I walk a racial tightrope. It’s one I’ve struggled to balance on for my entire life. But over the past several weeks, I’ve felt myself teetering. I’m black and outraged that racism continues to kill black people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor while burdening the lives of so many others in our country. But I know that I am not one of those people. I know the freedom of moving through a world that magically removes many barriers from my life and shields me from harm — all because of my ability to pass as white.  

My skin tone has given me white privilege. For more than five decades of the journey across my tightrope, I’ve had what feminist researcher Peggy McIntosh calls an “invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” These are the tools of white privilege, unwanted and conferred on me at birth by a white father who had a fleeting relationship with my divorced black mother. I was the youngest of five and grew up with older siblings in a large, extended black family. They were quick to remind me that what they jokingly called my “light, bright, almost-white skin” did not grant me any special advantage in our family. But they and I could see that wasn’t going to be the case in the outside world.  

I want to assure my white friends that white privilege is real, because I benefit from it every day. And I want to explain to my black family that even though this knapsack that whites carry is invisible, weightless and present from birth, it’s possible to teach yourself that it’s there. I say that not so I can seek forgiveness for myself or offer absolution for any others. It’s to explain why so many claim to be blind and unfeeling to something that has been present throughout the history of this country. Even as I continue to reap its benefits, I am ashamed of the white privilege I carry around because I know it comes at the expense of others who have every right to the same opportunities, advantages and freedoms.

I remember the warm smile and solicitous attention I received as a child from the white woman at the drugstore checkout, and how they melted into a tight-lipped stare and chilly attitude when my mother stepped out from the aisle to join me. In my overwhelmingly white, Catholic middle school, the nuns seemed to encourage me but offered little support to my first cousin, despite the fact that we sat next to each other in the same classroom. The memory of them publicly praising my fifth grade book report is seared into my brain. So is what happened next, when they quietly pulled my cousin aside and asked her if she’d copied from me. In so many words, they said they didn’t think she was capable of the work she’d turned in.  

I suspect that privilege opened doors that were closed to college classmates and co-workers who didn’t look like me. I recall the favors from white professors, including one who passed me even after I flunked a critical exam required for graduation. And I wonder if they afforded that same grace to students who looked different from them. Early in my career, there were occasional pats on the back, nudges along the way, and invitations to business dinners or meetings that I’m not sure every other person of color enjoyed. In one such meeting, I remember a senior manager blithely using the n-word. (He defended it by saying he was just quoting someone else.) It was easy enough for me, then, to call out his racism and remind everyone that someone of color was in the room. But other times, there was subtle, coded language that I recognized as their attempt to set themselves apart from others. In some of those moments, I’m ashamed to admit, I feared for my job or advancement and just kept quiet.   

I see now that even those small silences made me complicit in a wider system of racism that threatens people’s lives and endangers my own family. I’ve talked my way out of traffic tickets over the years, driving away with just a polite warning. Yet my male cousins and nephew live with the fear that one wrong move during a traffic stop might end their lives. A few years ago, the teenage sons of my niece were noisily playing with water pistols in their backyard, in full view of their neighbors. Within minutes, they were met with heavily armed officers who assumed, given the neighborhood, that these boys had weapons. Around the time I was their age, I had already been stopped by police on a joyride after a night of partying and let go with a slap on the wrist. 

If my skin had been darker, I’ve no doubt my treatment would have been different. When I first watched the chilling videos of Arbery and Floyd, I was reminded that my mother never had to warn me about what neighborhoods to walk in or how to act if stopped by the police. But I knew that my older brothers had been taught how to keep their hands visible even as they sought to make themselves invisible in other ways. 

My white friends need to know that McIntosh’s knapsack of privilege also contains a compass that has guided whites for almost 400 years in navigating institutions like law enforcement, education, housing and employment — institutions that were originally set up in their favor. For that reason, they have gone further and faster and in ways that are unfair to others on this journey. I have to acknowledge that compass has benefited me, too, steadying each step, clearing the path of obstacles and pointing the way ahead. My life has always been a balancing act, yes, but I’ve never had to doubt my direction. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand how to use that privilege to help others. As I’ve climbed the career ladder, I’ve tried to turn around and offer a hand up to others by hiring, coaching and advancing predominantly diverse teams. I’ve realized the power in simply stepping back and making sure those on the margins get a chance to lead or just have the space to speak. I’ve had my eyes opened to the white dominant culture in the workplace and recognized ways I’ve bought into and promoted it. And I’ve begun to call out the fact that my white privilege is not just an embarrassing advantage. Whether overtly exercised or silently accepted, it’s a form of oppression. 

Today, I have a family of my own: two teenage daughters whose skin tones ensure that the world won’t see them as anything but black. And while I’ve tried to guide them and give them every advantage and break in life, as any parent would, I realize I cannot provide them the one benefit I had growing up and still have: Unlike them, I have the privilege of living in a world where my race simply doesn’t matter.