We sat around a large rectangular table waiting for Jeremy, all of us eagerly assessing our peers without making too much eye contact. It was one of those classroom tables that reminded me of seventh grade science class; cold to the touch, and every time I lifted my hands I could see sweat-based palm indentations slowly evaporating.
Everyone had his or her best outfits on; a button-up that Lisa ordered online two weeks ago that she just got in the mail. A cardigan that James had been saving just for the first day the temperature dropped below 50 degrees. We weren’t trying to impress each other; we were using the class as an opportunity to wear something that was not loungewear or work uniform. To prove to ourselves that we still had a taste for fashion. To feel like we were still a part of society. Below the table, under our favorite jeans or thermal-lined chino khakis, we all wore the same electronic monitoring device on our ankles.
I wore a Nike winter hat I had just purchased at the Ace Athletic down the street. It wasn’t that cold out, but I had been inside all day, and the October frost, while refreshing, was exceptionally frigid. I took a good 30 minutes perusing the store before selecting the hat. I was 45 minutes early for class, and this was the first time I had been in a clothing store in months. I went around to every rack–price-checking a sweatshirt, trying on a windbreaker, sizing up a pair of joggers in absolute bliss–all the while feeling like I didn’t belong in the store.
My house arrest sentence allowed a 30-minute window to commute to-and-from work. Aside from that, I was given two hours to get groceries, and required to attend three hour-long AA meetings per week. And then there was this class, a weekly three-hour interdisciplinary lecture taught by Jeremy, a recovered addict-turned-counselor. It was a drop-in course, of which six were required to complete the Diploma of Alternative to Jail Sentence with a perquisite of multiple DUI convictions.
Jeremy juggled anecdotes of children dying in car crashes, childhood friends drowning in addiction, and uncles who drank fifths of Jack Daniels by the hour. He ended the class, every week, trying to convince all twelve of us that the only way we would not find ourselves on house arrest (or in jail) was to abstain from drinking altogether. Moderation was not an option.
Every class was the same cycle of worksheets and dry erase board diagrams, diluted with back-and-forth banter:
“Wake up, Darnell!”
“You have a problem if you’re here!”
“I wouldn’t have to teach this class if no one got a DUI.”
“You could have killed somebody.”
A recurring three-hour dream that changed ever so slightly, and never resolved itself.
New people joined every week. Jeremy would prompt them to tell the class how they got their first and second (or third, or fourth, perhaps) conviction:
“Did you ever think you’d get a second one, after the first one?” he asked. “Then why are you here?”
Blank stares. He caught another one. A fresh pupil who would learn, after a few classes, that arguing with Jeremy was a rite of passage that you could only avoid by biting your tongue or sleeping. I didn’t get to know Darnell very well, but he was on to something. The rest of us grew very accustomed to biting our tongues, and let the newcomers talk.
Us veterans did most of our talking before Jeremy arrived. We would take turns confessing what we missed most about life before plastic anklets bound us. The first restaurant we’d go to when we got free. Whether we thought our probation officer would let us have thanksgiving dinner with family. How we felt like dogs chained in an electric fence. Adam’s dad smoked in the house, and he had severe asthma. Nicole worked in a bar and had to repeatedly tell her boss to stop feeding her drinks. But the conversation would always turn into probation officer horror stories:
“The washer and dryer are outside of my anklet range, and that fucking lady who sits there and monitors our obedience always calls me as soon as a put the drop the detergent in the machine.”
“My PO is by the house EVERY DAY it seems like. He popped his head through my window like ‘why didn’t you answer the phone.’ I was in the shower, chill!”
“I’m getting tested every week. I’m afraid to use mouthwash at this point.”
After a while I mostly just sat and listened. I could feel white privilege oozing from my silence. It only took a quick scan of the room to realize that only the black kids were contributing to this dialogue. My whiteness denied me access to the gripe session, as I rarely had anything to complain about aside from my shower’s terrible water pressure. I saw my probation officer twice over the duration of my sentence. Once, when he installed the bracelet, and once to ask me if I was going to all my classes. I was never tested for drugs or alcohol even though I abstained in absolute fear. Categorized as a low risk case, I was ignored during the entirety of my probation, because of my skin color. The probation officers were too busy hounding my classmates.
I had committed the same crimes as everyone else in the room. I was just as maliciously irresponsible when I drank three too many Jameson’s on an empty stomach and left the bar in a blackout daze, reaching for my keys. Just as reckless when I drove my Jetta into that parked Toyota, too incoherent to realize that I had swerved out of the driving lane. Just as foolish when the police found me searching through my car for my phone, as it lay in the middle of the road, smashed into pieces next to a few parts of Prius bumper with the same fate.
White privilege is a strange thing these days. Living in a world where some are crying “Black Lives Matter!” while others declare post racialism; a world where racism is most dangerous in its subtlest forms. I won the draw that rewards me with a seemingly infinite benefit of the doubt, and even if I don’t perpetuate racial stereotypes or decry affirmative action, simply benefiting from white privilege is participating in the problem. Naively or purposefully benefiting from the obstacles of others. Knowing, or choosing to ignore, that others are being profiled and frisked and arrested and monitored and jailed more frequently because they have a different skin color.
This unfair treatment was performed for me every week. There would always be a different horror story that I would never experience. I would never have to fear that my probation officer would come stomping into the house, or that my house arrest would be extended because I couldn’t pay my fines on time, or that I wouldn’t be able to wash my clothes without getting a phone call.
When Jeremy walked in, the room turned silent. Jeremy did not see this world. He treated all of us as recovering addicts. He knew us by what our blood alcohol content was when we blew into that Breathalyzer. And although Jeremy would talk in circles and start arguments and threaten to call our probation officers, he was right. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. If we were caught driving drunk several times, we almost certainly had a drinking problem. This was refreshing, to be treated for my transgressions. To recognize that taking a break from alcohol was probably a good thing for me, and that drinking heavily would only land me back in this same room. For once, I didn’t feel like I was getting special treatment. I was being scolded for doing something terribly wrong. It was enough to put an extra pep in my step when I was getting dressed. To put on that favorite shirt that I hadn’t worn in a three months, and step into Jeremy’s world.