Though I am as Southern as they come, I can tell anyone, with complete honesty, that I do not judge people by the color of their skin. I've never viewed myself as a white human, or someone else as a black human. My model of reality only accommodates "human," full stop.
For a long time I was proud of this. So proud, in fact, that I would sometimes tell my black friends about my highly sophisticated understanding of race. I was certain that over time, more and more white people would wake up and view the world like I do, then we'd be a post-racial society. One day, Martin Luther King's Dream would be Reality.
That was really stupid.
You see, you can only ignore race if society allows you to. I am an affluent white male, and society will pretty much let me do anything I damn well please as long as I don't harm other affluent white males or their possessions. What my black friends wouldn't tell me was they couldn't just view themselves as human. The world constantly reminded them they were black, but they didn't have the heart to shatter my idealism with words.
Instead, they showed me. They'd take me shopping, and I'd be shocked and confused that security would follow them around the department store, or the gas station. Or we'd walk down a city street at night, and a police office would look at me and ask if everything was alright. Not ask us, but ask me.
I wish I could say that this only happened in the Southeast, but I've watched my black friends have opposite experiences in identical locations all over the country–even California. It's not just my black friends, all my non-white friends have different experiences than I do.
I am "just a human being", but they are a race first. They can't "just drop the labels," because they can't put their hands in their pockets at a gas station without raising suspicions about shoplifting. My middle class black friends can't have their other friends of color visit them in their affluent neighborhoods unescorted or the police will get a call from a concerned neighbor.
These are the stories I've seen in my own life, but there are many others. Take a few minutes and read the #alivewhileblack conversation on Twitter, and you'll see that America isn't the same for non-white Americans.
We all bear the strain of being boxed in by stereotypes and generalizations–including affluent white males. Positive stereotypes have their own burden, just ask an Asian American who's not any good at math or a gay man with no fashion sense. But these burdens don't have life or death implications.
The systematic racism of American institutions does have life or death implications. The stories of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have brought the different experiences of white and black Americans when dealing with law enforcement to stark relief. Though the case of Michael Brown is wrought with confusion and controversy, Eric Garner's situation is less ambiguous: a peaceful father was harassed and then strangled to death on the street. A grand jury chose not to take that case to a trial.
I can't imagine the same decision would have been made if Eric Garner was white.
Likewise, I have no doubt that I'd have recourse if I felt harassed by a police officer–and God help any police department that gunned me down or otherwise ended my life in the street. Public outcry would be deafening if I were to die at the hands of law enforcement without offering a clear threat. I'm a successful, affluent white man with no criminal history.