Okay, I’ll say it, I think most of the narrative to explain white privilege is poorly done. And in most situations, when communication doesn’t occur, we blame the person trying to communicate, but that doesn’t happen here.

Now, before we go further, let me also say that white privilege is a real thing. But it’s also complicated, it’s easily conflated with class privilege, and honestly, most of the white people trying to explain it, just don’t do a very good job.

As a side note, if you want a great elucidation of the distinction between white privilege and class privilege, I highly recommend similarly labeled chapters in the book How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Recently I signed up for a four-week course on the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. The course was taught by a group that claimed to be experts on the subject.

I read DiAngelo’s book shortly after it was published, and I felt that I had learned a lot from its contents. But when the course was offered, I thought, what the heck, let’s see what more I can learn when there is an instructor teaching the course and I can step into the student role for a change.

When we got to the point where the instructor told his story about his coming to terms with his privilege, I think I pretty much lost all respect for the guy and his understanding of the issue.

He explained how he grew up in a “middle class” family and his dad had a “blue collar” job. More on both of these statements in a moment! He then went on to talk about how the founder of the company where his dad worked gave said they were too good to be living in their second floor apartment and so he gave them the money for the down payment on a house. That house had a garage so they “had to buy a car to fill that garage.” As another side note, this was in the mid 50’s to early 60’s when 22% of households didn’t even own a vehicle.

He talked about his family vacations, how his family moved around to work for different companies this guy’s boss owned. Sometimes he had Black friends growing up, and sometimes he didn’t

He talked about how when it was time for college, his parents paid his tuition. They also paid his tuition for grad school. However, he expressed his hardship of coming to terms with the fact that the college where he went to grad school was over 100 years old and the founders all had a rather positive position on slavery (at the time).

Then his parents gave him the money for a down payment on his first house.

In summary, nice house growing up, garage (by the way, fewer than half the middle-class houses at the time had a garage), vacations, two degrees (at a time when only about 11% of adults had one degree) with no college debt, and his parents paid for the down payment on his first house. Oh, and by the way, when his dad did work at a plant he actually had an office job and that is why the boss knew him and why he continued to get transferred to other sites. It wasn’t a blue-collar job. It was a white-collar job at a blue-collar company.

I enjoyed hearing this guy’s story – he was an entertaining storyteller. But then, at the end of his story, he pauses and says rather prophetically:

“and later…I realized…that I had enjoyed privilege because I am white.”

ARE YOU F’ING KIDDING ME? This was a course taught through Zoom and I about fell out of my damn chair.

I grew up with a bunch of white people and he just described privilege well beyond the most affluent white family I knew. This guy had A LOT of privilege and some of that privilege was also white privilege.

However, when I talk with a lot of white people I know, their dads didn’t have a benevolent boss to give them the down payment on their first house.

They had to work their ass off to go to school; then they had to pay off that debt. And many didn’t want to take on that debt, so they went to work. They did real blue-collar jobs, not the office jobs associated with the same.

Then they had to rent an apartment while they saved up money for the down payment on their first house.

But, here’s the thing. There is white privilege in their stories too. And that’s what’s important here and where the “white privilege” narrative should be better.

See, it gets complicated because when you work those blue-collar jobs, sometimes you have to go to the bank in your work clothes and people look at you poorly. They look down on you because you don’t look like you belong in a bank. It doesn’t feel good.

Your family probably didn’t go on vacation. A lot of people I know grew up buying generic items from the grocery. Oh, and don’t get me started about the food you used to be able to get from salvage stores.

Maybe you were abused by a parent. I know a lot of people who had some pretty F’ed up childhoods and they argue with me about the idea of white privilege. I get it, believe me.

If you are like me, you probably started working at a young age. Because, you know, allowance wasn’t a thing I ever experienced. So it was cutting lawns since I my early teens, working at the fruit market in the summers, I sold newspapers starting at 14 or 15 and then started working a “real job” when I turned 16. My real job being that I was a busboy at a pretty nice Italian restaurant and I worked that job until I graduated high school.

But here’s the thing. When I applied for those jobs my name sounded pretty white. When I showed up to meet the manager my whiteness was confirmed. Yes, I had to work hard, and believe me, I busted my ass trying to prove I was better than my redneck roots. I am sure you worked hard too. But I bet there weren’t any (or were very few) black people working alongside of you at those places. That is the situation for most white people I know.

Now, don’t answer this next part right away. This answer only matters if you think about it. Why do you suppose there were so few black co-workers? I mean, did no black person apply for those jobs?

Or do you think that maybe when the black people applied they weren’t hired. Or maybe they weren’t retained. Why is that? Do you think only white people work hard? It just doesn’t make sense.

So the privilege wasn’t around how hard you or I worked, but about the original opportunity that we received.

And what about going into the bank in your uniform? People may have looked down on you because they thought you were poor, but they probably didn’t think you “were up to no good” or that you were going to steal something? Were you followed around in the store as a white teenager because someone thought you were a thief based on your skin color?

Oh and here’s another question for you. How old were you when you realized you were white? For most Black people I know it was a very young age. Sometimes as early as 5, 6 or 7 years old. Can you imagine being six years old and having one of your classmates call you the N-word?

I’ve been called a lot of things over the years, but I truly can’t imagine that.

So, for me, white privilege doesn’t mean that you led an easy life. It doesn’t mean that things were easy. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t have to work hard. And it doesn’t mean that when you did work hard, that someone still didn’t bust your ass. It just means, that when you take all of the things you had to deal with and put them on a list, one of the things not on that list is the color of your skin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *