White Privilege? Me? No Way!

When I first started hearing the term “white privilege” get thrown around, I seriously thought they had to be talking about someone other than myself. I mean, seriously, I’m white but I have never thought of myself as privileged.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood of St. Paul in the 70s. I knew everything there was to know about government cheese, food stamps and free lunch. My mom was a single mom who didn’t work. Then, the landlord raised our rent to $75 a month and she couldn’t afford it.

We went on Section 8 housing, were forced to move to the suburbs, and I was in a huge apartment complex with all of the other “poor” people – but I went to a well-off school. I was the only high schooler who actually rode the school bus, I worked tons of hours at McDonalds to help with bills and I still had to have my free lunch card punched in front of my classmates. There was no way I had ever experienced “White Privilege.”

Or so I thought…

I guess with age comes wisdom (along with gray hairs and restless sleep) and I now understand that simply by the color of my skin, I have lived with white privilege my entire life. I have never experienced fear when being pulled over by a policeman. I never have to think, “Will he make a snap judgment about me?” Nope, I look pretty “safe” and unassuming. I’ve never experienced the humiliation of walking into a store to simply browse, only to have a store clerk never take her eyes off me. I’ve never come upon someone else walking on the street toward me, only to have them go to the other side to walk with fear in their eyes that perhaps I might harm them.

And yes, I will admit, I’ve given “white privilege” to others as well. I’m from a multi-racial family, so you’d think I’d know better – but I live in a society where we judge others based upon the news we read, the Facebook posts that splatter our computer screen, and the coffee talk at our work places. I’ve made a point to go to a white cashier because I’ve felt I’ll understand her language better. I’ve locked my car doors when seeing the residents of a not-known-to-me neighborhood look “rough” and “dangerous.” I’ve justified these things in my head. “I’m looking out for my safety.” Or “I’m just not comfortable with that type of person and I’ll make them uncomfortable with my awkwardness.” Does this make me a bad person? No. But could I be a better person? Yes!

So, now I challenge myself when I see someone who doesn’t fit into my comfort zone. I make a point to not make snap judgments. I smile and say hello. And you know what? They always return that smile.

And, I’m teaching my daughter about White Privilege, how to be on the lookout for it, and how to stand up for those who are hurt by it. I’m teaching her that, as a white person, we have to talk to other white people because I think/hope/pray, they might listen to us. They won’t have bias already built in against us. It can be scary because, honestly, I believe most white people do not yet believe they have privilege.

Sometimes the only positive thing I can see coming out of some of the horrific news stories about people like Philando Castile, is that maybe it’ll get us talking and realizing that it’s true, as a society, we still treat people with different shades of skin differently. And maybe, we’ll begin to strive toward erasing that long-standing white privilege.

Will you join me in accepting your white privilege for what it is? Just like many recovery programs, the first step is admitting there is a problem. Then you can work on repairing the damage.