Privilege and Not Sidney Poitier

Recently for my Sociology 100 class I read an excerpt from an article titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. This article includes a list of advantages that McIntosh found she received in her own life, as a white woman, simply because of her race. Some of the advantages she listed were “Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. If a traffic cop pulls me over or an IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.” As I read through this list of privileges it reminded me of the challenges that Not Sidney faces in Percival Everett’s I am Not Sidney Poitier. Throughout the novel, Not Sidney constantly experiences skepticism and injustice because of his dark skin color. After reading McIntosh’s article I thought about how different the story would be if Not Sidney had been a white character.

According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms privilege, used as an adjective is “the special status accorded to certain persons, works, ideas, or forms of expression by a given culture.” Privilege is, therefore, unearned and exclusive to a specific group based on societal values. The example The Bedford gives is that in the United States television is privileged over radio and the individual is privileged over the group. In her article McIntosh states, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.” In I am Not Sidney Poitier, Everett makes the reader aware of privilege through the racism that Not Sidney encounters.

 On November 11th my classmate, Amanda Neri drew attention to many different examples of Not Sidney experiencing unfair treatment due to his skin color in her blog post titled Another World. One example that is particularly striking is when Not Sidney is pulled over leaving Atlanta to travel to Los Angeles. As Neri summarizes in her post, the officer curses, uses racial slurs, and arrests Not Sidney for essentially no other reason than being African American. This scene showcases blatant discrimination based on racial prejudice. Later in the novel, Not Sidney is chained to Patrice, a white convict and must work together with him to escape the police. The men discuss why they were each arrested and Patrice reveals that he drove his car into his girlfriend’s house for cheating on him. When Patrice asks Not Sidney why he was arrested, Not Sidney says, “apparently it’s illegal to be black in Peckerwood county” and Patrice replies “If it ain’t, it oughta be.” This interaction where Patrice sees nothing wrong with an innocent black man being convicted for his skin color cannot be overlooked. It is an example of blatant racism and injustice.

This is not the only instance where Not Sidney is unjustly arrested. It happens again in Alabama, when an officer uses racial slurs and accuses him of murder. When asked by the chief if he questioned Not Sidney the officer responds “No sir. But I ain’t never seen this boy before and he had all this money stuck down in his pocket.” The officer admits to having no real grounds for arresting Not Sidney which makes it evident that it was once again due to his race. When it is proven that Not Sidney is innocent, he is released and calls for Professor Everett and Ted Turner to meet him in Alabama. When Everett arrives, he is accused of murder by the same officer, showing once again a black character being arrested due to his race. While Everett and Turner arrive at nearly the same time Turner, a white man, is never questioned, accused, or arrested.

 This scene provides evidence for Turner’s white privilege. If Not Sidney had been a white character, it is highly unlikely that he would have been stopped or questioned by the police in either scene. This also draws attention to the currently large issue of mass incarceration in America. Evidence has shown a disproportionately large number of African Americans in prisons. According to a Washington Post article “By the age of 14, approximately 25 percent of African American children have experienced a parent — in most cases a father — being imprisoned for some period of time.” In the article it also states, “A growing share of African Americans have been arrested for drug crimes, yet African Americans are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs.” Additionally, for my sociology class we watched a video from The Atlantic discussing how the “United States has chosen the response of the deprivation of liberty for a historically aggrieved group.” Through his novel Everett draws attention to racial discrimination in law enforcement and the effects of white privilege, which ultimately are the fuel to this current issue in America. His use of racial slurs and blatant prejudice in the police officer characters make these scenes stand out. Although the novel is fictitious it demonstrates how harmful unjust accusations can be.

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