“Our different upbringings made for different outlooks. In Alan’s privilege he expected change; in my non-privilege, I expected struggle. For all his wokeness, he couldn’t escape his American sense of entitlement,”
Erin Aubry Kaplan and white privilege
A few weeks ago I came across an article in the New York Times by Erin Aubry Kaplan. Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s husband had recently passed away. His name was Alan Kaplan. He was a locally renowned high school teacher. He taught American history. In her article, Ms. Aubry Kaplan mourns her husband’s passing and writes of him in loving detail and startling clarity. The piece is heavily romantic, and very thoughtful—I think everyone should read it, and then read it again.
I was grateful to find her article. As an obsessive newshound, I scan both the New York Times and NPR daily for updates that usually leave me depressed and bewildered and angry. So, Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s story was a welcome change.
She wasn’t just mourning the loss of her husband. Since Alan was white (Erin is black) she was also mourning the loss of a companionship that helped make sense of a seemingly senseless world.
At the time of Alan’s death, white people all over America seemed to be collectively going insane, thanks in large part to Donald Trump’s depraved presidential campaign.
White people who longed for a return to the “good old days,” before suffering setback after setback since the end of Jim Crow, then again with civil rights, affirmative action and political correctness. Whites who were then made to suffer the ultimate humiliation that was Obama’s presidency.
And then, Trump's campaign, and it’s racist overtures, popped that cork.
Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy (if you’ve never seen the perverse event, you should, if only for Ivanka’s creepy and incestuous introduction of her father), things have only gone from weird to worse. Every day, the news delivers stories that tell of a breathtaking new low for the country. Before anyone has a moment to catch their breath, that new low is immediately followed by another, lower low. And shortly after that, a lower low yet.
With Alan Kaplan’s untimely departure, in the midst of this escalating national frenzy, I can only imagine how Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s loss must’ve felt especially acute.
They seem to have shared a lovely bond, Erin and Alan, and an admirable respect for one another’s perspectives—always helpful when navigating the inevitable arguments that arise in every relationship. Especially for two people who came from such different backgrounds.
“Our different upbringings’ wrote Erin, ‘Made for different outlooks. In Alan’s privilege he expected change; in my non-privilege, I expected struggle. For all his wokeness, he couldn’t escape his American sense of entitlement,”
It wasn’t even the main focus of her article, but that sentiment resonated with me—privilege is tricky stuff.
White privilege is tricky stuff
Just like any sense of entitlement, privilege operates in the shadows, rarely making itself known unless it’s called out directly. And even called-out, our privilege can seem nebulous and subjective—it can feel like an attack, rather than an observation.
While The U.S. has always been a nation of takers, Americans pride themselves on having earned everything, thinking everything what’s ours, was either hard fought, or fairly given on merit. The notion that privilege has, throughout our lives, secretly worked on our behalf, is not a popular notion. Nobody likes to think they’re much better off thanks to a lifetime of preferential treatment.
And the other end of the spectrum isn’t much better. Those of us willing to challenge our luxurious station, are often prone to taking it way too far, until it’s clunky and disingenuous.
We are all too familiar, to the point of cliche, with showboating white liberals, slumming for street cred, eager to point out the injustices of their white privilege, but who’re largely uninterested in learning any humility from it. As a liberal, I’ve often felt frustrated by the obvious oxymoron that is our sense of entitlement to a platform of influence so that we may broadcast (often at the expense of already-marginalized voices) our half-assed epiphanies, fishing for congratulations.
There’s a lot of that going around these days—especially during Trump’s presidency. To criticize our own whiteness seems zesty and refreshing. But also useless, if it’s just noise. I might even go one step further and suggest we’re only making things worse, if we’re taking up all the air in the room, taking it away from someone with something real to say.
Shortly after reading Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s article, it would turn out, life would deliver an encounter with my own privilege, the gravity of which I could have easily missed entirely.
A seemingly unrelated traffic skirmish
It was on the way home from work. A speeding SUV swerved into the bike lane where I was riding. I was churning away, head down, biking into a sturdy headwind. It was sunny and hot and I was carrying a heavy load in my backpack. After having just climbed a long hill, I was delirious. There was a car, roaring up from behind me. By the time I noticed the car, it was too late. It was right up on me—I braced for impact.
Surprisingly, thank God, the car sped past, so closely I could feel its right mirror just skim past my shoulder. The pressure of the car, sucked at me, as it sped away. The car swerved back into its lane, just before hurtling through a red light.
It was a close call. I don’t know if the driver almost ran me down on purpose or just out of carelessness. Either seemed equally bad.
Though I was surging with adrenaline, there was no way I’d be able to catch them. They were going much too fast. And even if I’d caught them, what would I do? The last guy I was able to chase down jumped out of his car and broke my glasses and my nose.
I was glad I stopped though, since it was just then I noticed a police cruiser right beside me. The cop had been right behind the SUV the whole time.
“Yes!” I yelled. “What are the chances?!”
The officer was looking at me, over his sunglasses.
I yelled, pointing up the street, waving my arms frantically. “Did you see that asshole?!”
He said something, a question maybe (his window was up), and pointed at the SUV, which was now almost out of sight, still swerving.
“Go!” I shouted, waving him along. “Go get him!”
