The Unbearable Lightness of Being White

Friday, December 5, 2014 - 5:53am

The Unbearable Lightness of Being White

This week, after a New York grand jury declined to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner, a Staten Island father of six, some people took to the streets. Some people staged “die-ins.” Some people did nothing.

And some people turned to social media. Jason Ross, a writer for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, started a hashtag, #CrimingWhileWhite, intended to surface the racial double standard in policing through individual white people’s anecdotes of moments when they’ve escaped consequences for criminal behavior. It caught on like wildfire. Hundreds of thousands of white Americans have contributed.

On the one hand, the “unpacking of our invisible knapsack,” as Peggy McIntosh would put it, is powerful. (If you haven’t read her foundational article on privilege, don’t delay; it’s a fantastic primer on privilege.) Wednesday night, I had a difficult time tearing myself away from the steady stream of 140-character stories featuring white people of various ages wriggling out of the hands of the law without much effort, sometimes even getting knowing pats on the back from those very hands as the pale “offender” went on with his or her day, or for the sake of comparison, his or her very life (as Mike Brown and Eric Garner, and so many others, have not). The sheer volume of these stories, the ease with which they spilled onto keyboards and out into the Internet ether, is testament to just how different white Americans' experiences of law enforcement continue to be from our neighbors and classmates and colleagues of color.

I thought about adding my own anecdotes to the growing pile; I’ve slipped out of consequences for shoplifting at a J.C. Penney’s as a kid, skinny-dipping in a public pool in the middle of the night as a teenager, drinking in public and jumping subway turnstiles in my 20s. It was tempting, in part, because it simply felt like something to do in the face of such utter depravity.

When I heard about the verdict in the Eric Garner case, I immediately felt profoundly inert — like a ghost among ghosts, floating through the Oakland airport, unable to do anything, say anything, be anything that would proportionally express how wrong the verdict was — it’s wrongness on top of wrongness (Mike Brown) on top of wrongness (Tamir Rice) on top of wrongness (Oscar Grant).

In light of that kind of “lightness” (the worst kind, the kind that takes over my body when I feel like, despite all of my power, I am somehow powerless), 140 characters of testimony of my own privilege seemed like, well, at least something. I could risk a bit of public embarrassment if it would contribute to the public case being made for the lethal and ongoing existence of racism in this country. Jason Ross, who started the hashtag, urged white people:

“Tweet your stories of under-punished f-ups! It’s embarrassing but important!”

But therein lays the rub: embarrassment. The emotional contrasts that emerge from an exercise like this are at the broken of heart of our body politic. I recall these moments with a sort of nostalgia; I can smile at my naïveté, my recklessness, my adolescent stupidity. I can remember standing in the moonlight, dripping wet, while my high school boyfriend insisted to the cop that we hadn’t been in the pool. I can still picture the gaudy costume jewelry that my best friend slipped into her underwear while I, anything but slick, got caught on the security cameras. I can actually laugh.

So I’m back where I started: the unbearable lightness. I could contribute my “Twitter testimony,” and maybe my 140 characters would meaningfully grow the evidence for racism, but, in the process, I’d be reconnecting with my own emotional privilege in a way that disgusts me.

White people, particularly with class privilege, are policed differently. Plain and simple. But acknowledging that doesn’t go nearly far enough. We also have different emotional experiences of the spaces that shape our days: sidewalks, classrooms, airports. Our “hijinks” are Latinos’ priors. Our overwhelm is a poor woman’s negligence. Our funny stories may be black men’s last breaths.

It’s strategic for white allies to disclose their experiences of staying safe while breaking laws big and small, but it’s not enough. The list doesn’t get at the emotional price that being a person of color in this country still exacts. In some ways, it actually reproduces it.

The painful truth is that my moral imagination isn’t potent enough to know what that price really is, what it feels like to wake up and walk around in black skin in a country that half-heartedly acknowledges the continued existence of racism, even as grown men die in the streets, suffocated and bullet-ridden. It’s part of why I read Brittney Cooper and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Spectra and Sisonke Msimang and Mychal Denzel Smith and Joshunda Sanders and so many others so hungrily. They can never close the gap of experience and comprehension. That would be impossible. But they are masters of building bridges of beautiful and structural integrity.

