A few weeks ago, I was not at my best legally. I was driving with an expired license, purely by accident. I’m not a criminal; I just didn’t mark the date on my calendar and forgot about it. As luck would have it, I got into an accident.
A stopped SEPTA bus near the corner of Ridge and Allegheny avenues abruptly pulled out in front of the large sport utility vehicle driving in front of me. The driver of the SUV slammed his brakes and I followed suit. The front end of my little, fuel-efficient car crumbled into nothing as it hit the giant, gas-guzzling rear of the SUV.
The only damage to the SUV was a small flashing light in the middle of the back bumper. But glancing at my car, I began to panic. The man I hit, however, was calm and attempted to comfort me.
As we exchanged information, I suddenly remembered my expired license. But the gentleman from the SUV, who could not have been sweeter about the situation, interrupted the cold sweat that was beginning to form on my forehead.
He was a middle-aged man from Northeast Philly who reminded me of Santa, both because of his physical appearance and because he was giving me a huge gift by not calling the cops right away.
He talked to me about school and lectured me about being careless. According to my SUV Santa, driving without a valid license, let alone getting into a car accident while doing that, could earn me serious fines, suspension and an immediate trip downtown.
I was so grateful for the reprieve that I didn’t mind being lectured. He said if I “had been hit by someone from around here,” (remember, Ridge and Allegheny avenues), “they would take [me] for everything [I’ve] got.”
He continued to say that if he had been hit by “someone from this [Strawberry Mansion] neighborhood,” he would not be so forgiving because he would not trust that “those people” had insurance and because “degenerates do not renew their licenses.”
He kept talking about the people “around us” and I eventually came out of my panicked daze and started looking at the people “around us.”
All of those people were black.
SUV Santa continued to let me know in no uncertain terms that I was getting away with fines and an arrest because I was white.
Liz Sorkness, an African American studies major at Temple, explained what had happened between SUV Santa and me. She said, “It’s called ‘white privilege.’ That’s the technical term for it.”
Kendall Clark of whiteprivilege.com, a Web site dedicated to antiracism education and activism, defines white privilege as a “social relation; a right, advantage or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.”
I had no idea I had this “privilege” or that there was a term for it. I had never thought about it.
I know that racism and bigotry are still alive. The poorest people in the mostly black neighborhoods of New Orleans were left to fend for themselves after Hurricane Katrina. Several news outlets reported that hundreds of displaced black residents tried to escape the flooding by crossing the Mississippi River Bridge to the largely white suburb of Gretna, La. Armed police turned away many of the evacuees just three days after the hurricane.
I did not need SUV Santa to remind me that racism exists. But I should be grateful that he made me think about it, because I have not had to deal with racism in my life. That has been my white privilege.
Natalie Lavelle can be reached at email@example.com.