Finally, the cop gave a little thumbs up and put on his lights, and siren, and ran the red light, chasing after the SUV, which the driver was likely expecting since they were already pulling over.
Justice! I thought. Thank God!
The light finally turned green and I dug into my pedals to catch up, hoping to get there in time to watch the police officer yank the driver out of their SUV and arrest them. Maybe even tase them. I hurried, not wanting to miss the tasing. I could even offer my statement, if need be.
Sure enough, the cop caught up to the car in no time, but instead of pulling them over, he sped right past the SUV. The cop turned the corner and disappeared, out of sight.
Maybe he got a call for somewhere else? I’d like to think he did, since that would offer a logical explanation as to why he didn’t pull over the SUV. I suspect it was a chickenshit move: he wasn’t in the mood to pull anyone over but couldn’t just not do anything, since I’d been right there. I’d seen the whole incident.
The SUV didn’t go anywhere after the cruiser sped past. It just sat there, with the right blinker on. As I approached, I could see the driver’s window rolling down (never a good sign). Sitting in the driver seat was a thin man with a neck-beard and missing teeth. He sneered at me from his open window and said, “That’s right, asshole.”
A little bit of humility goes a long way
I rode home, furious, smouldering at the injustice of it all. I was also angry with myself, since I was so worked up, I hadn’t thought to captured the guy’s license number or any identifying number from the police cruiser. Soon as I got home, though, I was going to call the police and report the incident anyway.
Heads were going to roll!
But, what would I tell them, exactly? As I rode on, I started to think it over: the guy almost hit me with his car before running a red light, sure. And he was driving an SUV that was red, maybe. Or green. And there was the police officer who gave chase, but kept on chasing right past him. Could I identify the police cruiser? Yes, it looked like a police cruiser…
And so on.
There was something here, something I recalled from Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s article that kept nagging at me, and I couldn’t place it.
The more I thought about the injustice I felt and the terrible call I was about to place to 911, the more ridiculous it seemed. What information could I possibly provide that a 911 dispatcher might turn into a valid report? I wondered if the dispatchers ever just put a call on mute and get some shopping done, online. Or, maybe they do that most of the time? They should. I bet they get a lot of yahoos—people calling in, making demands. Something needs to be done about this or that. Yadda yadda.
Eventually, thankfully, before I called the police, I realized how stupid my story was going to sound. I thought better, and decided to just keep it to myself.
But I couldn’t just move on. Something was nagging at me, a moment of sobriety, maybe. I went from feeling indignant, to resigned, then to feeling stupid, ashamed to have gotten so carried away with myself.
Who the hell did I think I was? Wasn’t this just like that hilarious scene in The Big Lebowski? Didn’t a 911 dispatcher have everything better to do than listen to some hysterical cracker on the line, demanding results—or else!
Or else, what?!
I remembered all the way back, to Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s quote about privilege and perspective. And I remembered the moment the cruiser pulled up next to me at that red light.
I was so relieved!
I was relieved partially because I normally run red lights with impunity and, this time, I had decided to stop. But, also, I was relieved because I’m white, and life has taught me the police are good and helpful, which they are, except for the ones that shoot and kill people who don’t need to be shot and killed. While I was surging with relief and gratitude, many other people in that same situation might feel the opposite of relief and gratitude, and for valid reasons.
Really, I should thank my lucky stars, barking orders at a police officer and eagerly waving my hands at him wasn’t taken as a sign of aggression. I know that’s a pretty low bar for gratitude, but if it’s one thing we’ve learned from several recent, well-documented police murders, it’s that a lot worse has happened, provoked by a lot less.
Privilege, perspective and a worsening status-quo
As far as epiphanies go, the whole premise of this epiphany is silly. It’s silly, the main takeaway I got from Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s article wasn’t even the main point of her piece, but an aside about privilege and how it can influence our perspective. It’s silly this brief aside, which is really just common sense, should haunt me as it did and inspire me to consider race and privilege, in a situation that had maybe nothing to do with racism. And it’s silly I should then ruminate on this epiphany at such length, thus turning myself into one of those self-congratulatory, gas-bag liberals I love to lampoon.
I guess you take what you can get. And besides, this is important. It’s important those of us with privilege should be shown how ridiculous we’re being. On the regular. Otherwise, we’ll quickly and happily forget our place in the world and, left unchecked, escalates until we end up doing and saying dumb shit, thinking it’s completely normal.
Would I have noticed my privilege, had I not read Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s article? I like to think I would. But it’s likely the gravity of the situation might have been lost on me. I might still be fuming at the officer who disobeyed me, who just kept on driving.
I am grateful for Ms. Aubry Kaplan’s excellent article. I’m grateful for her dear husband—the man who saw the world as a place he could change, rather than a world that was full of immovable, unfortunate truths.
I still agree with Mr. Kaplan on that point: things are rotten all over and the world needs change. The world needs people who think, against the odds, it can be changed. Maybe that’s my privilege talking, but it could be worse. Over the years, privilege has whispered a host of little lies in my ear—of those sweet nothings, the conviction that we shouldn’t have to stand for a lousy (or a worsening) status quo, is not so terrible.
Ms. Aubry Kaplan is the author of “Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line,” a book I haven’t read yet, but look forward to. If you haven’t yet read her article, you should. She teaches writing at Antioch University.