12th Reflection, “Privilege”
Skip Gates was not the only Black Studies Professor with a law enforcement encounter back in July, 2009. I was arrested on four charges and later plead guilty to a single lesser offense. I spent a night in jail and received probation.
My purpose since 2005, as stated in the mission of the University of Louisville Debate Society that I direct has been to “increase effective decision making in a multicultural democracy.” The events in my life over the last year create what I call “Reflections of an Affirmative Action Professor.” This reflection is about “privilege.”
Serena Williams at an early age, moved to Compton. By their teens, Serena and Venus went to Florida so they could play tennis full time. Their parents understood that they were special, and great parents protect the future of their children to the best of their ability. Richard and Oracene made sure the girls had every opportunity to succeed and cultivate their talent.
That protection was a privilege bestowed on the sisters by their parents. I too, had my talents protected and cultivated. My love was debate, not tennis. I went to the best summer camps, given support in pursuit of a college debate scholarship. Even after my five year stint at our funeral home in Gary, my Mother saw my unhappiness and encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a national champion debate coach and an academic, a black academic. Why black?
Because while at the funeral home, I embalmed and directed the funerals of a disproportionate number of black boys and girls dying in the murder capital of the United States in 1989, i.e. Gary, Indiana. My purpose in life was figuring out a way to use debate as a method to prevent such carnage, black carnage. Although, my parent’s decided to nurture my love for debate by affording me the best privileges they could, I don’t know that they understood early on what my attraction for a “game” could later become. Or maybe they did.
I remember my Dad once saying to me as a funeral director, “son, if you would spend as much time on being a funeral director as you did as a debater, you would be amazing.” Now that I reflect, he knew. When I left to become part of a very small population, “black with a Phd,” my Mother most certainly knew.
As I grew into my lifetime purpose, those privileges stood alongside an inherent sense of social responsibility that I was taught in my black home.
I suspect, that the Williams household taught the same social responsibilities that come with black privilege, especially when one has the legacy of ancestors who had to fight so much harder than we do today. For the Williams sisters, it is the legacy of tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, while for me it is the history of blacks in debate like Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, and even the misunderstood Malcolm X. In either case, it’s not enough to just be great at a “game.”
As I reflect on my arrest, I felt that I failed my personal and social responsibility as a black man. As much as I spent my life challenging the stereotypes of today’s black man, I was now embracing them. As much as I was committed to changing the life chances of black children, including my own, now I had to commit to saving my life chances. As much as I taught the importance of channeling anger into positive social outcomes, I ended up in that same unproductive place that many black children do. I had to confront my reality that I was human, and had committed a human mistake, in spite of my attempts to challenge, to teach, and to commit my life to different lessons.
Serena stood in the exact same moment. As much as she has matured before our eyes, many people now only see her “crime.” For all of her positive philanthropic efforts, she was reduced to descriptions as a threat, evil, and morally bankrupt.
She might as well learn the ultimate lesson of the ying privilege and its yang, social responsibility. No matter how much we desire to live up to our social responsibility by taking our privileges and using them to help others, at the end of the day, we are still human. We will make human mistakes. And other humans will choose how they want to judge those mistakes. Sometimes the more privilege one has, the harsher the societal judgment. The ability to judge others is a privilege too, whether society thinks about it or not.
The good news Serena in the words of a famous contemporary black gospel classic, it is assured that while we will “fall down,” we have the privilege of choosing to “get back up.” And if we keep using our privileges towards a just responsibility, the chorus can be our guide, “For a saint is just a sinner who fell down…and got back up.”
I’m glad Serena got back up.