WHeMP

By: Ryan Barker

Power, a word that unfailingly delivers on the first three letters of its being: Pow. A word whose binding forecast is found in its unchanging atomic nucleus: Owe. A word that is always one letter’s removal from ending in the origins of its birth—we—but is consistently interrupted by its own innate ambitions to achieve the illusion of ordered completion, bastardizing the nature of humanity, from which it extends. poweR.

 No matter their case, the arrangement of letters causes them to systematically serve the same purpose.  Drawn from the same genome of communicative characters, these alphabetical brothers and sisters exist in a universe vandalized by institutional servitude—all for the sake of achieving definition. Roles are assigned and enforced, so as not to disturb the word’s current structure of existence. Only some letters can be vowels, while others can only be consonants. Only some letters can be silent, while others can only be audible. Only some letters can be big, while others can only be small. Breaking any of these rules is a direct threat to the system’s stability. tAbOo.

Ryan BarkeR. Born into a family predicated on privilege, my name is informed by, and is a continuation of, the aforementioned, powerfully disruptive letter R—a symbolic gesture to the power of privilege. White. Male. Heterosexual. Protestant. The preservation of WHeMPiness, affording me an escape from beneath Power’s foot, and instead, a ride on its back, led to my name ending with the pathetic letter that begins it, so as to insulate my being within the ivory fantasy of power. For the better half of my life, I have exploited the comfort that claimed me upon birth. However, it has not been an intentional exploitation, but rather, the result of my blindness toward a system.

It was not until July 16, 2009 that this blindness began to dissipate. We had just recently elected our nation’s first black president, a monumental feat that, to my knowledge, could only be indicative of racism’s overdue defeat. A black man running our country? That’s it! We did it! A racial inequality that has plagued us since colonization is finally absent! So I thought.

As I walked home from school, after one of the many dreadful days that high school’s freshman year guarantees to its challengers, I took solace in an America devoid of racism. I fantasized about a future defined by, not simply tolerance, but acceptance, and more than that, embrace. As I stepped through the black door that serves our house, my ears immediately directed the attention of my eyes toward the TV. I joined my mom, who was watching an incredibly crushing breaking news segment. A black Harvard professor was arrested outside his home because his door was jammed and he was trying to force it open. Witnesses called police, reporting an attempted burglary. Upon the white officer’s arrival to the scene, despite concluding that this black Harvard professor was at his own home, the black professor was arrested by the white cop. Unlike most breaking news segments, this segment lived up to its name. This news broke me.

While the media focused its attention on the cop, my approach was a bit broader. There was too much blame here for one person. It had to be bigger. The witnesses, some his neighbors, who you would expect to know that he was not a burglar from that fact, were at fault. The cop, needless to say, was at fault. A jammed door was at fault. But most importantly, a system was at fault. Would it be too far-fetched to speculate the cause of the jammed door? Would it be unfair for me to ponder the possibility of the professor’s blackness negatively affecting the door’s installation, thereby leading to the cause of the jam? Maybe. But even if that speculation is baseless, there already exists a sufficient sum of information that, in this situation, combined together to form a unitary whole—a system of oppression—and that is what killed my blindness.

Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Ingredients for the tip of an iceberg—glimpses of a largely unseen power system. The icy penetration of whiteness. Since 2009, white cops have murdered far too many unarmed blacks. While it is important to recognize the faults of these cops, it is unacceptable to stop there. We must understand that this is the result of a system. We must understand that by ignoring these facts and adhering to the alleged bliss of ignorance, we are participants in the perpetuation of an oppressive system.

For a while, I was reluctant to accept this depressing reality. Why would anyone in a position of comfort willingly replace his or her convenience with discomfort? I struggled to accept the fact that my race was synonymous with power, for that could only mean that other races were synonymous with lesser. I felt guilty, and I did not believe it was fair. I had black friends. I did not hate anyone based on their color. I was not a racist. There had to be a way that this could change without me making any sacrifices. After all, I was not the problem, right? Unfortunately, it is not this simple. Racism is not always intentional, nor is it always a simple expression of prejudice. Racism is the fusion of prejudice and power. The fact of the matter is that blacks are still arrested with greater frequency than whites for the same crimes, that harsher sentences are given to blacks for the same crimes, that black-sounding names are the butt of jokes and a factor that diminishes one’s chance of employment, and that public schools with blacks making up the majority of the student population are consistently underfunded. As hard-hitting facts stirred the pillows of privilege that lay beneath me, I began to understand that my convenience was not worth perpetuating the plight of a race.

Power’s death grip on humanity is abundantly transparent within our nation’s racial tensions. Founded by white men at a time when slavery was an integral piece of our economic success, power has catalyzed racial divisions and a warped perception of humanity for nearly 250 years. While legislation has been passed to erode division, law cannot erode perception. Rights have been gained, but a system remains. Where there is power, there will always be oppression. I am convinced, in order for us to achieve true harmony and understanding, power must be absent, like letters without a set arrangement, existing together only in a unifying body of communicative characters; completely free of limitation on the arrangement they seek, of restriction on the case they wish to assume, and of the illusion that there exists no form of fundamental universality among them all.