On a mild summer night a little more than forty-five years ago, five teenage friends were driving around their suburban New England hometown, smoking dope and listening to music. Seeking a little bit of safe adventure, they noodled around neighborhoods they didn’t know particularly well, manufacturing the thrill of feeling lost while knowing full well they could head straight in any one direction and eventually run into a familiar main road. The boys did this a lot during those uneventful mid-1970’s summers, when excitement was scarce and marijuana was plentiful. Even four decades later, it’s not clear whether they were trying to enhance reality, or escape it.
In any event, after a while, they all decided they needed to get out of the car and answer nature’s call. It didn’t take long to find a suitably quiet road with ample bushes for them to do their easy male business.
But no sooner than they were done hanging their snakes, a police car pulled up, with lights flashing. An officer quickly stepped out of his car and approached them. “What are you boys doing?” he demanded to know. With their hearts racing to a level of near-panic, the guys were almost comically inarticulate, managing little more than a few fractured phrases and awkward gestures to convey the general sense of what they had been up to. “We were, um, um . . . . ,” one of them stammered, while pointing at the local flora.
“Just emptying your bladders?” the policeman finished the sentence dryly, half-asking, half-assessing. The boys readily responded in the affirmative, and they might also have answered a few more questions about where they lived and whose car they were driving, though they were far too nervous, and far too stoned, to keep track of the conversation. Nevertheless, the man in uniform seemed more or less satisfied. He cautioned them to drive carefully and not get in any trouble, and then got back in his car and drove off.
Afterward, the guys were beyond giddy about their tremendous stroke of luck. “Oh my God, that was so close!” “Fuck, we could have really been busted.” And of course, “How could he not have smelled the dope on our clothes, or in the car?” And some of them might even have had a little conspiratorial sense that they had once again outsmarted an authority figure, someone who was too straight, and too oblivious, to realize that these five funky-smelling guys with bloodshot eyes were wasted out of their minds.
It was probably years before any of them started entertaining the hypothesis that just maybe the cop actually knew what was going on, and that just maybe things would have played out a little bit differently had they been five Black kids who dressed or comported themselves differently than the “regular” teens in that slice of middle-class suburbia. In all likelihood, the police were operating with a general policy that they weren’t going to haul in benign teenage stoners unless they were engaged in obvious criminal behavior (public urination probably didn’t count) or didn’t “belong” in the neighborhood. And of course, what constituted “belonging” was a lot less innocent than it sounds.
In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that the boys weren’t lucky. There were privileged.
The word “privilege” is a pretty loaded term these days, though it does manifest a rich variety of meanings, many of which are fairly innocuous. We give our kids privileges when they do their chores and try hard in school. We thank an audience for the privilege of addressing them. We cherish the privilege of having seen the Grateful Dead when Pigpen was still with them. But those aren’t the types of privileges that are the subject of much public reflection and social critique. Rather, we’re talking about the types of privileges with truly consequential advantages that are enjoyed by some people but not others, where the variables determining access to those advantages are more often than not based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so forth. Needless to say, this invariably leads to questions of fairness, and to questions of how, or even whether, a community might go about rectifying such inequities. It is, to lapse into understatement, complicated.
And what complicates matters further is that privilege is actually something of a relative term, i.e., those who lack privilege in one situation may not be aware of the privileges they possess in other situations. The author Matthieu Aikens illustrates this point vividly in his harrowing new book The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees, where he points out that (among other things) holding a valid passport does not entitle everyone in the world the privilege of crossing a border unfettered, regardless of what the experience may be for Americans who are rich, poor, or otherwise.
But, the Toteboard digresses, sort of. Back to those teenage potheads, they all experienced lots of near misses in subsequent years, some less laughable than truly terrifying, and a couple of them did get in some genuine trouble a couple of times along the way. And yes, some of them were sometimes gratuitously harassed for having long hair or dressing “subversively.” But by and large, they engaged in borderline behaviors with a general confidence that they would be permitted some latitude, not quite understanding that their “get-out-of-jail-free cards” were affixed to their skin, their wallets, and their zip codes.
Needless to say, if these guys could so often engage relatively safely in illegal-ish activities without fear of unhappy consequences, they could pretty much assume that there was very little risk in engaging in legal activities. They could walk up and down the street, drive to and from their homes, jog through various neighborhoods, shop in convenience stores, and go bird-watching, all without arousing the suspicions of those around them or drawing hostile attention from the police. And the Toteboard’s guess is that if they didn’t realize that a certain shade of privilege allowed them to escape that suburban piss-stop many years earlier, they were probably less likely to imagine that it was that same social privilege that allowed them to engage so comfortably in those mundane activities as well.
“But wait,” some readers may protest,” “It’s a right, not a privilege, to do those things. Why would we say someone is “privileged” just to walk down the street?” Well yeah, that’s exactly the point. It’s a right to go bird-watching, but Christian Cooper did not get to enjoy that right without a white woman calling the police on him. It’s a right to shop at a convenience store, it’s a right to go jogging, and it’s a right for Christ’s sake to drive to your own mother’s home, but we all know how the exercise of these rights ended for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Tyre Nichols.
Perhaps all we really mean by “privilege” (at least in this case) is access to the rights that everyone should enjoy, but that not everyone does?
And this is profoundly disturbing. It’s seriously fucked up to have to recode one’s own rights as privileges, but of course it’s even more fucked up when you have to think about the reason for that, i.e., that there are whole sectors of society for whom those rights are so precarious. Perhaps it’s not inappropriate that a cop would grant a little grace to a group of middle-class white teenagers who smoked a few joints and pissed on a few bushes in an unfamiliar neighborhood, but it is beyond a moral outrage that a gang of testosterone-fueled cops would beat to death a young Black man for no apparent reason a hundred yards from his mother’s home.
Of course, it should not be a matter of privilege for someone to be able to walk the streets or drive home safely. But then again, it shouldn’t be a matter of privilege for a child to receive adequate nutrition or a decent education. It shouldn’t be a matter a privilege for a person to have access to affordable healthcare. And it shouldn’t be a matter of privilege for a person to live one’s life with dignity, and with freedom from abuse, war, or exploitation. But sadly, that just seems to be the way things are these days, and probably for many days to come. And of course, it's just so painful, and so infuriating, and so debilitating, to see such obvious systemic wrongs, to see them persist for so long, and to feel so powerless when it comes to actually rectifying them.
So you know, the Toteboard confesses that it feels a certain morose sympathy for young people today who sometimes, just sometimes, see no other way to cope with this troubled world than to go out and smoke dope with their friends.