Dear Lily June,
Imagine you are born in a very cold place. In this place, there are many groups of people, and you belong to a group called the Sames. (There are also the Differents, the Others, the Exotics, etc.) Because you are a Same, when you are born, you are given a magical sweater, one which protects you from all the elements. Here’s the catch, though: This sweater is invisible to every one who wears it. Only those not wearing it–the Differents, the Others, the Exotics, etc.–can actually see the sweater. If you’re thinking really hard about it, you can feel how it’s keeping you warm, but like I said, it’s mostly, to you, entirely invisible. It’s easy to forget you’re even wearing it.
One day a Different walks up to you with a look of horror and disgust. “That sweater,” the Different says, not mincing words, “is cruel.”
Because you can’t see it–you rarely even think about it–you are shocked. “Why would you say that?!” you ask, half-curious, but also half-indignant. You have, after all, worn this garment all of your life, and you’ve never considered yourself a cruel person. None of the other Sames have said this to you–your family, most of the friends you have made– and they, too, you assume, are also wearing their invisible sweaters. Who wouldn’t? Who doesn’t want to stay warm in a cold place?
“Haven’t you read what’s stitched on it?” the Different asks you.
“No,” you say. “I can’t even see it.” You are tempted, at this point, to just walk away. What right does this Different have to tell you about something that only belongs to the Sames? For all you know, this Different is jealous, but it’s not your fault you weren’t born into his group, that you were given your magic, invisible sweater to warm you by right of your birth. Still, you resist the urge to walk away because it bothers you that you can’t see it. You are curious now. Now that the sweater has been pointed out to you in this way, you’re starting to feel it more and more, its warmth, but also its weight.
“The sweater,” the Different replies, “is stitched across the chest with the words We’re all the Same.”
You should stop to consider this for a minute, but you don’t.”But we are,” you say in your own defense. “Inside, under our skin, we are all the same. We all want to be warm the same way,” you tell the Different.
“And yet,” the Different reminds you, “between the two of us, only one of us is currently freezing to death.” You can see that he’s right. You look at his face, into his eyes, and you know that if the cold hasn’t killed him yet, it could soon. It could be today, and this thought has never had to occur to you about your life, your body.
Suddenly, you feel colder, and at first, you think it’s just your revelation. But then, you also feel a bit of wind rush over your arm where you had, just a moment before, almost been sweating. It is bitter cold, and you shiver. You look down to see the Different has grabbed a thread of your sweater’s sleeve from the wrist and has started pulling the whole thing loose. As each of the individual threads unspool from where they had been covering your skin, you can suddenly see them against the blue sky, clear as day.
You can see the threads themselves were woven not with wool, but with names–The first you can make out is Trayvon Martin, but you know that must not be the start of your sweater because it keeps fraying as the Different keeps tugging. When the thread gets to your neck, you can see the last names as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, but you know, even as you see an enormous pool of fabric laying at your feet, that these names won’t be the last. Sames are born everyday, and all of them, without even asking for it, will be provided with more and more sweaters.
You are so ashamed of what you have been wearing, and you can’t believe, in all that time, you never even tried to see it. It was enough that the sweater was warm, that it sheltered you from a wind everyone around you had been walking against, had felt cutting into their faces. Without your sweater, you are closer to imagining the life of the Different, but he tells you a part of the magic you also never knew existed: “Keep unraveling it,” he says. “Or it will put itself right back together.”
That, Lily June, is what privilege is. Only there is no sweater. There is only your skin color, and the ways you will unintentionally benefit from it throughout your lifetime unless things change. It is your responsibility, as a member of this country and human race, to pay attention to that. Always. To work, every day, by seam and by fray, to unravel it.
Someday, we may be able to stitch back together the seams of a new flag for this country, but it’s going to take every single strand of fabric we can gather from every figurative sweater. Every loss. Every love. Every name. There will be a flag, I hope baby girl, that will represent everyone who has been left out in America. Who has had to live all along in ways I am only now working harder and harder to imagine: Like the world, every day, in so many ways, can be such a cold place.
- By Vizu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32323936