“White privilege!” This term stirs disbelief, ire, and resentment among so many of us whites, often leading to the counter-charge: “Reverse discrimination!” In “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, Hochschild describes the mindset that perceives non-whites “cutting in line” in front of all us hard-working American Dream chasers.
In this post I don’t intend to tackle the questions of privilege at the societal level. Instead, I’ll describe some of what I’ve recognized as I’ve investigated “privilege” in my own life:
Tyrone Jackson and I were born the same year (1944). Our fathers were both WWII veterans.
After the war, my father was eligible for the G.I. Bill. Because of that benefit he was able to buy our first home on incredibly good terms. This allowed him to invest money into his fledgling business.
Tyrone’s dad was also eligible for the G.I. Bill – in theory. But he found that banks would not grant a mortgage to him, a Black man. There was no legal recourse at that time. His only option was to begin pouring money into rent. He had no financial means to develop his dream of opening a service station. He also could not take advantage of the education benefits of the G.I. bill since he needed to earn money immediately to support his family. Besides, historically Black colleges filled quickly, and very few public or private colleges were admitting Black students – again, with legal impunity.
Our fathers both worked incredibly hard. My father built his business and reaped the benefits. Tyrone’s father worked for others, helping build their wealth and his landlord’s wealth, but building no equity.
My father eventually sold that first home at a good profit, moving us into a larger home. That home was eventually sold at a profit to move into another home. When my parents died, I received the benefit of that home’s value, as well as the substantial value of the business my father had built. Tyrone’s father’s estate was minuscule.
My portion of this story is true. Tyrone is a fictitious character. But in reality, there are hundreds of thousands, likely millions of Black children of his era and his circumstances – and millions of white kids like me.
Of the one million African-American men who served in WWII, just 2% were able to actually benefit from the G.I. Bill. This is one example of white privilege. Although the initial benefit to my family occurred nearly 75 years ago, the impact has accrued with interest to the present. This leg up is what eventually enabled me to attend McQuaid, Georgetown and Northwestern. My McQuaid class of 175 students included no African-Americans. Neither my wife nor I can recall any Black (American) kids in our Georgetown class. And I had no Black classmates at Northwestern Business School. White privilege writ large. It’s this privilege that allows me to sit here writing this rather than pulling another shift at WalMart. And the privilege flows to this day through my children and grandchildren. In a parallel way, the deficit flows through to “Tyrone” and his family. So the dismissive claim that “That was a long time ago!” would be a naïve denial of reality.
To bring this privilege idea to the present, here are some of the many examples that I now can recognize:
A Black professional who lives in Brighton never leaves the house even on a simple errand without beings shaved and well-groomed. He’s had too many instances of suspicious looks and police encounters. This is Brighton – arguably the liberal bastion among our suburbs. I, on the other hand, will leave the house with a 3-day beard, crummy jeans and a paint-smeared tee shirt – never been questioned, never been stopped. White privilege.
Another Black friend moved his family from Brighton because of the cold treatment from neighbors. He now lives in Webster, and has taken to putting a baby seat in the back of his car to give the appearance of being a family man (his children are grown) to cut down on the number of times he’s stopped on his way home from work at night. The last time I was stopped by the police was roughly 1988, and I deserved to be stopped. White privilege.
Many Black people have told me of the awkwardness of walking into a business meeting, standing out as the only person of color, and wondering how this difference will play out in the meeting. I tend to walk in with confidence and a sense of belonging, of credibility, of equity. Whatever discomfort I have is due to self-consciousness, not due to my skin color. The more meetings I’ve attended where I am actually a minority, the more I can relate to the awkwardness faced by Black people on a daily basis. White privilege.
This is a small sampling of this dynamic of privilege in my life. The privilege has been there all along. What is shifting is my consciousness.
“What Does It Mean To Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy” Dr. Robin DiAngelo
4-minute video with Dr. Joy DeGruy recounting an example of privilege: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf9QBnPK6Yg
“The Perils of ‘Privilege’: why injustice can’t be solved by accusing others of advantage” Phoebe Maltz Bovy – a counterpoint argument.
Examine your own life – past and present. Identify the accumulated privilege based on history, and the current instances where your whiteness benefits you. Keep in mind this observation from author Robin DiAngelo:
“What about white people who have suffered hardships?”: “It’s not that white people don’t face barriers. What I’m saying is you have not faced this one (racism). And not facing this one has helped you navigate your other ones.”
Initiate conversations about privilege with co-workers, family, friends, including people of color. Be curious. Be vulnerable.
ACT to reduce institutionalized privilege at work, in your neighborhood, town, city. Speak out, advocate, become involved in supporting candidates who will do the same.