I have read that because I am white, I am privileged. This idea was just beginning to percolate in higher education when I was doing my Masters in Critical Theory, but it wasn’t yet clearly articulated and thus I didn’t get brainwashed into believing that being white was a privilege I was born with.
I loved the work I did in my Masters program. We focused on the “Other” and how the other was, and is, marginalized in various cultures, particularly in relation to conquest. We studied the power structures of ideology, and narrative control. By the end though, I was frustrated. I felt like all we did was read and deconstruct stories and ideas, but nothing we talked about changed anything in the world outside the university walls. Finally I asked one of my professors how any of this elitist work would effect change. She basically answered that it rolls down eventually.
Now more than twenty years later I see that she was right. All those philosophers, whose works are impenetrable to those with average vocabularies, have been crafted into narratives that can be spoon-fed to the masses. A lot of good has come from that; Fair Trade products, GBLT freedoms and rights, the end of Apartheid, and an overall understanding that human rights matter, just to name a few.
But with this explosion of important ideas has come a progressive message that includes the narrative that whites (in the USA at least) are privileged. In the past year or so I have been inundated with this idea in FB comment threads, blog posts, and cable news. Friends of mine throw it around apologetically, treating it like an ugly family secret that is finally out. And honestly, I just can’t buy into it.
Cue the eye rolls, disgusted sighs, and angry huffing... but I have never experienced privilege for being white. I may have gotten a few perks (or out of a few tickets) for being young, female, and beautiful (and part time rich —explained below) but that is about it. I grew up with a working poor mom and was treated like white trash all through school. I got into college on my grades, awards, and scholarships. I failed out for not trying hard enough, then went back and got good grades based on my work, not my skin color. I took a third-shift, entry level job at a bank just to get health insurance. I worked my way up on skills and effort, not skin color. When I moved to my first really good job, my hiring manager was African American. I don’t think she hired me because I am white. I worked hard for her and she threw opportunities my way. I married an average white boy who wasn’t very privileged either. Together we built a life with enough kids to force me into the role of SAHM thus cementing our place as part of the Working Poor.
What I learned throughout my life about privilege is that it comes with lots of money, fame or position, no matter what your skin color is. Ask Jay-Z & Beyoncé, or Oprah, or President Obama’s kids. Or ask me when I was visiting my Dad’s house as a teenager. My dad came from immigrants, struggled through college, worked his butt off, and built a company. Compared to the neighbors in his town, he was the rich guy and so I was the rich kid. And all the people there treated the pretty little rich girl like she was privileged. Imagine that: white trash in one world, rich girl in another... same white skin.
I am not saying that there are no situations where a person who was white was treated better or different than a person who was not, and our justice system is a good reflection of that. But I do maintain that I don’t owe anything to being white, and I am not going to accept some sort of shame or debt for it either. As a human, my moral and civic duty is to treat all people (regardless of skin color) with respect and an initial assumption of individuality & inherent goodness, and to raise my children to do likewise.
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