and leave the campaign literature if no one answered. One day as he was knocking on doors, the police stopped him--someone in the neighborhood had called them to report a suspicious person casing houses in the area. My son showed them his clipboard and sheets of addresses, his batches of campaign lit, his name tag and political t-shirt, and the police quickly left him alone to carry on canvassing. I was amused anyone would think my son could be casing houses. The next day I recounted this funny story to my co-workers, and suddenly realized that for my African-American colleagues this was not a "funny" story. For their sons, this could have been a dangerous or humiliating encounter. I had trusted that my son would be respectfully approached and sent on about his business--they could have no such trust. And I had to face that though we lived in the same metropolitan area and worked at the same organization, in some ways we lived in different worlds.

Hi Laura. As the mother of a son, I have similar thoughts, and am so keenly aware of how different my worries about a white child(now adult) are. Thanks for sharing your story.

My High School best friend & I used to cruise in her Toyota while smoking pot. It's a miracle we were never caught or worse. We remained close friends for years after until sadly, she passed away from liver failure at the age of 43.

So sorry, Wendelyn. Thanks for sharing your story.

As a newly graduated nurse on a Medical Surgical floor in the best hospital in our city, I witnessed more than one sad event where young women and/or teenaged girls were routinely admitted(some as emergency cases) for spontaneous abortions,miscarriages, botched self-induced abortions, while some patients arrived 'scheduled for operative procedures' such as Dilation and Curretage…medically induced abortions, often disguised as a procedure that needed to be done to prevent uterine 'build-up of tissue' that caused "abnormal uterine bleeding"and "uncomfortable menstrual periods"…in other words, the uterus was scraped clean and a pregnancy was aborted.
The "privileged" arrived to greetings and anesthesia, and awakened to roses and cards or gifts wishing them a speedy recovery.
The poor arrived in shock,or hemmorage, crying with pain and confusion, distraught and sad, embarrassed and humiliated,angry and sometimes completely silent. Some finished their abortions upon arrival to their beds or in bed-pans.
As a young woman of 'privilege' myself, this was an unprecedented wakeup-call in my own experience of diverse social stratification. I myself was traumatized by the discrepancies that status afforded, or didn't afford.
The poor were at home, dealing with home abortions, or worse. They walked in holding bellies, faint with blood loss.
The rich arrived in wheelchairs accompanied by wealthy women or men, and were treated royally. The disparity shocked me then, and still does.
It hurt me beyond belief to witness the discrepancies.
My heart went out to each of them, after all, a loss of a child is a loss whether a wanted child or an aborted or miscarried child.
Most of these young women were still living with their parents, or relatives, and all of them were in psychological pain as well as physical pain. The nurse does not judge. She treats each patient with dignity and compassion and good nursing care and concern. But the sadness I saw I still carry in my memory, and most of the compassion, empathy/sympathy that I carried was for the those who had experienced the lies of the truth of what was really happening there.
The social system is unequal. And what we have witnessed these past weeks in Ferguson, Mo. demonstrates the inequality of race based on color.
Those who have, get. Those who don't have, are blamed for their poverty,and in the Ferguson cases, terrorized or worse.
Nursing taught me that We are One People..we all share the same dreams, ambitions, basic human needs. The vast gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' in the world is significantly based on economics but here in America the equality gap is exacerbated by racial discrimination. The 'privileged' pilfer with impunity while the poor who 'pilfer' are punished.

Such a heartbreaking story, Rennie. As a nurse, have you seen any progress at all on this issue in the medical arena? Any suggestions for what is needed?

I had sticky fingers also as a youth, and finally did get caught taking a 2 cent piece of gum at a 7eleven, they called the police and my mom made arrangements for me to work there after school I don't remember how long that lasted 2 weeks a month, but it was humiliating. I am sure in the world we live in now that if I were anything but white the punishment could have been worse.

When I was 9, I pushed 3-year-old Jimmy Jimmy down the steps simply because his dirtiness disgusted me. No one believed me when I said I did it on purpose. To this day, I can tear up at the thought I did this to him.

