Over the years and through a lot of experience I have learned a few useful things. One of the most useful, or the most widely applicable, is that in order to get what I want, I have to go and get it. Not in the simple work hard toward a goal sort of thing, but much more in a stop sitting there with your hand raised waiting to be called or chosen, because you will never get picked. So instead stand up and go grab, or do, whatever you want. Don’t wait for permission, don’t wait your turn, just do it. Because my turn never came up.
I know now that one of the major reasons I never got my turn, at least not in the way I always dreamed, is because no matter what I knew, or could do, no one knew who I was. Nor did they really care who I was- or am. I realize now that my ability to do anything- absolutely anything- has always been limited by the people around me. I have never met an astronaut, and as it turns out, it is very hard to become an astronaut if you do not, nor does anyone around you know, an astronaut- or at least someone working on the human side of the space program. Now I recall being told lots of prerequisites, or told of the appropriate path to one day being eligible for being launched into space, but I know now that they were in reality just guessing, or passing along the guesses, of others. They didn’t really know and I was absolutely never going to be an astronaut.
And yet someone out there still gets to be an astronaut.
What I was and have always been most likely to become, was a school teacher. There was by proximity always the chance I could be a police officer, a CPA, or a low level manager in any variety of businesses where I would be tasked with numerous duties that would be hard to explain to a suburban adolescent and even more impossible to make interesting to such a person. Because growing up, those were the people surrounding me, and the people I knew.
I guess there was a chance, thanks to the unique characteristics of my school teacher father, that I might have become a hermit living in the woods, an auto mechanic, or maybe even a cowboy, but I had no true interest in those things. I was sort of interested in art. I was pretty good at drawing, and though my father was in fact an art teacher, I knew no working artists- other than teachers. I had other interests as well, but my experience, environment, and the advice coming from those I knew, told me that none of the things I was interested in would ever feed a family, which was my primary duty, and were best given up or at least relegated to hobbies. This was practical advice, and from any of our experiences, it was true. So I settled.
Eventually I moved. And I started, intentionally, meeting new people. I wanted to do new things. I wanted to do things that were interesting and meaningful, or even just more in line with the things I was best at, and I started to just go for it. I did most all of this unsupervised and un mentored, which is to say I probably did most of it poorly. Yet some of it worked. For instance, it never occurred to me that I could attend an Ivy League school. Quite the opposite really. In fact, to my knowledge I never even met anyone who attended an Ivy League School till, as an adult, I moved to Philadelphia. Once there I met plenty of very impressive, yet still human, students and alumni from nearly all the Ivies. I met them because they lived there, and even then, it did not occur to me that I could attend till one day I did a strange thing and emailed a woman I heard on the radio. She was talking about things I found interesting, the same sorts of things I was doing as a hobby, and it just so happened that she was a professor at an Ivy League school. I reached out to her out of the clear blue sky, mostly because she was local, and surprisingly she reached back.
And now I have a degree from an Ivy League School. Had I just sat and waited for that school to notice me, or really, had I just sent in an application not knowing anyone, it never would have worked. Not for me.
As I look back at it now, most of the things I have done in my life of which I am proud, or that might be of some value (because those two are not exactly the same) are the result of me showing up somewhere uninvited, inviting myself, or reaching out to complete strangers. I have learned to put on a suit jacket, act like I belong, and then just stroll in and casually start asking questions. It works. Sometimes. Really it only works a very small portion of the time, but in the 40+ years of my life, it is the only thing that has ever worked. I am just not shiny enough, noticeable enough, or connected enough, to do any different- that is if I want to do anything remarkable.
And along the way, I have also learned and seen directly, that this works in large part …
because I am white.
I have learned that these things don’t work quite the same, if someone is black. Or a woman. Or anything that isn’t like me, a straight white man. This is not to say that it cannot work for a black man, but the stakes are definitely not the same. The worst that has happened to me is getting kicked out of the American Philosophical Society Archives and told to come back during a regularly scheduled meeting. No, that isn’t the worst. I have indeed been called lots of nasty names and insulted with words, but I am given a helping of grace or room for error, whereas a black man entering a room uninvited is very likely to be arrested- or worse.
Not figuratively. Not maybe. But Likely.
This is what has, and is, and really has always been, the case for black people. Not every time of course, just like walking in uninvited didn’t work for me every time. But the default setting is that though this world, this America, isn’t set up to hand me anything, it will allow me to do things that are just a little bit “out there” in order to get a shot, while this same world is suspect of, afraid of, and will normally squash, repel, or punish any black person who does something just a little bit “out there” trying to get a shot.
That is what privilege is.
And that is how America works.