A distinction between white privilege and willful ignorance

In the last couple of weeks, white friends of mine keep sharing expressions of their shock at the no longer avoidable reality of systemic state [police] violence. The buzzphrase response to this feeling of shock on social media seems to be "wow, that must be my privilege".

It's not your privilege. It's willful ignorance, facilitated by privilege.

We just saw the 15th anniversary of the WTO protests in Seattle, when police put an entire city under siege. Norm Stamper, the former Seattle police chief who has been doing penance for his actions ever since, has repeatedly expressed his frustration and dismay that in spite of the "lessons learned" from 1999, the militariziation of police forces across the so-called United States* continues. I think that a lot of what Stamper says is crocodile tears, and his vision of what community policing should look like is hugely problematic, but he does raise a fair point - why  have we - not just the police, but Americans in general, collectively chosen to forget what happened fifteen years ago.

A Ferguson situation nearly happened in Anaheim two years ago, after police attacked a crowd in a Latino neighborhood who were protesting the death of an unarmed man who had been shot by police. The crowd included a baby and children, but this didn't prevent the police from firing rubber bullets (children who were present later showed their rubber bullet wounds to network news) or from taking a police dog off-leash. Footage of this incident, especially of the dog lunging at the baby's carriage, enraged the community, leading to street protests across Anaheim, up to the gates of Disneyland California.

It also wasn't all that long ago that footage of police violence during the Occupy protests in NYC and Oakland were being shared all over social media. It seemed like everyone was watching it on Livestream. And in May 2014, Cecily McMillan was put into prison for elbowing a cop who sexually assaulted her at an Occupy protest in 2012. Cecily is white, she recognized how her privilege allowed her to have a shorter jail sentence, and has since become a fierce advocate and ally for prisoner's rights.

The above examples are a mix of racially-motivated police violence and police attacks against protesters, because these acts of brutality come from the same source. The free movement of people of color is, and has always been, a threat to the very foundations of a country that was built on occupation, enslavement, and genocide. Protests, even peaceful protests, and most especially unpermitted protests that aren't organized with or facilitated by the police, are also a threat, although white people can remove the mantle of "disobedient protester" whenever we like.

It's really telling how often I've used my own experiences of witnessing police violence firsthand at protests to explain systemic state violence to other white people, because my whiteness makes my stories more credible to them. Even then, I've found that white people don't want to listen. And my apolitical or liberal friends, even people who consider themselves allies, would rather categorize cop-hating as hyperbolic radicalism. Even now, many people are framing the problem as "racist police", not "police", as if the problem is the presence of a few bad apples.

There is no denying that being white excludes white people from the level of harassment and extrajudicial killings that people of color face on a day-to-day basis in the US. THAT is white privilege. But in an age where police brutality is readily visible on social media, and even, at times, in the mainstream news, I think it's irresponsible to assign your shock to having been born into a sheltered caste. Because doing so denies your own agency in your ignorance of these issues. Being ignorant of police violence is a choice. That choice is informed by white privilege, but it isn't the same as white privilege.

I'm a big fan of Edward Said's mantra that people's descriptions of a thing say more about who they are than the thing itself. More than anything, the shock of white people at the extent of systemic state violence against communities of color is a visceral reaction to the unavoidable truth of our individual complicity in this violence. Recognizing your privilege isn't going to exonerate you from this truth, especially if you're only doing this now that it's no longer possible for you to ignore.

*It's important to remember that we are living on stolen land that was secured through genocide. White people like myself are descended from generations of other white people who were complacent and even complicit in a violent, white supremacist state. This is another reason why you shouldn't attribute your shock to your privilege, because your privilege makes you an agent of this violence whether you like it or not.


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