On Spoons, Sand, And the Profound Privilege of White Time

Policies written and unwritten in American are parasitic of Black time when they are not downright predatory toward it.

Edit: Of course Ashley Ford tweeted about this in early June and I missed it and she said everything that needed saying and more. Read her thread.

The English language has long relied on the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” to refer to the inheritance of profound privilege at birth. Though the proverbial silver spoon refers to the goods made of precious metals passed down between generations among the British aristocracy, the phrase remains stubbornly common in the American vernacular. Though our nation’s wealth is indeed concentrated among a few title-less but no less landed families than actual aristocracies, the greatest privilege in American history has never been in inherited wealth but in the inherited citizenship and attendant protections of whiteness. And despite vast differences in the wealth and status of various white Americans, witnessing the social, economic, and physical violence visited upon black Americans over the last several years, it is clear that whiteness is still the primary currency for buying the greatest luxury and indeed, commodity, that we have. It is not money that can be lost and recouped over and over again, but time, which we all have in a finite quantity and at highly variable qualities. Most white Americans are not born with silver spoons that would qualify us for the 1%, but we are born with more sand in our proverbial hourglasses.

The English language is riddled with clichés about the profound value of time, but few do justice to just how much worth truly lies in it and none to my knowledge express it as the ultimate manifestation of privilege that it is. Over the last 48 hours, two Black Americans named Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had their time on this planet abruptly ended when police officers shot them to death in two separate instances. Their names are part of an expanding roster of murdered black men for whom some of us well-meaning white Americans grieve and protest over as political and moral acts of solidarity but whose names all black Americans hear and are involuntarily forced into fear for their own lives and for the lives of their loves ones. The outpouring of grief and suffering visible on social media is only a fraction of the emotional energy exerted and time lost to the trauma of these constant reminders that Blacks are routinely targeted by our country’s alleged protectors. “I am no stranger to feeling sad, to being inconsolable, to viewing the act of getting out of bed as an impossible feat. Yet this is much bigger: this is a constant war of needing to do something but feeling too defeated to even think,” writes Pilot Viruet in a 2015 essay on the debilitating exhaustion produced by witnessing relentless racist police violence as a black person in America.

That kind of trauma lingers and consumes. This irrevocable time lost to states of fear, grief, and basic self-preservation is more difficult to quantify but more destructive in its overall theft: a leak that drains by the second but adds up to years lost. Time that ought to be spent uninterrupted in the pursuit of finding meaning, love, and joy constantly being sucked out by state violence is time that we white Americans don’t even realize we are sitting around in most of the time. It is only when there are interruptions of white time, like the reduced jail sentence of Brock Turner for rape last month, that we notice how idyllically our time is spent away from consequences. “He is allowed to have both a past and a future and this past and future are worthy of consideration,” writes Roxane Gay, his time be valued and protected. White people can volunteer some of our time to moral outrage but our black fellow citizens have their time taken by force and by the necessity of an uncertain survival in a hostile country.

Time is first and foremost the primary unit by which we measure durations spent alive on the planet: durations like 12 years in the case of Tamir Rice whose death resulted in no officer convictions and a $6 million dollar civil suit judgment. “It is chilling that we can now put a number on that chance, to know that by today’s standards had I, had a friend or a neighbor or a classmate, been given the de facto death penalty for horsing around in a park, our lives would have been worth $6 million. It’s not the dollar figure that makes the blood run cold, so much as the knowledge that there is a figure, that it exists, that it’s codified now…,” Jamil Smith at MTV writes of the settlement. $6 million dollars is the same amount 18-year-old Kylie Jenner spent on her second home purchase the month after the settlement. This is mentioned not to unnecessarily pick on Jenner but to make the point that a white American teenager capitalizing on the very ease and glamour of how she spends her time can spend in a day what a court determined a black not-yet-even-a-teenager’s life could be paid for in total. That his time in the world and the time he will spend absent from it even had a chance to be calculated this way is a mark of perceived disposability.

