In my high school class, I was the only white O’Brien. My Aunt Judy had adopted seven children from Brazil many years earlier, two of whom were black Afro-Brazilians. When the teacher took attendance, she struggled to pronounce their names correctly. In our yearbook photos, they’re pictured surrounded by a sea of white people. When they dated whites, they often faced disapproving parents and racial slurs. And when we walked into church each Sunday, the scowls on the faces of our fellow Catholic parishioners were anything but subtle.
And yet, despite their dark skin and nappy hair and everything I witnessed, it never occurred to me that they were any different from me. Nor did I once consider that they had experienced racism.
On one hand, that’s what makes kids often wiser than their elders — they don’t see race unless they’re made aware. Looking back on my innocence and ignorance, I can’t help but feel some measure of adherence to it because my black and brown cousins were, in my eyes, my equal.
But on the other hand, the equality I saw was not their reality in the world outside of our family. In our small, former Confederate town that was once home to slave-driven plantations and a stone’s throw from where John Wilkes Booth fled after assassinating Abraham Lincoln, my cousins pledged allegiance to a place where “all men are created equal” was an ideal, not a truth.
The truth is that race is perhaps the most complicated and convoluted aspect of being human, and not just politically or socioeconomically — it’s very hard to understand personally as well. I watched as my cousins’ grades slipped, while I began preparing my college applications. It’s their choice, I told myself. I stood by as my cousin Vino got caught up in gun violence and was shot in a bad part of town. It’s his fault, I assured myself. I looked away when my youngest cousins were arrested, and sentenced, and sent to prison. It’s their responsibility, I comforted myself.
And I averted my thoughts when Vino crashed his car head-on into a tree, and was killed.
It was his decision, I thought. And unable to face the pain, I never thought about it again.
My cousins had a troubled past in Brazil, to say the least. They arrived to the United States with no luggage, but a lot of baggage, and it carried through their lives. Even though I practically lived with them at times, I still don’t know how much of their fates were the result of childhood trauma, or bad decisions, or racism. And that is one reason why racism is so difficult to understand and so easy to dismiss. When there seem to be reasons other than racism, we often blindly give greater credence to the “other”.
We see choice as the be all that ends all.
Until this past week, I thought my cousins had the same choice that I did, and some of them simply made the wrong one.
They were privileged, I thought, just as I was. They could have all achieved what I had.
I heard an activist recently say “Privilege is not about what you’ve gone through. It’s about what you haven’t had to go through.”
I’m not sure I will ever understand the math of my cousins’ disadvantage, just how much of their life choices can be attributed to racism.
But I realize now that I don’t have to.
Because I saw it with my own eyes.
I heard it with my own ears.
And I felt it in my own heart as I stood by their side.
Maybe the emotional toll of racism exerts a force sometimes too powerful to bear, where having a choice is not actually the same choice we have at all.
It’s probably no surprise that even after I left home and moved 3,000 miles away, I spent 7 years as a teacher and mentor to disadvantaged children who were nearly always Black or Latino. Looking back, I can see now the end of the story that I was trying to rewrite.
I was trying to save Vino. Because, more important than whether he had a choice or not, his life was worth saving.
His life was worth living, if only he could have stayed with us longer.
I was privileged to be the only white O’Brien in my high school class, and to grow up surrounded by my black and brown cousins. I am now privileged to realize what I could have done differently, how I could have acknowledged their pain, and been there for them in a way I never was.
The realization of White Privilege and the responsibility it accompanies should be regarded by all whites as simply “A Privilege”.
Because there is no greater purpose in life than to make life better for another.
It is, in all sense of the word, our privilege.
Dedicated to my cousin, Valdevino O’Brien, who will live on in all our hearts forever.