Pay It Back


On a Sunday afternoon, a few years back, when you were thirteen, we went to a theater in downtown LA to experience the finale of a classic poetry slam for high school students. It was a mother’s joy to watch you take in the poems with your whole body. If it was about racial injustice, you leaned in to listen and learn. If it was about poverty and hunger, you searched your pockets for something to share. If it was about police brutality, you tightened your core and held your head high in defiance. If it was about the uncertainty and fear of being an undocumented immigrant, you swayed to the mournful songs of their plight. If it was about drugs, gangs, and the human need to belong, you opened your arms to offer an alternative. And you let the poets embrace you as one who could one day be one of them with an understanding that it would be by merit, not default.

As we drove back to our neighborhood with the neat lawns, white picket fences, and houses hidden away from the tree-lined streets, you spoke about how you felt the slam had slammed away anything you could write a poem about. It had decimated your voice. It had made you offensive and unworthy.

That was the first time we talked about your undeniable privilege, and it filled my heart with both pride and trepidation. That you will not ever take for granted what you have been granted is the utmost I can hope for you.

To be born a white male is a blessed curse. It comes with unlimited power and unlimited obligation and unlimited examples of just how much the first corrupts and corrodes the second. In this world and in this time, there is no shortage of supremacists, misogynists, narcissists, elitists, perpetrators, dictators, predators, aggressors whose worst crime is not their vast crime but the down-passed crime of entitlement.

It is so easy to fall into that even without intention. It is so easy to have it easy, to always fit every criterion, to not have to explain or justify or prove yourself to be an anomaly because you made it to where you are. It is so easy not to have to break any pattern because you are the pattern. You have always been the pattern. You are skipping along the path of least resistance.

But I could and can see you question that. I could and can see you wonder if you deserve that because it does not seem right that you did not have to work for it. I could and can see you be suspicious of it coming to you for free. Where is the catch?

The sad truth is there is no catch. Even if you are caught, there will not be a catch. No one will ever fault you for not having a catch. No one will shoot you in the back or press their knee against your neck or ignore your cries for medical care because you are assumed untouchable until seldom proven guilty. There will never not be time to hear your side of the story. So you have to build the catch inside of you. You have to forge it from integrity, decency, humility, from listening without prejudice or dismissal, from giving your voice, wealth, and worth to those who have none without expecting anything in return.

They say to pay it forward, but I could and can see you realize that is not right. You have to pay it back. Everything your ancestors took, borrowed, and used to build their empires and your privilege has to be paid back. What you heard that Sunday, what the words meant, what made you speechless, was the size of that debt.


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