(Editor’s Note: Jackson resident Candice Weddington submitted this opinion piece for publication in the wake of the May 25 death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer and also because of the increased national and local dialogue exploring the deeper issues of racism. Weddington was among the speakers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Jackson on Saturday, June 13.)

By Candice Weddington, M.A.

Guest Writer

My last summer of grad school in 2014, I took a class in which it became standard for people to preface their comments during discussions by “stating their positionality.” 
This meant announcing the various aspects of your identity that would have informed your worldview and the opinion you were about to espouse. For example, my positionality is a 30-something, straight, white, Appalachian woman. Other aspects of my positionality are my profession, my level of education, my current status in the middle class, my former status in the lower class, the fact that I’m cis, and the fact that I’m a mother. Depending on the conversation, I may have begun a comment with “As a mother,” “As an older millennial,” or “As a white woman.” Acknowledging that people are not just one thing is sometimes referred to as “intersectionality.” People are multifaceted and complex, and in that class, where we discussed topics such as race and gender, we felt it was important to keep our discussion intersectional.
It might sound ridiculous to imagine identifying yourself like that before speaking, but I found it useful for two reasons: (1) it helped others understand where I was coming from so that they might have a clearer idea of how my opinion was formed and (2) it helped remind me that my opinions are the product of my place in this world — and not everyone is coming from that same place. Each aspect of my identity represents a part of who I am and influences how I interact with the world and how it interacts with me. Some aspects have made my life easier, while others have made it more difficult.
In 2014, Buzzfeed published a quiz that has been trending on social media over the last few weeks; it allows you to inventory the difficulty you’ve faced as the result of the various aspects of your identity. The title is “How Privileged Are You?” Jackson, Ohio, where I live, is 97 percent white, so when a local person suggests that racism doesn’t exist or that there are no problems with the police, the most obvious rebuttal is that the person is speaking from a position of white privilege. As such, the word “privilege” has become a point of contention and caused a breakdown in communication as people try to discuss race, but what does it really mean?
The definition that pops up when you Google the word “privilege” is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” In Appalachia, we have high rates of unemployment, poverty, and opioid addiction. The people here don’t feel special or that they’ve been afforded any special advantages. Rather, in the national landscape, they often feel unheard and largely forgotten. 
It’s like the Lorde song: “We live in cities you’ll never see onscreen.” Moreover, growing up, I was taught that privileges are extras — fun things that can be taken away because they are inessential. “Privileged people” were people with a lot of money, and for most of my life, that wasn’t me or anyone I knew personally. The Google definition of “privilege” is followed by an example, which, I think, helps illustrate the problem: “Education is a right, not a privilege.” This example suggests that privileges and rights are opposites, reaffirming people’s belief that to be privileged is to be in possession of something extra (which their lived experience tells them is inaccurate). Regardless of the exact definition, what people mean when they say “white privilege” is that being white is not an aspect of your identity that will make your life more difficult, which cannot be said for people of other races. Whether it’s a right that’s being denied to people of color or something extra that only white people have access to, the fact that the intended meaning is true speaks of the well-documented racism deeply rooted in both private and public American systems.
But here is where the second breakdown seems to occur and where I find the discussion of privilege limited in utility. There are people who will not only deny that white privilege exists (whatever the definition) but who will also deny that systemic racism exists. In spite of the multitude of articles, studies, primary documents, and books that prove otherwise, some people claim that the work done during the Civil Rights Movement and America’s laws prohibiting racial discrimination have reduced any surviving racism to the individual views of specific people. These people value personal experience over statistics, and their personal experience suggests that systems are racially equitable. This is where I think it’s useful to think about power instead of privilege.
While the two can sometimes be used interchangeably, I haven’t seen nearly as much written recently about power dynamics and race. The person who has probably come closest to articulating my thoughts is Trevor Noah, who released a video called “George Floyd and the Dominos of Racial Justice.” In the video, he discusses Amy Cooper, a white woman who called the police when Christian Cooper, a black man, confronted her in a park for not following the rules and keeping her dog on a leash. In a video Christian recorded, Amy says, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Noah explains that Amy Cooper clearly knew the power dynamics at play when she made that statement: In America, as a white woman, she had more power in that moment. She firmly believed that, before they have facts, most police officers will side with the white woman over the black man.
So, how does this relate to personal experience? I believe it creates a mental exercise in which white people can insert themselves. Imagine that you are the one making the call against Christian Cooper. Who will get the benefit of doubt from the police? Who will people believe when they read the news headlines or the posts on social media? In the vast majority of America, the answer is the white person.
It’s an ugly, terrible truth, but until we acknowledge it, we can’t do anything to change it. This is also where intersectionality is useful. Having power in one situation doesn’t translate to having power in all situations; poor white people, women, and LGBTQ people all know this. What happens when it’s a white woman and a white man? A wealthy white man and a homeless white man? A straight black man and a gay black man? There are countless layers, and how much power you have in this society is dependent on various aspects of your identity; however, lines of power are painfully clear when it comes to race. As white people, we know this, even if we don’t like it and even if we don’t want to talk about it. But there’s no more denying it - Amy Cooper announced it to the whole country.
By admitting the uncomfortable truth of our own power and acting accordingly, we are actually taking a step toward making the world more equitable for people of color and for everyone. One way this can manifest is keeping power dynamics at the forefront of our interactions with others; because if we don’t, we default just to identifying with the people who look like us. In Rhett Mclaughlin’s recent reflection on his own former prejudices and biases, called “Letter to a White Man,” he talks about how, in the past, he’d hear a report of police brutality and immediately question what the person had done wrong. He found himself identifying with the cop (who was often a middle-class white male, like him) instead of the person on the ground. I see the same reaction from people who have family members and friends who are in law enforcement — and it makes total sense. If your spouse, sibling, parent, or best friend is a police officer, it is understandable for you to worry about them and want to support them on a personal level. But here’s the truth: the police don’t need you to protect them. Of course their job is dangerous; no one is disputing that, but officers have been given the power of protection on several levels. They are empowered to physically protect themselves with gear and weapons. They are legally protected by laws such as qualified immunity, which prevents them from being held personally liable for actions performed on the job. And perhaps most importantly, they are protected when they screw up, by some of the most powerful unions in the country. Before George Floyd’s murder, of the 2,600 misconduct complaints received in Minneapolis over the last eight years, only 12 resulted in disciplinary action, and of those 12, the most severe punishment was a suspension that lasted less than two days. Minneapolis’s mayor explicitly stated that these numbers reflect the power of the police union. Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd, had 17 previous complaints filed about him; he didn’t need your support - he had a police union to back him up.
Police officers also don’t need you to post that “blue lives matter” because the system ensures that their lives matter. People who kill cops are prosecuted and sentenced. In 2019, President Donald Trump called for the death penalty for anyone who kills a police officer, and the “Thin Blue Line Act” was re-introduced to the House of Representatives last year, which, if passed, would make killing a law enforcement officer eligible for the death penalty at the federal level. When your instinct is to see virtue in the police officer and to look for fault in the other person, you are aligning yourself with the person who has the most power in the situation, and while not all cops are bad, they are all working in a system that currently protects the ones who are.
It’s the same type of system that allows sexism, classism, homophobia, and the various other manifestations of hatred that work to uphold the status quo in this country and to keep power in the hands of the few, and that’s why, when people of color cry out for help, all of us — with our individual, complex positionalities — should be answering the call.
We may not all be coming from the same place, but we’re on this journey together, and by using our power to take care of one another, we’re moving toward a destination far better than the one where we started.