My husband, daughter, friend, and I were sitting at my favorite coffee shop the other day when we saw a police car pull up. I figured the officer was grabbing a cup of coffee for himself but, when he came in, he looked around–clearly looking for someone–until he found the homeless man sitting in the chair next to mine.
When we sat down with our coffees, I saw the man sleeping, with a cup of coffee on the table next to him, so I grabbed a table that was far enough away from him, so he could sleep without my toddler saying, “Hi!” to him a million times. He wasn’t bothering anyone, and was simply snoozing while soaking up the sunlight that was filtering through the window.
Thirty minutes later, he was being asked to leave by a police officer. I’ve never witnessed something like this before and I was shocked. Who called the cops on him? One of the employees? Another customer? And why did they call? What was so wrong with him taking up a space in the coffee shop, especially since he had bought a coffee?
Just the other day, I sat in the same chair he was sitting in, drinking a coffee while reading a book. I stayed for over an hour, just taking up space, and no one bothered me. But I’m also a white woman who typically appears cleanly and put together; nothing about my appearance scares people or makes them want to call the cops. This is my privilege.
As the cop was removing the man from the coffee shop, I realized that I have so much in my life I never have to worry about, and it made me sick to my stomach. I care about people who have no homes, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants, and other women; but simply caring only goes so far.
I know blog posts are supposed to have an ending; a sort of revelation or declaration wrapping up the content of the post. But I’m learning that becoming more self aware and aware of others’ life experiences (and the inequality that exists in our society) is a lifelong process. Unfortunately, there’s no neat and pretty bow I can slap on this experience to leave you and me with a slightly uplifted and optimistic feeling.
I can encourage you, if you’re living with white or male privilege, to look at your daily life and identify where your privilege affords you with a leg up in this world. Then educate yourself on how damaging your privilege can be and how you can do and be better. I recommend starting with books like The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being, So You Want to Talk About Race, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, and The New Jim Crow), and I’m all ears if you have other book or article suggestions.