I passed these stairs on my daily walk today while thinking about the state of our nation. Suddenly it struck me that they represent what I, and so many other people, are feeling about racism in America right now. We are stuck on a stairway that’s going nowhere. I am not a historian, a professor, a politician or an expert in race relations. I am just a average person living each day in the best way I know how, raising my girls to be the best they can be, and trying to learn from my mistakes as I work at being a wife, mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, and citizen of our great country. I also happen to have been born of parents with German and Scottish decent, so I’m considered a white woman. Does being white really mean I am treated better than someone with a different skin color? Is the concept of “white privilege” just a myth perpetuated by those with an agenda to further divide us and keep us fighting with one another?
Let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about what this concept of white privilege really means. Because I am white, I don’t have to care about black issues. I get to decide if and how much I want to pay attention to Black Lives Matter. I am in the protected class of people in the U.S. who have the option of choosing to turn off the news, switch on Netflix, and ignore the violence that has been going on for centuries in the black community. Being white means I have the luxury of pretending none of these “black issues” apply to me because I can still smile my way through a traffic stop or play the sympathy card when my car breaks down on the side of the road. I know that I will always be given a pass and that my white children will be accepted by society based solely on their skin color. As a woman growing up in the South, I was taught by example how to “get by” using my feminine looks and my white privilege. Of course it was never labeled as such, but every native of the South knows these unspoken rules. Anyone who says that they don’t is either lying to you or themselves.
If you are confused about what white privilege looks like, keep reading.
Once I had to bail a boyfriend out of jail. I had been up all night worried about him and got lost trying to find the right courtroom. A bailiff helped me find my way. He happened to be white. He offered me a tissue when I started crying because I was afraid my then-boyfriend would go to prison. The judge, also a white male, asked who was here to speak for my boyfriend. The bailiff spoke to the judge and motioned towards me, smiling. The judge set a low bail amount, which was not typical of the type of crime my boyfriend was charged with. One could argue that this could all be coincidence, but it didn’t seem like it to me. At the time, however, I didn’t care. I was glad I was perceived as a sweet little white girl because it worked to my advantage. This is what what white privilege looks like.
When I was much younger, I was hired to work as a hostess in the dining room at a prestigious retirement community. The first week there, I noticed that I was the only white person working in the cafeteria other than my boss. All of the kitchen staff were black and hidden in the kitchen or behind the food line. I was put out front to greet the retired residents, who were predominately white. After working there for a year, I was approached by someone in the front office and offered a job in bookkeeping — though I was only nineteen years old, had no college degree and absolutely no experience at all in office work. The housekeepers, janitors, and cooks were all black. Following this line of thought, it goes without saying that all of the administrative staff members were white. Every.Single.One.Of.Them. In the five years I was employed there, this silent unacknowledged job segregation continued and I imagine it is probably still the status quo. This is what white privilege looks like.
And then there was the time one of the (white) residents paced up and down the hallway of the retirement home yelling indignantly for her “nigger girl” to come and walk her to the dining room. The “nigger” she was referring to was a twenty year old college student who was hired by the woman’s family to help her with daily activities. Not a single person in administration spoke up to correct the elderly resident, myself included. Being white and choosing not to speak out when faced with blatant racism — This is what white privilege looks like.
Today I read the Facebook status of a friend, who is black, that described the palpable fear and tension she feels for herself and her beautiful children when around white police officers. She instinctively pulls her babies in closer to her now when white uniformed officers pass by them in a public setting. This is a fear I have not had to face for myself or my family. I’ve always told my girls to trust the police because they are here to protect us. We’ve read books about Officer Friendly and discussed how he will help them if they feel unsafe. This is what white privilege looks like.
In an online group, another friend of mine (who is white) confessed to being raised by racist parents and taught to hate black people. This friend has made conscious efforts in adulthood to turn away from her racist childhood and is by all accounts a loving, accepting and open minded person who is raising her children to embrace all humans equally. However, she said it is an ongoing mental battle for her to push the unwanted automatic racist reactions out of her mind that were programmed into her head during her formative years. My dad was from Kentucky and though he paid lip service to the idea that race didn’t matter, I still remember the time he called someone (black) a “nigger” when they cut him off in traffic. This is the stuff white privilege is made of, folks.
It is the unspoken, unacknowledged, unbidden thoughts and actions that make up our daily choices. It is the words we refuse to say aloud when we witness injustices, the tension we feel but never dare to point out, and all the times the tiny voice in our heads whispers to us with relief, “Whew, at least I don’t have to worry about X,Y, Z. That’s only a problem for black people.”
This brings me back to the original question: Is white privilege really a myth?
To which I counter: Was Hitler’s antisemitism a myth?
Perhaps more than ever before, we white people need to hear these words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984):
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
If we continue to hide behind our umbrella of white privilege, then we should not be surprised when one day there is no one to speak out for us. We are all people, regardless of skin color. We must learn to face the horrible honest truths that we’ve allowed to dominate our subconscious minds and prevent us from doing the necessary hard work to change this culture of racism in America. We are not special because we are white. We are special because we are people, bound to one another by compassion and humanity and love.
What are your thoughts? Do you think white privilege exists? If so, how has it impacted your life and those that you love? Please let your voice be heard in the comment section below. Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts.