My brother, Jesse, and I took two separate paths to get where we are today. Lately, we have been having some meaningful conversations about what’s going on in the world right now and what we have learned from it, specifically our white privilege.
My journey toward understanding white privilege started when I joined our firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, two and a half years ago. These were uncomfortable conversations, and at times I found myself getting defensive. I often took “white privilege” to mean that I didn’t work hard to get to where I am. That wasn’t true, I chose a challenging career path and wasn’t very good to start. I took on a lot of debt to pay my bills and was in a constant struggle to build my practice. But I understand now that white privilege doesn’t mean my life wasn’t difficult and that I didn’t work hard, it just means that my race, sexual orientation, and gender didn’t make it harder.
The most impactful moment for me was when we did a Privilege Exercise, where the moderator asked us to stand if we identify with the topic asked. She asked, “Do you ever think about your race?” Every non-white person stood, every white person stayed seated.
“Do you ever worry about being assaulted while walking through a dark parking lot?” Every woman stood, every man stayed seated.
The only question I stood for was when they asked, “Have you ever had a family member incarcerated?” (Thanks to Noah ). Who else stood? Nobody, I was the only one. Probably because the insurance industry is comprised of 88% white males, 6% women, 4% black males, and 2% other. Obviously, we need the Diversity and Inclusion Council, and we have a lot of work to do.
Although I had to worry like every other business owner about where I was going to find my next client, how I was going to make payroll, or if am I going in the right direction, there are so many things that I don’t have to think about. I’ve never had to wonder if the color of my skin is going to hold me back or make it harder to reach my goals.
As I continue my journey, I realize that I’m about as privileged as you can get. I’m a 6’4”, affluent, blonde, white, straight, Christian male. I didn’t even know I was privileged because it’s all around me.
My perspective continued to evolve when our firm did a podcast with one of our most successful advisors to talk about race and what it is like to be Black in America. He shared two stories that made me realize how privileged I am.
The first came when he hit a big professional milestone in his third year — and most people never make it at all. His coach told him to make sure to celebrate and not just blow by this accomplishment. He decided he was going to buy a used Range Rover with a specific color and trim package.
Even though he loved his new vehicle, after six months of driving it, he found himself trying to avoid it on the weekends. When he does drive it, he always wears a suit. It doesn’t matter if he is going to the gym, the office, or the grocery store. He knows that a young Black man in America in a fancy car is a target.
I have never had to think this way my entire life.
The second story was when his alarm accidentally went off in the home that he and his wife recently built in an affluent neighborhood. The police were notified before they could turn off the alarm.
They just had a newborn, and his wife was exhausted from taking care of the little guy, so he went to open the door when the police arrived. He was halfway to the door, and he stopped. He realized he had no pictures of his family in the house as they had just moved in. He stopped, turned around, and told his wife she had to open the door.
He knows there is a good chance that those cops could have been respectful, but it was a risk he couldn’t take. That story rocked me because a close friend recently shared the nearly identical story when he was living in an upscale community in Minnesota.
I have never had a negative experience with a cop. I have been pulled over ten times, I’ve been guilty on every occasion and only received two tickets. I used to think it was because of the advice my dad gave me when I was young: “If you get pulled over, say yes sir, no sir, don’t make excuses and admit it if you are wrong.” And while my dad’s advice is good, I’ve come to realize that my good fortune is mainly because I’m a successful, white male in America.
The last thing he shared that really hit home with me was the comment that until people who aren’t Black, start caring about Black lives, nothing will change.
From the time I was 16 years old until my incarceration at 27, I almost always had some kind of illegal substance in my car, but I rarely got pulled over. When I was pulled over, I was never searched — not once.
In the spring of 2009, I started selling drugs, and I was indicted in May of 2012. In the three years that I trafficked drugs from Minneapolis to North Dakota, I was never pulled over. If they had, the police would have found all kinds of contraband, but they never did.
When I was a drug trafficker, I lived in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, because of the easy access out of town to make my drug runs up north and avoid traffic. Twice, a white police officer warned me that I was in the wrong part of town even though my apartment was three blocks away. All they saw was an innocent white kid in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
When I moved up in the drug game, I got out of Brooklyn Park and moved to downtown Minneapolis. It was a much better neighborhood, and I found because of the color of my skin, I blended in. Once my girlfriend called the police because another woman I knew was harassing her, and she was fed up. When the cops showed up, my girlfriend’s anger and frustrations suddenly became directed at me. At first, it was a sideways comment or two, but I could tell she was about to explode.
I let the cops in, let them glanced around, and I told them everything was all right. But the situation escalated right in front of them; she started yelling at me, accusing me of having sexual relations with the harasser. I stayed calm, but she did not.
When she didn’t get the response she wanted, she informed the officers that I was a drug dealer. I couldn’t believe the words that just came out of her mouth; my heart rate went through the roof. I thought, “I’m screwed.” The officers looked at me, glanced at her, and then back to me and asked, “Sir, can you get her under control, or would you like us to take her to jail.”
I couldn’t believe it, there were drugs in the apartment, they were already inside, and they just received the only ammunition they needed, to do a thorough search of the premises. But they didn’t. I asked my girlfriend what she wanted to do, and she quickly calmed down as she realized the officers had picked my side due to my calm demeanor…and, possibly, my white skin.
Imagine if she and I were Black. How do you think that scenario would have played out?
A few months later, I was dating a woman who had just ended her previous relationship. One day she was over, and her ex showed up pounding at my door and covering the peephole.
I’m no dummy. I knew who it was and said, “Hello, Derrick.” He shouted at me to let him in and allow him to talk to his ex. I told him that wasn’t going to happen. After a few minutes, I opened the door, and he swung at me and bulldozed his way in. Derrick wasn’t a big guy, and he didn’t know how to fight. Using my high school wrestling, I got him to the ground, got behind him, and did my best UFC rear-naked choke.
Once Derrick tapped (in Mixed Martial Arts signals that he has had enough), I let go, and he gasped for air. The door was ajar, and because of the commotion we’d made, I knew the police were on their way.
Derek took off before the cops came, and when they showed up, it went just fine. They were civil, knocked at the door, asking if everything was all right. I told them exactly what happened, and they asked if I would like to press charges. I said no, and they said, “Well, if he comes back, please give us a call, and we will take care of it.” “Thank you, officers.” And off they went.
That’s what it’s like for a white man in America to deal with police…and I was a drug dealer. That’s not what they saw; they saw a young, white entrepreneur who was working hard and doing his best. Imagine what might have happened if I was Black.
Even now that I’m out of prison, with a record, I’m still privileged. I live in the wealthy suburb of Minnetonka. Both my siblings are well-connected and willing to put their names on the line to help me find employment. I probably have more job opportunities as a white male with multiple felonies and a bad track record than a Black man coming out of high school or even college. It’s a sad realization when you look back at our history and see that we really haven’t come very far. We have made progress, but not enough.
One of the most important things each of us can do is look closely at the advantages we might not even notice. Look at it for yourself. Own it when talking about your achievements. Call each other on it when we forget. The clearer we can see our privilege, the more compassion we can have for those for whom the system is not working—the more of us who see it, the more chance that we can change it.