I want to talk about privilege. It’s a term that’s hard to swallow for many white folks where I grew up in Eastern Kentucky because most live from paycheck to paycheck and work is often hard to find. I get that. The scales seem perpetually tipped against them, and that makes it difficult to see how something like the color of their skin helps.
That’s why I want to talk about what privilege looks like in my life. A white girl from Eastern Kentucky. A coal miner’s daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. What I have to say isn’t easy to share, but I think it has value and illustrates my point.
I was an active opiate addict from the age of 17 until I was 25. During those years, I once jumped out of my car after being pulled over for speeding and expired tags. I approached the police vehicle with an attitude. The consequences? A scolding and a date. If the color of my skin weren’t white, it could have gone so much differently.
When I got sober, I had an 11-page criminal background, most of which was petty crime and traffic stuff. Still, there were some pending charges when I went to treatment that should have ended up as felonies: fleeing and evading, providing a false name to an officer, and introducing contraband into a correctional facility, just to name a few.
My family was able to hire a good attorney and could afford sending me to treatment, so I got and stayed sober. When I finally came back before the judge, she congratulated me for turning my life around and, just like that, lowered the pending felonies to misdemeanors. I went back to my new shiny life in Florida, grateful but with no idea how lucky I truly was.
Fast forward almost 14 years. I have since graduated college with honors. I was able to self-fund due to the privilege afforded by generations of land and wealth handed down. I graduated from grad school at the top of my class with very little debt. Two-thirds of my tuition was covered because I was fortunate enough to be awarded an assistantship and could accept that because I did not need to work full-time to pay my living expenses.
Since grad school, I have been offered a job with the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., and accepted a position within Kentucky state government. I have spent the last three years working in the House of Representatives, a job I love and that pays the bills.
I did not end up here solely by being smart and applying myself or even due to my wealthy grandfather, though he certainly did help. I also have to recognize an entire system that is set up to assist people in ways we don’t even recognize. In my life, that came through the legal system, through family wealth, and through society’s view of my whiteness and what that means about being deserving of a second, third, or even a fourth chance.
What I did earlier in my life could have stopped right there had I been Black. Remember, I did not stay in my vehicle; I did not put my hands up; I ran from the police. I could have spent years in prison; I could have a felony record that would drag me down forever like an anchor; and I could have never had the chance to seek treatment. These are just some of the advantages I had that were made possible in large part because I was born white.
I am forever grateful that I am still alive. In fact, I am more than alive; I am thriving.
But I will never forget that it could have ended long ago, if I and my family had more pigment in our skin. Think about a little boy shot for playing with a toy gun in public or a Black man killed because he was claustrophobic and afraid to get into the back of a cop car. Think about Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old working in the medical field, murdered in her bed because of something that someone she knew was charged with.
I am no better than any of them. Hell, I am probably less deserving of my life than some. And yet here I am, able to tell you this story with a joy-filled life and a criminal background wiped clean BECAUSE I AM WHITE and was born into a family with resources.
People of color have a harder life simply because of the color of their skin. This is a fact and all too often has dire consequences.
I do not have the solution to repair the damage done by hundreds of years of systemic inequality and waves of violence. Still, I will not be silent just because it is more comfortable for you or for me. I cannot. Black lives matter. Period. Their experiences are real and valuable. We MUST listen when they share them. We MUST examine our prejudices. WE MUST DO BETTER.