But while the overwhelming majority of black Americans will not be killed by police, there are plenty of insidious ways America steals Black time that are harder to calculate. I was once at a birthday party at a bar talking to my friend and fellow writer Mychal Denzel Smith, a black man I am accustomed to seeing as an energetic ball of good-natured intellect and humor, when two police officers entered. (Mychal writes often and brilliantly about American racism and police brutality, though he’d much prefer to spend his time writing on topics other than the imminent danger he lives in.) Mychal lost his train of thought mid-sentence, instinctively shrunk in on himself to make his already slight frame smaller, maneuvering his body closer to the bar, turning his face away from the direction the police were walking in, and noticeably dropping the volume of his voice. He maintained this wilted posture for the duration of the officers’ stroll through the bar.

I weakly offered my own distrust of law enforcement in an attempt to pass the few minutes they were there. It was a sincere gesture at solidarity rather an attempt at anything like shared experience. But it was still just a gesture. I did not forfeit the equivalent sand from my own unbothered hourglass to Mychal’s. My conversation was briefly interrupted but my humanity was not: I lost those minutes to conversation time at a party, Mychal lost them to the reasonable panic that there were lethal weapons in his vicinity carried by people who have often fired them on people who look like him. These minutes are not equal in value. Two cops just passing through took all that from him. Mychal and I both live in New York City. There are 35,000 police officers in the NYPD.

That Mychal and his fellow black citizens lose precious time to the mere presence of police officers is just the beginning of uncountable hours spent not being considered fully human that white citizens are granted daily. Policies written and unwritten in American are parasitic of Black time when they are not downright predatory toward it. There is the time lost not only to fearing police, but to interacting with the ones racially profiling Blacks, arresting them, pointing guns at them, lying under oath at the trials that send them to prison by the millions. We call prison sentences “doing time” but a more accurate description might be “losing time.” These prison sentences create heavier earning burdens in home communities and fracture opportunities to put together enough money for shelter and food, much less silver spoons to eat it with. In the meantime, white Americans go about our days with our time mostly undisturbed by the institutional forces actively disrupting, eroding, and destroying it for black Americans in a nation many consider free and some even dare to call great.

This is a small glimpse at a few ways America can and does steal time that can never be returned to a black citizen on any given day. If you multiply that by 42 million people, you get a little closer to the number of lifetimes lost to this injustice. If you consider the 397 years some variation on this grand larceny has been going on, you get closer again, but still not close. If you factor in disproportionate incarceration rates for Latinos as well and then add the extra-judicial executions rates of Native people, the racial binary breaks and the numbers grow more unmanageable. But the purpose of this essay is not to call upon my fellow white Americans to perform guilt-inducing math problems and start appreciating their excessive time more thoughtfully. Our guilt cannot recuperate the time stolen from nor the time we have squandered not knowing its worth once we had it. Our guilt is not useful. Our guilt is not currency. But our time, and what we built with it, is.

During all those extra years we had, we devoted much time to endeavors that would give us more than just days and hours to live our lives unencumbered by fear but to live those days in abundant, grotesque self-protection. We created banks with ourselves in mind, we designed neighborhoods for white futures, we wrote school curricula dense with white heroes, elected white officials, and wrote into law that which would keep whiteness as comfortable as possible for the time we were given by our natural lives and the time we skimmed for ourselves off the backs of others. It is our duty to spend our time working to surrender, dismantle, and destroy these structures that steal time and invite death. We designed them to heed and obey the will of whiteness, we filled them with white guardians, and we trained them to reproduce white wealth, the most treasured byproduct of white time.

We must take to the streets that we made safe for ourselves in protest, strange as it can feel to try to publicly disavow our own inheritances while we watch them protect us anyway. We must spend our time calling upon local and national leaders to enact policies that reflect how much black lives matter. We must unelect them if they refuse and then replace them with black leaders. We must support these leaders’ agendas even and especially when they increase Black time lived without fear and decrease white time spent in uninterrupted comfort. We must surrender the wealth we stole with all that time we gave ourselves. Just as the ways mentioned above are only a partial list of how time is stolen from Blacks by us, this is a partial list of ways whites can use our time so that Blacks might have more of theirs back. If we ever hope to end our own complicity in murders, both quick and prolonged, in this country we didn’t build but have reigned over regardless, we must forfeit much of the sand in our hourglasses. Our present system may have been allotted us more time than others, but in this debt, we are already long overdue.