My childhood was troubled. I grew up in a dysfunctional and dangerous home. When I was 13 years old, I started acting out. As eighth graders at a small, inner city Lutheran school, my best friend and I were queens of the neighborhood hill, even if I felt invisible to the rest of society. We embarked on a series of thug-lite adventures that included stealing hood ornaments, drinking Jack Daniels while playing Truth or Dare with local gang members (not high up in the hierarchy, but still) and shoplifting. Though I certainly asked for it often enough, I escaped any real trouble.
I settled down a bit in high school and did fairly well. But I still skipped class to drink rum pilfered from my dad’s pantry with a new best friend. And after sampling marijuana for the first time junior year, I sat in the backseat with stoned passivity as another pal attempted to drive onto the highway via an off-ramp. No one, including myself, was injured.
During undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I was hanging out with a townie buddy at her place when the DEA suddenly burst in to conduct a drug raid. After I was searched and found clean of any weapons, contraband or large amounts of cash, I was allowed to walk to my then-boyfriend’s car and roll away – though I was driving with nothing more than a learner’s permit. Before graduation, I was arrested for two 21st birthday misdemeanors. I was in and out of jail in a couple hours with no incident. After a small fine and some community service, my record was expunged.
In my early 20s, I wrapped a car around a pole at 2:00 am in a rough Chicago neighborhood. Of course, I was under the influence. When the police showed up, my best sober face was used to inform them a tow truck was imminent. The cops never asked me to get out the vehicle. They bid good evening, God speed and drove away. The words emanating from my slurry white lady mouth were satisfactory enough.
All of these episodes are many years in the past. I no longer have any communication with my parents, the first step on a long road to finding the healthy, successful adult waiting patiently in the wings. I’ve had years of individual and group therapy. I have a thriving career, a loving partner and an amazing support network of friends and family. At nearly 38 years of age, I’m proud of the life I’ve built and the opportunities I’ve been given to reach my potential and grow into a leader.
Change the gender and race of my story’s protagonist however, and it plays out in an entirely different way. I’ve been awake to my relative privilege for some time, early biographical roadblocks notwithstanding. I am part of a system that, beyond my parentage, is constructed to benefit, part of a society that mostly roots for my success. I’m a liberal feminist with an advanced humanities degree. I read vociferously. I purposely surround myself with people of different backgrounds and experiences. I want to make the world a healthier, safer and more understanding place for my nieces and nephew. Whatever actions I take must begin and end with listening and learning.
But for a long time, a sort of purposeful forgetfulness took root. I stopped thinking much of my spotty youthful past, except for considering how the events might one day be framed in a memoir. There was no need to dwell. Present circumstances afford the luxury of physical and psychological movement.
Because I am not a person of color. I am particularly not a male person of color. This week especially there’s no hiding from the truth that any one encounter detailed above could have ended in injury, long-term incarceration or death – were I other than a woman with WASP heritage. I’ve been granted leniency in judgment simply by fortune of birth and the benefit of the doubt that comes with it.
And I’ll never let myself forget it again.