I learned about white privilege from the streets, not the classroom. My teachers were teenage criminals who spoke in plain, easily-accessible English (or French), not jargon-laden academics with PhDs in sensitivity. The lessons I received from them were practical and experiential, not theoretical. And they made me pretty good at stealing stuff for a spell. Like many bratty kids from my neighborhood, I went through a shoplifting phase when I was a teenager. Like many other social animals, such as wolves, my friends and I hunted in packs and employed a coördinated strategy that played upon the weaknesses of our prey.
Our intended prey was the store staff; their racial prejudices were the weaknesses we exploited. We were four, more often than not: one black kid and three white kids. After carefully choosing a store, we’d enter it separately. The black kid would immediately attract all of the staff’s attention. It was amazing! The kid didn’t have to do anything suspicious. Didn’t have to smell like weed. Didn’t have to dress like a thugged-out rapper. Didn’t have to wear dark sunglasses. Nothing. He just had to be black. That was enough. The staff would be totally fixated on the black kid and follow him around the store while me and the other three white kids robbed the place blind. The four of us would meet up about an hour later, usually at a metro station, and divvy up the spoils. Incidentally, the dude who finally caught me at Galeries d’Anjou was a sweet, middle-aged Haitian guy. He caught me and my degenerate friends precisely because he wasn’t blinded by racism.
I met my black doppelgänger at a rooftop party in Baltimore. It was 2000 and we were both 25. We had the same metrosexual mannerisms, same ridiculously loud laugh, same taste in music, same taste in literature, same strange obsession with snakes and salamanders. But it gets weirder still: because, as it turns out, we were both raised by single-moms on welfare, in rough neighborhoods. Both of us went through a super religious phase in our early teen years, followed by a troublemaker phase. Both of us changed schools often and repeated the 10th Grade. I could go on and on: it was eerie. And yet our lives couldn’t be more different: I was in Baltimore on a full scholarship, in a PhD program at Hopkins, whilst he had just gotten out of jail. Six days ago! He’d been in prison for the last seven years—seven years!—for drug offenses that wealthy Hopkins undergrads regularly get probation for.
My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. And he grew up in Baltimore. Because I grew up white. And he grew up black. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get to go to well-funded public schools that provide them with a high-quality education, an education which can take them wherever they wish to go. And he grew up in a place where poor kids are forced to go to crappy public schools which are crumbling, crowded, and chronically underfunded—schools that provide even their best students with a substandard education that hobbles them for life. Because I grew up in a public housing project that was clean and affordable—a place that allowed us to live our lives with a certain amount of dignity. And he grew up moving from one overpriced cockroach-infested shithole to the next. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get the same universal healthcare available to children of the rich. And he grew up waiting nine hours to see a nurse at the free clinic. Because I grew up in a place that gives bratty kids lots and lots of chances to get their shit together. And he grew up in a place where a few stupid mistakes can seal your fate for years.
My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. I grew up in a secular society informed by quintessentially Christian values: such as sharing, forgiveness, and compassion. What is the modern welfare state, after all, if not an amazingly ambitious application of Christian ethics? Is it perfect? Of course not. It’s a flawed and imperfect work-in-progress, like everything else in this fallen world of ours. But when did we stop seeing how breathtakingly beautiful it is? Why did we allow sneering cynics to make us feel so thoroughly ashamed of ourselves? What’s wrong with our values? What’s wrong with trying to take care of each other? What’s wrong with trying to institutionalize the virtues Jesus stood for in a social safety net? We keep reaching for fig leaves, friends, when we really ought to be dancing in the streets, celebrating in the alleys, and shouting from the rooftops: Thank God Almighty for the Welfare State!
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)