I’m White, And I’ve Never Felt So Guilty In My Life


I traveled to DC yesterday to visit a friend that had just moved. It’s her birthday next week and I’ve been planning for months to surprise her before her birthday. And, yeah, being able to visit a large metropolitan city for 23 hours made me feel guilty- but that’s not the issue here.

Today, I was supposed to fly home to Colorado via United trough DCA. At some point, after security, I got a beer with a Kenyan man at the bar behind my gate. We discussed DC and the various privileges that come with a US passport. I, under no uncertain terms, expressed to him that I -while I am grateful- I am so unduly privileged in this world. He agreed, but thankfully continued to engage in conversation with me about immigration and, ultimately, the American Dream.

He moved here after being unsuccessful in Eastern Africa; he wanted to make a life for himself and his family, but he was struggling. It brought ripe tears to my eyes – tears that, I think, I was successful in fighting back. Meanwhile, I’ve been having an absolutely great weekend with ~arguably~ my best friends in this part of the world and I decide – because I have the ability to do so – to keep my buzz going and I order a beer. This Kenyan and I, we sit there and chat even though I’m almost certain I’ll miss my plane. But, I tell him, it means more to me to have a meaningful, personal conversation than to get on this plane. So, we each drank our beers (that certainly neither of us can really afford) and we share the onion rings I decide I want. We laugh, we experience each other and then we depart, him going to Chicago and me going to Cleveland.

Turns out, I’ve thoroughly missed my plane. It was 12 minutes from departure when me and the Kenyan split. I feel as if this okay since United typically closes the gate 10 minutes before departure. (It kills me that don’t know this name,) but it’s 8 minutes out by the time I arrive at my gate and I realize I’ve missed my plane. The gate tunnel has detached from the airway and it’s clear that I’m not getting on that flight.

I ask around, but it appears the only way to make it to Colorado is by way of IAD- Dulles airport- easily a 40 minute drive and needs a cab at this point.

As I wait outside DCA for a taxi, I realize how unruly the rules are for a cab here. Which seems odd, I know, but you can’t hail your own cab- the man at the front has decided the order in which the cabs and passengers are to meet. An unruly cabbie asks me where I want to go. “Dulles,” I respond. He ushers me in but the man orchestrating the line tells me no and chastises the cabbie. I listen. I let the cab go. But, later, I ask the man up front “so am I not to take a cab or are they not to persuade me?” He doesn’t respond. I reiterate, “I just want to understand. Am I allowed to take any cab or do you require that I take the one this line suggests?” Still, he doesn’t feel like responding. Meanwhile, the two passengers ahead of me want to go to Bethesda. They don’t go together. And I’m confused. I ask the five people behind me if they need to go to Dulles. No one does. It seems so wasteful to me that 1) not only does anyone not go in my direction but 2) those traveling in the same direction must go separately.

Shortly thereafter a cabbie asks me where I want to go and Dulles appears to be an appropriate response so I jump in the cab and neither of us look back.

The cab, as expected, takes 50+ minutes and costs over $70 dollars. I don’t really notice though. He and I talk the entire way there about my life and his life. He’s Ethiopian and moved here for a chance at a “better life,” you know, that American Dream. Bluntly, I ask him how well that’s going. He laughs, “not very well.” We both laugh, but it’s one of those heart-felt painful laughs that you never actually want to be experiencing with another person. But. We realize we’re stuck together in this car so we continue to find common ground. He asks if I’ve been to Africa, “only South Africa,” I say. He seems impressed and asks how I find coming home after that. Honestly, I say that it’s difficult – I try to tell him that life in the states is hard because every time I come home from abroad I realize I hate Americans a little bit more. That I hate the way they seem to expect everything to be handed to them. Quickly, our conversation emulates so many that I’ve had before; it emulates that of the Kenyan conversation of earlier. My eyes water.

We arrive at Dulles. I pay him, but I can’t leave the cab just yet. I start crying. He tells me that it’s okay, that I should just be thankful for what I have. I tell him I can’t- that I can’t possibly be okay with the fact that I have an “easier” time than others just because I hold an American passport. But, in the end, we share a heart-filled stare into each other’s eyes and I’m able to stop the tears and leave the cab. I thank him once more and wish him well.

Then, in the hustle and bustle of trying to make a flight at a completely different airport, I race to the self check-in stand. It doesn’t work. A woman, presumably from India, assists me in the check-in process and I run toward security and down the escalator. At this point, I reflected on my previous conversations and realize that not only were we discussing my privilege of an American passport, we were discussing something completely beyond that. I start to cry a bit, but I think there’s nothing really I can do about it.

Then, as I realize I’m next in the security line, I notice that my license is not in my hand. It’s not in my wallet. It’s not on the ground. It was, however, just out when I checked in. I must have dropped it. I walk the queue line backwards looking down and asking if anyone has seen my ID, to which everyone says no. I go up the escalator, but no one has seen it. I retrace all the way to the (presumably) Indian woman at the check-out counter but she hasn’t see it. A (wonderful) woman from United asks around the counters for me but no one seems to have seen it. At this point she starts telling her co-workers that she’s checked in my bags and knows she’s seen my ID but I must have dropped it. This is a lie- an absolute lie, but I let her continue anyway. Everyone seems to believe her – even she seems to believe her. She goes down the escalators with me, so she can speak to security on my behalf, but she’s mortified of escalators- even her therapist tells her not to get on them, she tells me.

I wonder, “Why does everyone just believe me?” But these ideas don’t stay I my head long- we are at the bottom of the escalator and this woman is starting to calm down. I thank her and apologize at the same time. It’s at this point that I finally see my white privilege. Before this I was certain my passport, my nationality, was my ticket to all my privilege. But here, in my complete ID-less state I realized it was my skin.

My white skin.

It’s sickening.

But I’m desperate. I want to get home. I simply decide to let this happen- to let this woman lie for me and to let this man judge me based on my skin and decide to let me through. It works. I get patted down, but it works. Everyone believes me. But it’s not okay. None of it feels okay. Yeah, it is “security” fine since I know I’m not lying and I know I’m fine- but they don’t know that. They have no idea.

So, I made it through security. I made it to the tram. I made it to the C gates. My gates. I made it all the way to C27 before they closed the hatch to the plane. I made it to seat 32C. But I can’t stop crying. A flight attendant asks if I’m okay. I lie. I tell her I’m fine. I tell her I’m just grateful I got on this plane and she goes away. Now, it is true- but it just feels so wrong that I should have made it here.

A man behind me asks if I found my ID. He remembers me in the queue. I say that I made it here and I’m okay. He’s not white. And I continue to cry. I haven’t looked up yet; I’m afraid of what I’ll see. I’m just sitting in 32C crying about my white privilege hoping that no one else can see it.