Privilege is a Bad Driver

The other day as I returned home with my elderly mother from a doctor’s appointment, I noticed a long line of cars in the left lane of the very busy street we drive daily. They were following a slow truck. After a mile or two, I cautiously pulled into the left/turn lane to check out the delay and sure enough, the driver was slugging along at least 10 mph under the limit. Cars were pulling in and out, but the line was growing longer every couple of blocks. I witnessed a few close-call accidents by frustrated drivers trying to pass. Others tried blinking lights or swerving a bit in their lane following to catch the driver’s attention.

Eventually, the truck driver pulled into the right lane, and with about 25 cars behind him, proceeded to move ahead. As the others passed, I caught some varied expressions: unfazed, great relief, irritation. Angry, wild gesticulations. The truck driver’s face through my side-view mirror was that of a man totally expressionless, completely unaware he had all this auto stress behind and around him.

It was this moment that, as a black woman and health care practitioner, I realized how this experience is analogous to institutional racism and unrecognized white privilege. Seemingly without awareness and a basic respect for others, not remembering that there are rules to abide by to keep our society moving along and moving ahead, this dude just kept in his bubble. Perhaps the gentleman four cars back had to leave his sleeping toddler at home alone for a brief moment, and he’s desperate to get back home. Maybe there’s a single mom in that long line, frustrated and weary because this is one more exhausting commute to work that will lead to another warning by her boss not to be late. The older woman in the late-model sedan has bladder issues and grows impatient since she didn’t plan an extra 30 minutes in traffic.

I’m sure you, like me, know a few of these drivers. Those I know have an almost arrogance with their rationale to drive slow in the fast lane: “Just being safe,” or “They should just pass me if they want to go faster!” Or the old classic, “You’re not going to get there any faster, so why bother?” All focused on the self, not how the self plays into a bigger picture of our society.

What about the truck driver? Perhaps he doesn’t have a lot of money and barely hangs onto a mortgage, a job, that truck. Perhaps he’s carrying the same stress of one of those irritated drivers in the following line, but doesn’t (or can’t) express it. If someone were to walk up to his window at a red light, knock and shout, “Hey! Are you aware that you’re holding up a whole line of folks driving so slowly, A-Hole?” that driver would easily go on the defensive, reflexively pointing out others going even slower. We don’t know his story, right?

Now, imagine that you pan out from those scenarios. What, in that instance, would it look like if you knew, deep in your soul that this driver was encouraged to do whatever he wanted to do that met the constraints of the law…yeah, but really didn’t. This is what institutional racism is all about. Racism in the 21st century? We all know it exists, but unless you’re dealing with it every hour, every day, the nuances are hard to pick up. That’s the whole point.

Think about the next time you’re feeling a bit stressed due to traffic. Now take that and multiply it by 20. This is Black America. You’re scratching what it feels like to not be white, not have the luxury of staying in that bubble.

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