When I was in elementary school there were these things called CBGs which stood for ‘caught being good.’ It was basically a little slip of paper that students would receive from teachers or staff for ‘being an exemplary student.’ Whether that was doing your homework, standing quietly in line with your hands behind your back, or just not being annoying in general because we all know elementary kids can be very annoying without even trying. Students could then turn in the CGBs for prizes. Lollipops, erasers, or even extra recess for the whole class if you could get enough. I’m telling you this as a preface to my story because it’s important to know that these things were like gold. Everyone wanted them. People would trade Pokemon cards and Pixie sticks for these slips of paper because they could get you out of a homework assignment or earn you five extra minutes on the bean bag. But, this story isn’t about how kids are taught from the age of six that pieces of paper have value and the more you have the better you are. This story is about the day I realized I was white.
One day in fourth grade we were covering Martin Luther King Jr. We read a part of his speech and talked about how important he was in ending segregation. This was the first time I was learning about segregation and what it entailed. I was shocked and appalled at how humans could see someone as less than because of their skin color. My best friend at the time was black and I remember thinking about how we wouldn’t have been allowed to play with each other during recess if it weren’t for Martin Luther King Jr. We wouldn’t even be going to the same school. But it was all over. Right? No more segregation means no more racism. Right?
After we finished the lesson my teacher took out a stack of CBGs. All twenty kids perked up, eyes alight. I could already see wheels turning in heads thinking about what to ‘buy’ next. Maybe we could all pool together and get Popsicles for the class?
My teacher starts walking around the room. I’m the first to receive a CGB. I’m confused on why my teacher has decided to randomly give them out, but I’m not going to complain. I expect her to continue down my row and give the rest of the kids a CBG, but she doesn't. She skips the whole row and goes onto the next one. A few kids get one in that row and a few in the next. This goes on for the whole class, some kids getting one and some not. We all looked at each other in confusion, but there were mixed reactions. Some of the kids who didn't get one looked down in sadness, assuming they did something wrong, while some spoke out saying this wasn’t fair. Some of the kids that did get one took it reluctantly, realizing this wasn’t fair, while some, in typical fourth grade fashion, rubbed it in their neighbor’s faces and laughed.
When the teacher made a full lap around the room she came back to the front.
“Who did I give the CBGs to?” she asked.
We looked around but nobody said anything. Nobody knew. It looked random. No specific pattern like we learned about in math class, nothing in one area like in geography. We were stumped. After a few more seconds she gave us the answer.
“I gave one to all the white kids.”
We looked around again. She was right. The handful of white kids in the class had a CBG in their hand. For once, nobody said anything. Not even the kid who never shuts his mouth. We didn't know what to say. What could we say?
All of a sudden, the air in that fourth grade classroom felt heavy. Some kids looked sad, some looked angry, I just felt gross. Now, my teacher did eventually give the rest of the class CGBs, turning this whole situation into a lesson on how segregation worked and how it’s all over and the world is fair now. No more unequal treatment. Everybody gets CGBs.
And this is where the school system messes up. Because, yes, everyone did get a CBG. But at the end of the day, I got that CBG first. That was when I realized, I will always get that CBG first. I will never be deprived of something because of my race. There is a word for this that I was not aware of at the time. Privilege. I didn't know what white privilege was. That day I learned.
While that day did teach me something, it didn't teach me everything. I learned about race and my own biases little by little. I’m still learning and I will always be learning. Even as a kid, I spent a lot of time on the internet. Countless hours watching videos about music, beauty, and entertainment somehow led me to a specific Youtube personality that I owe a lot to. His name is Nathan Zed. While he made various videos about anything from criticizing prank videos to skits, there were several serious and well spoken videos about subjects I never saw being discussed. One of those being police brutality. He posted a video around the time of Trayvon Martin’s death in which he explained what happened and provided several other examples of police officers using their power unjustly toward black people. I was raised to view the police as the good guys, as the protectors. My mom taught me that if I ever got lost to find someone in a uniform. That day I learned black kids my age get taught by their parents how to act around people in a uniform so they don't get shot. How to not look suspicious. To keep their hands visible and not make any sudden movements. As sad as it is, I’m glad I learned that. Because, once again, that privilege was shown to me.
So, since that day in fourth grade, I’ve learned a lot. Something huge I learned is this: it’s my job to listen. If you’re white, you listen. If someone tells you something you said or did was racist, you listen. When a person of color is speaking, you shut up and listen. It’s not my job to speak over people of color or silence any voices. I have to use my privilege to amplify voices and be a support system. Use me as a stepping stool to be seen. Tell me what you need. Lead the way.