Lightskinned Privilege at the Airport

Have you ever heard someone utter a phrase that just passed by without you giving it much of a second thought, only to later discover the magnitude of its meaning when you least expected it? Where it was once just another sentence somewhere in between remarkable and ordinary but after reflection, served more so as an omen foreshadowing events in your future. Has that ever happened to you?

It was at after I performed at the Black and Brown Solidarity Block Party at the Youngstown Cultural Center. Outside in the parking lot, with the August heat protectively clinging to all of us, I shared a spoken word piece with the 40 or so people present. Afterwards, I walked back into the crowd in triumph. I received a few compliments. I shook a few hands. I felt good. However, due to the my schedule that day, I couldn’t stick around for the rest of the event. There is always a tinge of guilt having to depart as soon as I perform, especially if my friends also are performing. It’s like eating and running. So as I was giving out half hugs and handshakes, my brother Troy’s distinctive voice jumped through the microphone. I could only halfway hear what he was saying, I was more concentrating on the task at hand which was bidding farewell to people without bringing too much attention in the process and becoming a distraction. After the last goodbye, my girlfriend and I started walking towards my car. This was when I heard  the phrase with the slow burning fuse. Troy said something along the lines of, “As a non-Black person of color, it’s important for me to realize…” I didn’t even catch the rest of it but I could follow where he was going. For a brief moment, I thought, “okay my man is up there speaking truths.” But just as quick as it came was as fast as it vanished. We got into my car and drove off with DVSN providing the musical accompaniment.

The following morning I had a flight to catch. As I was going through the stressful situation of airport security– waiting in line, taking off my shoes, being herded like cattle– was when I escaped into my realm of thought 20,000 leagues under the sea. I thought about how racism was quite apparent at any airport in America. People coming from all walks of life, from all corners of the globe, with completely different politics, backgrounds, and perspectives. There’s conservatives. There’s liberals. There’s radicals. There’s the uninitiated. With such a diversity of people it’s only inevitable that clashes and conflict  will tacitly occur. How someone speaks to a stranger holding up the line. How the older white man is treated compared to the young dark skinned girl. And of course, how the lucky lottery winners of the racial profiling contest receive a door prized of additional searches and pat downs courtesy of Homeland Security.

As I passed through the intrusive metal detector, I walked over to the other side relieved that the ordeal was almost over. Strolling in my socks, I headed over to the conveyor belt and waited for it spit out the rest of my belongings. As I grabbed my gym bag and put my shoes on, one of the TSA people pulled out my backpack and asked if it was mine. I replied that it was. He curtly asked me to follow him. “What’s going on now?” I thought to myself. We walked over to this steel table with a screen that shows an x-ray image of my backpack and all of its contents. He asked me, “are there any sharp objects in here.” A little dumbfounded, I responded, “not that I know of, the sharpest thing in there is probably a pen.” He continued his search. I proceeded to make small talk with him. I don’t know what I was thinking, perhaps it was to diffuse the tension but I joked and told him, “that come to think of it I have a couple of books in there and they might be pretty sharp.” He continued his search and in the second pocket pulled out a shiny metallic butter knife from my mom’s kitchen, which to my chagrin I absentmindedly forgot was in there. What transpired next both surprised and saddened me. He didn’t interrogate me. He didn’t ask me to go into the back room and answer any probing questions. Of course it was just a butter knife that must have fell out of my plastic lunch bag but still, for all he knew, I lied to him and was trying to cover my tracks by cracking corny dad jokes. All he asked me was if I wanted to mail the knife to myself. I told him no that was fine you can just throw it away. And just like that it was done. I walked off a little shocked at the ease of the interaction. How would have that been different if my complexion was darker?

This is when Troy’s words hit me. As a non-Black person of color, it’s important for me to realize that I am in possession of an unearned privilege at the expense of my darker skinned family members. I can’t avoid this. I can’t pretend that it isn’t there. I must come to terms with this and know that it comes with an obligation to give as much as I can to dismantle a system that creates such disparities in the first place. I believe wholeheartedly, that this unfair and oppressive system dehumanizes everyone. The privileged and the marginalized alike. And in order for the privilege to regain our humanity, we must be willing to go above and beyond in our sacrifices to the struggle in order to meaningfully contribute to our collective liberation. If you’re given any amount privilege in your life, I feel that it is your duty to give back in double just to balance things out.

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