That I've had a lot of experience of casual racism doesn't come as much of a surprise given my rural Southern background. I grew up surrounded by pickup trucks festooned with Confederate flag stickers and ''the South will rise again'' slogans. If, when cruising around town after a Friday night football game, you found yourself sitting alone in the backseat of a car someone would inevitably note that you were ''riding nigger.'' Many years after desegregation, the boundaries between the black neighborhood and everywhere else remained rigid.
I had expected, rather naively in retrospect, that such persistent racism wouldn't be an issue as I embedded myself in Washington's gay community. But while I believe LGBT people are less racist than society at large, racism is still there. Over the years, in my own community, I've heard young black men called ''coons,'' Latinos described as ''beaners,'' and gay Asians dismissed as ''chinky twinks.''
Of course, when I say all this is my experience of racism, that's not quite true. It's my experience of seeing racism directed at others. I'm white. I don't endure the daily small reminders that the color of my skin, or the shape of my eyes, or the accent in my voice mark me as different. I'm not shadowed by store clerks when I shop for my clothes. I have no problems hailing cabs. When I'm on the street at night, I'm not automatically perceived as a threat.
I know bringing up the idea of ''white privilege'' makes a lot of white people squirm, if not outright balk at the concept. After all, we want to believe that our lives are products of our own efforts, not the result of some institutional bias in our favor. Given that the privilege we have is primarily a lack of barriers that exist for others, it can be hard for us to see the importance of what isn't there. And being aware of that privilege isn't an encouragement of ''white guilt,'' that shibboleth of certain white people who believe it's somehow brave to say, ''Yes, I feel threatened by young black men in hoodies.''