I know what I don’t know, in part, because of them. I also know what I don’t know, in part, because of what I do know. I know the emotional toll of growing up female. The alchemy of my femaleness and the world’s violence is ongoing. It is the sudden taste of humiliation, the sense of being utterly alone among so many, well-intentioned others, the terrible churning on what I should-have could-have would-have said, the curtailing of movement, the constant anticipation, the inescapable empathy, as if my pores have no boundaries, the fruitless search for my experience reflected in mirrors of import. If this doesn’t make sense to you, blame it on my shortfalls as a writer, but consider that it is also because you aren’t female. That there is an emotional landscape that you can’t travel without the most adept and generous of travel guides. Maybe, almost never.

This is why we have art.

Twitter is not art, alas. At moments like these, it may be strategic. It may be worthwhile. But let’s not forget that it’s utterly inadequate when we consider the creative fortitude needed to acknowledge the emotional lives of others within a world still so filled with senseless destruction.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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Thank you for your reflections. There is deep grief and shame us running rampant as we, the privileged struggle to let go of our state of denial. And yet, the advantages whisper gently in my ears. If my money or skin color or ethnicity can give me a leg up, am I willing to receive it at the cost of my brother struggling to breathe?

As a person of color, I can attest to the deeply en grained shame in this society regarding being approached by law enforcement. As a person having been subjected to police intervention (questioning but it felt as violating as a pen et rating body search), I attest to the deep moral and soul suffering it causes. Walking the line between the two worlds of privilege (by work days I am a successful engineer,by non work days I am a queer looking person who doesn't seem to be yielding any social support), I have noticed how easy it is to hide my own frailties. How I am starting to wear business jackets instead of my tupac hoodie to parks! It feels as if living in privilege may be the only way to survive some days

Thank you for writing this and sharing the authors that help to build bridges between the gaps. I agree, that this is why we have art and I hope more people will begin to use art rather than 140 characters to express themselves.

Dear Ms Martin, I really enjoy and appreciate your writing. Your columns indicate that you are a very caring and empathetic person. I would like to refer you to another writer named Karla McLaran. She's written a piece titled "Privilege Traitor" which addresses some of the natural mental and emotional conflicts that caring people have when they become angry at an injustice. I would also like to refer you to Michael Lewis' commencement speech at Yale- where he explains that gratitude for the good fortune and use of that good fortune to help others is the proper response to privilege. You are not guilty of being white or American- those are facts, just as you are not guilty of being a woman. You simply are. You are obviously using your gifts/privileges of curiosity, empathy, kindness, and language to help others right a very real injustice. For that you should feel both grateful and hopeful.

Thank you for sharing the above resources

Excerpt From Privilege Traitor by Karla McLaran..."Privilege in this context doesn’t mean that you’ve got it made and you’re actively denying basic necessities to everyone. Privilege is a sociological term that helps us talk about structural inequality.

You don’t have privilege intentionally, and you don’t earn it; you’re born into it. It’s a feature of the social structure and not of you as an individual. However, as an individual, you have many choices about what to do with your unearned privilege."

Best article I've read on this topic in the past few days. You write beautifully and you are a master of the understated. Excellent!

loved the article. Being far it enlightens my vision of America of today. Studied there(before Twitter and all that),saw the bad and the good. In my country Twitter is now the master" tell it all"of that's not told and forbidden.
Love you Americans for all your contributions and having the freedom and guts to tell it all..


No shortfalls as a writer, courtney.
You beautifully expressed what some of us at this time have no words for i.e....crime towards humanity.

I am glad I ran into this blog. I want to thank you for doing something by writing so eloquently, we all have to do something within our powers and resources to bring awareness to the injustices that has become so prevalent in our institutions. It is through awareness that people will start addressing their personal prejudices and demand that others do. Your show of empathy and willingness to see the obvious is a drift in the consciousness that we need to have in order to demand institutional changes and stay the cause. As a black woman and an immigrant I want to com e out of my shell and join the people currently speaking up and demanding changes.

As a 40-something white male, I laugh at the use of the word "embarrassment" by, I assume, "kids" born in the 80s (or 90s).

