I am a white teenager…and I want to be uncomfortable

by Daniella Cohen, Founder of G.I.V.E and US Youth Advisory Council Representative, Ashoka’s Youth Venture

Daniella Cohen, G.I.V.E & Ashoka’s Youth Venture US Youth Advisory Council Rep

What am I, a white teenager, to do in the face of countless instances of police brutality?

Writing the poem below helped me make sense of this question.

It is so easy to hide behind what is comfortable and remain silent. But silence is its own form of injustice because too many of my friends will never have the luxury of hiding behind what is comfortable. Too many of my friends are hurt by the same silence that I contribute to. As I wrote in the poem, “I don’t want to benefit from a privilege that turns another into a victim.”

So, what do I do about it? At the very least, I can no longer pretend. I cannot pretend that I understand the Black experience, regardless of how many stories I read or videos I watch. I cannot speak ambitiously about changing the problem if I haven’t taken the time to engage in uncomfortable, yet powerful conversations with the people who matter most in this conversation — my Black peers.

*Chart taken from: http://wtop.com/national/2016/07/cbsnyt-poll-negative-views-race-relations-reach-time-high/

What I can do and must do is simple in concept, but difficult in execution. I must get uncomfortable. I must speak out and use my privilege to recognize its implications — like how the privilege that I bank off of hurts my friends. What is most important is what happens next: How I change my actions, language and thinking as a result of just raising my voice and stepping outside of what is comfortable. That is the start of changemaking.

Our Lungs are the Same Color
Privilege is a special right,
Advantage or immunity granted.
But some like to think that right
Is implanted.
That they are somehow enchanted,
That their existence warrants better education,
Better justice and a chance
To breathe.
 
Am I privileged, you ask?
I don’t want to seem undeserving
But let me take off my mask.
Standby.
 
My privilege is why
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and
Too many others had to die.
 
That isn’t my fault, you say.
Let’s make the distinction:
My privilege doesn’t always kill.

Privilege is a state or condition.
Society has given it permission
To give People of Color an added predisposition.
 
The icing on the cake
Of oppression.
How about red velvet?
Would you like a cold glass
Of blind-sided persecution?
How about a bullet?
 
My privilege is unwarranted.
My privilege is unkind.
I could say my privilege is unwanted,
But that would be a lie.
 
You see, I bank off of my privilege.
I don’t have to worry about an unjust encounter,
Or a Nerf gun, mistaken for a justification,
Because my skin is synonymous with power.
 
Please, remember this was not my decision.
I didn’t choose to always breathe, but
I am grateful that I can yet, disgusted that I
Even want to because
This skin is not holy.
 
Our lungs are the same color
And we breathe the same oxygen.
Isn’t that the only definition

That should make someone
A human?
 
My lungs are no more worthy.
It is unfair and undeserving,
Like the scarlet letter,
My privilege was simply given.
 
I am only eighteen.
Don’t you dare tell me it’s just the caffeine
That charges me to care.
Beware because this is personal.
 
Look into my eyes and you will see the tears
Of my friends, concealed for years:

Evodie Ngoy¹, a refugee from the Congo,
Escaped oppression for opportunity,
But quickly realized this “paradise, wasn’t.”
 
Mamadou Diallo¹, uses laughter and coding to spark
Racial dialogue, yes, he is leaving his mark
Because Amadou was his cousin.
 
Shot 41 times for walking in the door
Of his apartment. As if being armed with a future
Was something he had to pay for.
His original sin was “ just living in American skin².”
 
So when Sadio says “Black Lives Matter”,
It’s not because others don’t. It is because
There is a ladder,
A double standard to climb over,
Only to meet a world with privilege aimed to oppress,
And a system whose very construction feeds
Off of destruction.
This ladder never ends.

So, don’t tell me it’s not a problem.
Just because you haven’t faced discrimination
Doesn’t mean this free nation
Is free.
 
It’s like an acquired taste
That some people can never enjoy.
Our justice system is some type of foie gras,
But it shouldn’t be this way.
 
Because we are all the same color
When the lights are off.
 
My privilege is unwarranted and
My privilege is unkind.
I so desperately want to say my privilege is unwanted.
Or should I lie?
 
Lies only coerce us back into our
Twisted traditions.
 I know privilege is only for some people.
Lethal.
 
Standby.
My privilege is why
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and…
You’ve heard of them?
Let me tell you more:
 
Brandon Jones.
William Chapman.
Denzel Brown.
Victor Steen.
Kiwane Carrington.
Ervin Jefferson.
Aiyana Jones was seven.
Tamir Rice was twelve.
Kimani Gray was sixteen and
Shot eleven times.
 
I guess their deaths weren’t significant
Enough for a headline.
However, a headline doesn’t serve justice
And a hashtag won’t challenge implicit bias.
As a hooded Black man walks by late at night,
It’s easy to feel uptight.
Don’t claim to be color blind,
Be color mindful.
 
There is dissonance between the hashtags we make
And the actions we take.
Privilege and subtle racism are topics we need to discuss.
This Civil Rights Movement starts with us.
 
Because I don’t want to benefit
From a privilege
That turns another into a victim.
Here is some wisdom:
The next time you buy skittles,
Stop and think.
Like Trayvon wasn’t,
You are armed
With a voice, with questions and
A simple conviction to give someone else the chance
To breathe.

Daniella Cohen is the founder of GIVE: a non-profit that promotes empathy through pen pal letter writing and installs the Internet to partner schools in the developing world. As a leading young changemaker, Daniella is also a U.S. representative of Ashoka’s Global Youth Advisory Council, managed by Ashoka’s Youth Venture.

Take Action with Young Changemakers and Ashoka Fellows!

1.) Do you have a poem you would like to share? Send it to us by tweeting or messaging us on the US Youth Council and we’ll re-post!

2.) Do you as a young person in high school or college have an idea for how to increase safe spaces for addressing racial tensions and discrimination? Share your idea or poem or video by tweeting or Facebook messaging @Youth_Venture (Twitter) or Ashoka’s Youth Venture (Facebook). We will repost and share!

3.) Check out and support Trabian Shorters’ organization BMe. Through BMe, Trabian, an Ashoka Fellow, seeks to reawaken empathy and build community across race and gender groups by presenting Black men as the community-builders that they are. BMe is launching a #SpendBlack campaign to encourage people of ALL races and genders to use the Where You Came From app to purchase from black-owned businesses and show a really valuing of Black lives.

4.) Engage in Threshold Collaborative’s InEquality campaign. Ashoka Fellow Alisa del Tufo and her organization are inviting you to engage in conversations about race, feminism and your vision for a just society. As activists who use stories as a vehicle for personal and social transformation, they are initiating a project to share collective wisdom on these issues. You are cordially invited here.

5.) Are you an aspiring young changemaker ready to actualize your own venture or social impact project? Partner up Engage with Youth Venture’s the Youth Advisory Council here.

6.) Follow Youth Council rep and founder of GIVE Daniella on Twitter here: @DaniellaCohenCo. Reach out to follow our other Youth Council USA reps, Amit Dodani @MNMSAmitDodani and Shubham Banerjee @braigolabs.

*Views expressed this blog only represent the author of the post, Daniella Cohen.

¹Evodie Ngoy and Mamadou Diallo are a recipients of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations and I met them through the Prize. They granted permission to have their stories told in this poem.

²From the chorus of American Skin (41 Shots) by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.