Thoreau writes in his essay, Walking, “I wish to speak a moment a word for nature.” I too wish to speak a moment, but not for nature, even if my topic is often mistaken for something natural.
I want to recognize that embarking on a 7-month, non-work-related journey is a full-on exploitation of my individual privilege.
This understanding makes my innate desire for travel and adventure quite problematic. Fact is I’m conflicted by my nearly unlimited access to ease that comes with having white skin and a penis. It’s not guilt I’m feeling, nor is it a biased form of invisible acceptance. It’s more like a recognition of the all-encompassing reality staring me square in the face. The one that allows my skin tone to clear the way for my relatively effortless life.
Though I’ll walk from California to Maine without an agenda, I do so with the somber understanding that my journey is made easier by a nation significantly less afraid of me than others who don’t look like me, worship like me, sound like me, or who choose to be sexually intimate with another human in a way that (some would claim) is unlike me.
Like so many others, I am horrified by the seemingly unending string of black men executed by law enforcement officers. But I doubt I’ll worry for my own life if ever questioned by a uniform or badge—I’ll be pretty confident that any sort of run-in will end well. Which is to say, nobody will get shot.
Would I fare so well, so fearlessly, if I were not a white man? I don’t want to take this detail for granted, nor do I want to celebrate it. Rather, I want to own the fact that I represent privilege in its purest form. I can’t change this. But I can change how I see it.
Of course I’ll encounter hardships along the route. 7 months of interactions with strangers will put me, on any given day, amongst all sorts of humans. And let’s be honest—a strange, middle-aged man wearing a dirty backpack who’s “just passing through town” is not everyone’s cup of tea (mine included). I can only imagine what folks might think: Why don’t you have a job? Did you leave your family? Mid-life crisis, huh? Or, What gives you the right to go on a half-year vacation? Are you a risk to me? To my family? You got a gun in there? Drugs? And frankly, I won’t blame them for wondering such things.
But if the precedent set by other (white) cross-country walkers serves me well, these sideways glances might be the extent of any discomfort I’ll feel (minus the obvious wear on my body and mind resulting from the long miles and loneliness).
I used to believe trouble will find trouble. Used to assume that people who get themselves into a mess somehow had it coming. I don’t believe this any more. I’ve learned that good can also find trouble if good’s skin isn’t white. And yes, I am simplifying, but the point is this: in a fucked up way this makes me lucky. But it makes me super upset, too. Because I don’t want to benefit from society’s brokenness.
Look at it this way: What if I were a woman walking across America? What if I were a person of color? What if I was a black man? Or wore a head scarf? What if I was someone who did five daily prayers to Allah on the side of the road while trekking through the Bible belt? What if I were a transgendered person? Such what-ifs are far too plentiful to wonder about. But in an era when blatant expression of hate and fear is more acceptable than ever, these what-ifs are relevant.
I’m not assuming that American people aren’t warm and welcoming. In fact I’m fully counting them taking me in, occasionally feeding me or putting me up, and being generally hospitable. Even if they have guns in their truck and a yard covered in Trump signs, I am sure they’ll show me a selfless love that I am sure to rave about. But how much different of an experience would this walk be for me (and for them) if I were someone less-relatable? Someone who, for no reason beyond their lack of understanding or context, is feared.
No matter how bothered I am by this twisted social dichotomy, I benefit from it. No matter how open-minded and unprejudiced I feel, or how many non-white, non-Christian, non-binary friends I have, no matter how many rainbow flags or Back Lives Matter signs I plant in my lawn, or how many human rights marches I attend, my life is 100% enhanced by my privilege.
Recognizing this basic fact is the first step of my journey, literal and figurative. Doesn’t mean I am no longer implicit, because I am and will continue to benefit from my physiognomy. But recognition a necessary step to an ultimate end. A means to understanding. Ultimately, an elimination of fear.