I’m privileged to live in a world in which it feels fairly safe for me to be myself.
Store clerks don’t follow me on suspicion of theft. I’ve never heard any type of slur directed towards me. I’ve never ridden in a vehicle with a racially profiled driver. The truth is that my whiteness places me in a position of unmerited privilege — and essentially saves my life.
With the police brutality that has claimed hundreds of innocent black lives, it has become abundantly clear that while I can safely be myself anywhere in society, my fellow black Americans cannot. I am free to express myself, to say what I feel at any time and not be unfairly stereotyped as “angry.” But because American police officers clearly do not demonstrate that black lives always matter, African-Americans lose their agency to speak their truths and be themselves. They can’t buy cigarettes, go on runs, eat ice cream, walk home from convenience stores, or even play without a dangerous, violent police presence.
There is both great privilege and subtle lack of awareness in touting the virtue of “being ourselves” when black Americans can’t live in their own terms.
How can society as a whole herd that platitude when we expect the black community to remain silent and submissive, to keep a low profile, to code-switch? We can’t in good conscience threaten our fellow Americans for “living while black.” We can’t force them to whitewash their culture to fit arbitrary Anglo standards and granting their White counterparts leniency for blatantly breaking the mold. The disparity between how we perceive black and White expressions of individuality is so great that it routinely costs African-American lives.
Now more than ever, we need to create a world in which it’s safe for everyone — but especially black Americans — to be themselves. Identity expression — through clothing, hairstyle, makeup, jewelry, countenance, or manner of speech — is a fundamental right but only benefits a select, privileged few. Therefore, we need to use the awareness that self-expression is a privilege to strike against the status quo. If society currently grants us the safety to be ourselves, we need to use our voices to ally with black Americans so that someday, we can all openly express ourselves without fear of violence, regardless of race.
Only when we use the facets of privilege we possess, recognize we’ve done nothing to merit our privileged societal treatment, and speak up against the epidemic of police brutality against the black community can we make “be yourself” more meaningful than a superficial, pithy catchphrase. White Americans must use their privilege of unrestrained self-expression to help grant black Americans the same coveted freedom to be safely, unapologetically themselves.
Previously published on Thought Catalog.