As a white, educated,privileged, older St Louisan I commend your empathy and desire to understand this situation with Michael Brown in Ferguson. I would recommend you listen to Michael Lewis' commencement speech at Princeton for some helpful perspective on your question here. As a young person I would have had the exact same feelings you express here. But as an older person,I think you should consider the importance of accepting some "breaks" in life with the appropriate amount of gratitude and wisdom not just guilt and shame. The story of Michael Brown at is that a young, unarmed American was shot by a police officer. His parents lost their son and he is dead. That is the real tragedy. And that should be enough for all Americans to discuss and work to repair. That you and your friends had good fortune and luck should make you grateful and understanding to those who have not. It should not make you say that stealing is okay. It is not- not for you, your friends or Michael Brown. I don't think it was the cost of the cigarillos that made some people uneasy, it was probably the physical intimidation of the smaller, older shopkeeper that caused the other shopper to call the police. Maybe the prejudices that some people have stem from seeing someone physically intimidated for something so menial. And that's where I fear your self-reflection here might distract from bigger issues that we need to address and take responsibility for.
Six bullets in an unarmed young man is the real tragedy.
God bless you for your concern and obvious desire to understand and hopefully work to remedy this injustice. That is a very honorable way to be. We need that.
But beware the distractions that confuse reasons with excuses.
The socio-economic issue is a very big issue, but not an excuse. If the result of this reflection on mistakes made in one's youth is "we all did it and that's ok" "or "we all did it, and we're crappy people", we insult all those who did not or all those who had to pay the price.

Without question...thank you for your empathy and willingness to be courageous enough to be transparent about who we are collectively when we tell our stories.

I read this posting last week andhave been grateful for the reflection its given me over the past few days. Thank you Sharon. I think what comes to mind the most for me is the feeling of "I can get out of it." When I am being pulled over for a ticket, or run a red light or even walking in a dangerous neighborhood. I have a feelign that because I am white, I am innocent, even when I am not. A feeling that I am invinceable, even to the law. This comes from being privileged and it's a message my society has told me since I was a little girl, without even realizing it. I am humbled again at this reminder to consider how wrong I am and what a different experience my non white friends and family have on a daily basis.

Thanks for your response, Susan. I agree with you that stealing is wrong and did not mean to imply the contrary. I also agree that focusing on guilt and shame is not productive. I do wonder, though, if stopping at gratitude for the advantages that have fallen into my lap due to white privilege might not actually perpetuate it. I am grateful for my life, but also feel grief and outrage that disparate treatment has feathered my nest unjustly. I would like everyone, all of us, to bear equally, consistently, and fairly both the consequences of our actions and the blessings of freedom.

Sharon, I also stole chocolate marshmallow candy during recess, and it was also candy entrusted to me to sell. What is it about white girls and chocolate candy? However, unlike you, I was from an extremely poor family, but received unexpected blessings from poverty, since I grew up in an extremely diverse neighborhood with people of all colors, religions, and ethnicities. As a result of my experiences, I became a color-blind adult, deeply aware of social and economic injustice,distrustful of authority structures, and suspicious of people with privilege.I was extremely comfortable in my neighborhood.

Unfortunately, my husband was transferred by his corporation to the South, where we chose a small house in the country for our family. Even more unfortunately, the area was targeted by developers building lavish homes and the area became known as prestigious. At the same time, I felt community values plummated. I felt like a perpetual outsider; all my neighbors were white and spent a great deal of time playing tennis and conversations were never about topics I liked. I read most of Simone Weil's writings and envied her ability to be comfortable with her outsider-ness.

Years later, I worked for a social justice association in an area that was predominately African American. My friends in the association brought me to their social gatherings,where I was often the only white person. For the first time, I experienced direct discrimination, being asked, "How did you get in here? We usually don't invite our cleaning ladies", and "You white ladies from outside the perimeter all look alike!" My friends were appalled at the treatment I received, but I was not. The experience was enlightening and educational. Until most of us can recognize in each other our common humanity, dreams, hopes, rather than what is 'different' between us, we will never become a welcoming community and country.

One respondent earlier remarked about discomfort with groups of young men, I think she referred to African Americans. I can understand this discomfort. At the age of 73, I shuffle-walk like most old ladies with bad backs, and thus am a target. I would feel vulnerable if a loud and rowdy group of men were coming toward me, however, the vulnerability would be the same whether they were white, African American, Hispanic, Asian or any other variety of young men. I confess to being prejudiced, but it is not directly linked to race, but is more directly tied to people of power, whether their power is economic, political, or church-sanctioned, since people of power endanger whoever they deem as vulnerable and not-as-entitled-as-they are.

I was looking at photos of a party sent to me by a close African American friend. Everyone in the photos was Black. As I skimmed through the photos, the thought/ feeling just rose up in me: "These people are inferior to me; they are very different from me; I'm repelled by their color." I was appalled to have such a racist thought enter my consciousness. What to do? I could just ignore the thought or try to repress it, but I decided to take an approach that some may think of as "fundamentalist" or "super-conservative." I prayed, "Dear God, this thought is contrary to your Spirit; please cast it out." Immediately, it left me. I'm finding that this kind of prayer is an effective antidote to many different kinds of "unworthy thoughts" that rise up in me. Maybe St. Paul was onto something when he said, "Take every thought captive to obey Christ."