Many white people may never truly understand why incidents like the Michael Brown shooting infuriate blacks and other people of color — even when it’s clear that race plays a large, looming role in how the situation snowballed to the 18-year-old’s death.
This is in part because white people can move through daily life without constantly thinking about how their race will be perceived. Part of having white privilege is the freedom from worrying about racism, a freedom their black counterparts have never known. But it gives black people a unique yet challenging perspective by which they navigate the world.
Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his forties. For most of his career, he experienced bias, but didn’t give much weight to it—seeing incidents as discrete events. (When he solved a tough math problem, for example, a professor said, “You must have had your boyfriend solve it.”) When he became Ben, however, he immediately noticed a difference in his everyday experience: “People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, “Ben gave a great seminar today—but then his work is so much better than his sister’s.” (The scientist didn’t know Ben and Barbara were the same person.) “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”