I am no longer even embarrassed by my "criming". As a political science graduate, I even feel that I have the background and judgment to analyze the logic behind our laws, and decide for myself which ones are OK to break. I recently used the breakdown lane to escape a traffic jam, even though I could see a police car at the time, and knowing full well that the breakdown lane was for emergencies only.

When the cop (predictably) pulled me over, I ended up yelling at *him* for wasting his time pulling over someone who was trying to reduce the traffic jam (by getting off the highway) when he probably had something more productive he could be doing.

I didn't go so far as to scream that "I pay your salary". But I know that if I was black I would have spent at least one night in jail for that exchange.

This is beautifully written and strikes to the heart of what I have been feeling. I have hungrily read pieces by many people of color describing what it would look like to find true allies in the white community. My DD20 just posted a link to a piece done by men speaking to the invisible privileges of being male in the gaming world. I would like to try to make a similar piece with white people expressing concretely the invisible privileges of being white. Any takers? I want to go beyond wringing my hands.

I believe that the term white privilege is dangerous, and I wish everyone would stop using it. What is next, forcing us to wear stars like the Jews did in Germany? Just stop with the race baiting. Let's join together, the police screw anyone of any background over because they have the power to do so. This is not a race issue this is an issue stemming from the Patriot Act. Don't guilt trip people it is not their fault they were born with your so called "privilege" you are born into the family you are born into. I think white people have done a lot to show that they are sorry for past atrocities and are never given any appreciation for it, which is ridiculous because we have nothing to be sorry for. I am not responsible for my forefathers actions.

Thank you for your thoughts on privilege: breaking them down in a human and important way. I specifically appreciate how you simultaneously name what gives you privilege (race) and what gives you status as minority (gender). That you, like so many, are caught in both worlds.

My own experience as a straight, white man has been one of attempting to reject my privilege (not reject the idea that I have it, but to genuinely try to get rid of it). It isn't mine to lose, however, even if I try to make it possible. Nor is it something I can ethically ignore. Your thoughtfulness gives me hope.

Your really amazing! I have so many white friends who draw a blank face when it comes to racism. Humanity just needs people, black and white to stand up and speak put about injustices in general. Our silence is our downfall and our silence is stunting the growth of human evolution. Thank you!

I am a little confused and baffled by this sentence, "They can never close the gap of experience and comprehension." Although I think I know what you are trying to write, some form of acknowledgement that white privilege may afford you, some way of recognizing an epistemological divide between that pain that I may get as an African American with pain that you may never get as a White woman.

These divides are false dichotomies because they disavow aspects of your pain as well as my pain. I believe that you may have pain as a woman that I may never experience directly, but certainly do not believe it is out of the grasp of my understanding, nor range of empathy.

This is my problem with these types of statements by whites. Statements like "I will never know how it feels to be Black", or "There is no way for me to understand what THAT is like," creates social and emotional distance. These statements or sentiment demarcate social distancing while simultaneously privileging my "minority" experience. I believe that these forms of descriptors place my human experience in an inhumane category, and perhaps, "alien" range.

I am very concerned when whites, particularly self-touted allies, express statements that seem to carry with it social distances. I expect that full blown White supremacist use extreme forms of this logic to then enact unspeakable acts of violence.

In this distancing, the white ally moves away from the heart of my human experience. I am aware of the double bind that some whites often feel from acknowledging ethnic minority experience with racism, some people of color may say, "You will never know how X or Y feels". Does this mean that my human experience of pain, discrimination, and dehumanization, can only be understood in its totality by others who share my skin tone, gender expression, and so forth?

I would rather you, not the personal you, the white ally you, to stand with me as a witness to the acts of inhumanity. The ability to close the empathy gap means that you can use different language the shows your deep empathy. Language born of you that creates connected spaces and not necessarily searching for bridges crafted by the minds of scholars of color. Distancing language, although well intended may only serve to acknowledge some fictive, socially constructed, racialized distance. A distancing that reifies White supremacy.

Restorative justice occurs when we witness and stand with the pain of others. From our ability to stand with others, to witness their pain, this act may lead to our human liberation.