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Ackarman: Our complacency will condemn us
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Ackarman: Our complacency will condemn us

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The killing of George Floyd and subsequent civil rights protests has spurred much-needed conversation about racial disparities in America.

Frequently this dialogue includes discussion of “white privilege.”

Honestly, I don’t care for the term.

Let me be clear: I neither deny the existence of racism nor minimize its impact.

Some might argue, perhaps correctly, my beef has more to do with semantics than substance.

When attempting to address a significant issue, however, it is important to characterize the problem thoughtfully. Language matters.

Tim Ackarman

Tim Ackarman

Merriam-Webster defines privilege as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor.”

The word to me, and I believe to many others, evokes a feeling not fully conveyed by the dictionary delineation.

Perhaps it’s my Midwestern Lutheran upbringing or my conservative mindset, but in my view the term privilege often carries a negative connotation.

A privilege is an extra, something to which one is not necessarily entitled, and maybe even (God forbid!) an extravagance.

Anyone who enjoys a privilege, in that mindset, should be humbly grateful, as though they have received an unexpected and undeserved gift.

Those afforded “too many” privileges should feel a bit sheepish about their excess.

This is where the descriptor white privilege just doesn’t fit.

Anyone should be able to walk in an affluent neighborhood, even at night, without others automatically assuming they must be up to no good.

Anyone should be able to drive an expensive car without drawing suspicion or bigoted speculation as to where someone “like that” would get so much money.

Anyone should be treated with respect wherever they choose to live, work or do business.

Anyone should be able to assume law enforcement officers and other government officials are there to protect and serve them.

And nobody should be executed in the street for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill, or selling contraband cigarettes, or carrying a legally licensed firearm…

These are not privileges, but basic human rights.

The problem is not that white people generally are afforded these rights, but rather that people of color are too often not.

Yet the term white privilege is frequently wielded so as to imply white guilt.

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But white people don’t need to feel guilty for having the rights to which they are entitled.

Further, they should not be expected to feel guilty when others are denied those rights, unless they are contributing to that denial.

Ah, but therein lies the rub.

You needn’t be the one kneeling on George Floyd’s neck or chocking Eric Garner to be enabling racism.

As a youngster I laughed at and sometimes repeated a good number of racist jokes.

It wasn’t that I held any real animosity towards people of color, and certainly not because I didn’t know better.

As an awkward fat kid who got chosen last in sports and was a favorite target of bullies, I simply wasn’t brave enough to speak out against much of anything.

Most of the time if something wasn’t quite right I either joined in or looked on, just glad to be part of the “in” crowd and thankful it wasn’t me being picked on.

This changed little even after I slimmed down, toned up and made varsity.

Thirty-five years later I hope I’m a better man, but I wonder.

What if I had happened along the moment Derek Chauvin took George Floyd to the ground? Would I have done anything?

In hindsight of course; in the moment almost certainly not.

Most likely I’d have hurried past without a second thought, assuming the police were good guys and had the situation in hand.

Had I lingered long enough to sense a problem, I’d have likely reasoned Chauvin knew what he was doing and the other officers would surely intervene if needed.

After Floyd lost consciousness and paramedics arrived, I would probably have looked on in silent disbelief and wondered why somebody didn’t do something before it came to this.

And on some level I’d have still been thankful the bullies were picking on someone else.

The vast majority of police officers are decent people intent on doing the right thing.

Few are passionately racist, yet even the best can unconsciously allow their judgment to be tainted by the undercurrents of racism still prevalent in this country.

Similarly, relatively few white Americans are deliberately feeding that undercurrent, but far too many, self included, have been too timid or complacent to help stem it.

We must all endeavor to do better, whether by quietly saying “that’s not funny” to a racist joke or screaming “get off his neck before you f---ing kill him” in the ear of a rogue cop.

Speaking out against injustice is also not a privilege but a right, and a responsibility.

We must either exercise it, or let our silence speak volumes.

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Tim Ackarman, a regular columnist for the Globe Gazette, lives in Miller.


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