On Reading Coates's "Letter to My Son"

by Katie Dulaney

My white privilege is in not knowing how to respond to this article. Every point of relation that I have considered writing about seems ridiculous by comparison. I want to understand, but I can only imagine. I have only walked through this world with a white body.

It’s true—at times, having a female body has made me fear for my safety. I have been cornered on runs. Honked at. Yelled at. Followed. In my first job interview, I was asked whether or not I was single. The boss threw my résumé on his desk without a second glance and told me I was cute. I was holding out for qualified.

It’s also true that I have experienced feeling like my body was beyond my control. As a teenager, I had melanoma. I was a minor and my mom would come with me for every doctor’s appointment that was connected to the cancer. She had a notepad and she took notes on everything the doctors said. I understood it. I was grateful. But whenever a decision had to be made—biopsy? surgery? second opinion?—the doctors would look to my mom instead of me. Legally, she made the decisions. Never have I felt such loss of control. In the end, we always agreed on the decisions, but my body was mine. I wanted to speak for it. Always. First. Whether I was fourteen or thirty-four.

But these experiences only allow me to imagine because my female and scarred body is white. Police officers have typically made my body feel secure, not threatened. I have always trusted that if someone were to harm my body, that person would be held accountable and justice would be served. The voice that comes forth from my body has been respected, listened to, and taken seriously. I don’t have to code-switch when I move between the different spheres of my life. If my body knows generational trauma, it’s not trauma that I’m directly familiar with. Nowhere in my family’s stories have I heard of physical violence. Popular culture showcases bodies that look like mine all the time—I see myself on TV, in music videos, on commercials, and in magazines. When I go shopping, I am not followed or consistently asked by the sales clerk if he can help me. My body is not assumed dangerous just because I wear a hood, or buy a pack of cigarettes, or walk with my hands in my pockets.

As a kid, I’d sometimes cry when I’d think about death, imagining what life would be like when the bodies I loved most no longer existed. I never thought that those bodies would die prematurely, though—and if they did, it would only be from natural causes. And when I cried, my parents felt no qualms over comforting me. My tears were not a training ground. I was always told it would be okay.

Katie Dulaney is a native North Carolinian, and a graduate of Columbia University and UNC-Chapel Hill. A fifth-year teacher, she currently teaches US History to eighth graders at The Franklin School of Innovation. She is interested in rural education policy, civic education, and the democratic purposes of public schooling.

About On Reading Coates’s “Letter to My Son”—This piece is an investigation of my white privilege and a response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “A Letter to My Son,” published in The Atlantic, July, 2015.