Sunday, August 29, 2010

I work hard for my money!

All this talk about white privilege might have some thinking, "Sheesh. I'm white, and I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I've worked hard for everything I have!" I'd have to say, yes, of course, hard work is important, and I'm all for it. But I'd also like to point out that, if we're white, we probably don't have to look too far beneath the surface to see how white privilege forms the foundation of the lives we built with hard work.

I'll use myself as an example. My grandparents came from Italy, struggled through the Depression, and, through hard work, scraped together enough money to buy a house. Although there was some prejudice towards Italians in those days, they made it into the white club pretty early on, and my grandparents were allowed access to a middle-class, white neighborhood. (This is important, because as my grandparents were buying their house, people of color were being systematically kept out of white neighborhoods through the government-approved practice of redlining.)

Enter, my parents. My father never graduated from high school, and worked at a printing company his whole life, earning very little. My mother stayed home with the kids (there were five of us) until we were all in school, and then worked as a caregiver for children and the elderly. Although they worked hard for their money, they would never have been able to afford our middle-class neighborhood if not for the fact that we lived upstairs from my grandparents in a two-family house, paying very little rent. (The same scenario holds true for my husband's parents.) When my grandparents died, my parents received a small inheritance that they used to pay off my father's gambling debt (interesting to wonder what might have happened to him, and to us, had that money not been there) and as a down payment on their own home, which they bought for $21,000 and sold twenty-five years later for $220,000. So, because my grandparents benefited from their whiteness long before I was born, I grew up in a safe neighborhood, received a good education at the good schools in that neighborhood, and had a financial safety net in my parents if needed.

So I've worked hard for my money, yes. But without my realizing it, my whiteness was working, too.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

White Privilege, Part II

Any conversation about white privilege has to start with Peggy McIntosh's essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." McIntosh says it so well -- she describes white privilege as "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks." She lists the everyday benefits of being white -- the big things and the little things. Read it for yourself at

I know I had never thought of any of this before I read this essay for the first time, and that's the thing about white privilege. It's invisible to those of us who benefit from it. I didn't have to think about race because, well, I'm white. I don't really have a race. I'm just regular, which means that, for me, everyone else is irregular. I never thought those words consciously, of course – it’s just an unstated (invisible) way of looking at the world.

Here’s an example. Last year there were two scary incidents at my son’s school involving possible “stranger danger.” Here’s how they were described on the school website (I’ve removed names of streets and school district):

Incident 1: A Hispanic man driving a silver two door Honda or Nissan approached a group of students requesting they get in his car. They wisely refused, however even after the refusal the vehicle followed them for some time. A police report has been filed.

Incident 2: While a group of students were throwing a shot put at the track, a red vehicle stopped in the turning lane and began taking pictures of them. A police report has been filed.

What do you notice? The person in incident 1 was clearly described as Hispanic. Incident 2? Apparently the car was taking the pictures. I happen to know that the man in the car was white, because my son was one of the kids throwing shot put who reported it, and he clearly stated that the guy was white. Yet that didn’t make it into the report, because in this mostly white school district, whiteness is assumed. Obviously, there’s a lot more to this topic than this, but it’s a small example of how one aspect of white privilege operates.

Maybe you’re thinking, hey, I’m not privileged! I’ve worked hard for everything I have! More on that in next week’s blog.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What is White Privilege, Anyway?

(If you're like me you don't read long blogs. For the point, skip to fourth paragraph below.)

On July 22, Senator James Webb (Democrat) published an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal titled, "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege." In essence, Senator Webb seems to be saying that yes, slavery was bad, and that the civil rights movement and affirmative action were at one time necessary. But that's all over now and anyway, recent immigrants didn't suffer at the hands of the American government like African American slaves did, and so they should not benefit from governmental diversity policies that take the focus off African Americans (divide and conquer strategy here?) and ultimately hurt whites (especially from the South). Whew!

Far more adroit bloggers than I have commented on Senator Webb's article. Read it for yourself if you want at

Some of Senator Webb's statistics are a little old (1974), and his comparisons of groups are questionable. But here's what jumped out at me -- what is white privilege, anyway? Even if I agreed with Senator Webb's assertions (which I don't), I could point out that white privilege involves more than employment and education stats. What about all the little, immeasurable benefits that I receive every day simply because I'm white?

Here's an example. I went apartment-hunting with my daughter last week. We saw two apartments -- both in houses in residential, white neighborhoods. Both landlords were friendly and anxious to have us sign on the dotted line. Both shared the same basic sentiment -- "We want the right person in here. We want someone we can trust. We don't want any riffraff" (actual word used). Apparently, my daughter was the right person; one landlord even called her later to lower the rent. What made us so right? They knew nothing about us -- not income, not employment, not education. They did not ask for references. They certainly have not seen how my daughter keeps her room. But they did know one thing for sure. We're white, and evidently that's enough. We all know that racial discrimination in housing is illegal. I also know that, as usual, our whiteness worked in our favor last week. That's white privilege.