About 20 years ago I was educated about white privilege. Until then, I was pretty proud of myself. We moved to an urban school district so that my daughter would experience the real world (she speaks Spanish like a native). Throughout my career, I hired mostly people of color. Every year, I required my daughter to accompany me to the Martin Luther King commemorative breakfast.
At one of these breakfasts, twenty years ago, a (white) Unitarian minister gave a speech on what it meant to be white; and everything changed. While there were many examples, some were:
- If I get stopped by a policeman, I probably did something wrong
- If I encounter a policeman, I do not fear for my life
- When I attend a function, I can be assured that most people look like me
- If I behave badly, I don’t represent a group of people, it is just me behaving badly
- If I don’t win the house that I was bidding on, it is because I was outbid (not because I am not wanted in that neighborhood)
The list goes on. But with each item, I realized my accomplishments were launched from an invisible white privilege springboard. And white privilege was something that could be invoked without even knowing it.
Look at the example of the Central Park dog walker. She was illegally walking her dog off leash when a Black American man asked her to put her dog on leash. When she hostilely refused, he began videoing her. She responded by calling the police and falsely accusing an “African American male” of threatening her. It backfired. His post went viral and she lost her job. In her apology, she indicated that she was not racist. I suspect that is correct, it is just that when she needed it, she invoked her white privilege.
One of the most powerful explanations of white privilege was made in a 2017 video about a student race. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to.
Before I understood white privilege, I could point to myself as a success story. While my parents paid tuition (it was inexpensive back then); I worked my way through college and graduate school. I was the first in my family to be awarded a Ph.D. and I worked HARD. I worked 7 days a week, long days that often went until 2 a.m. I was motivated and driven. But I had the heretofore unknown advantage of white privilege. Not in acceptances or scholarships or jobs. I got it from my parents and my culture who taught me that success was through education and hard work. I got it by seeing adults who looked like me (okay, they were men, but the same color) who had used their education to accomplish great things. My parents, relatives and other adults showed me the path to my success.
At the Republican National Convention, there were many stories of Black and Hispanic Americans overcoming odds to be successful. Good for them! But that doesn’t mean that everyone can. (Many had parents who taught them about the value of hard work and education.)
Isabel Wilkerson in her very powerful and painful book, Caste, The Origins of our Discontent, explains why Black Americans grew up not seeing the same path. Jim Crow laws limited any upward mobility. Any job above menial labor was closed to them, even in the North. Where there were opportunities, they were paid less.
It was the Indians who recognized that Blacks had been relegated to the same caste as their Untouchables (now called the Dalits). Like the Untouchables, Black Americans were prohibited from mixing with whites, from marrying outside of their race, were given inferior facilities and education, were required to treat whites with deference, while whites were expected to treat them as inferiors. One legislator stated that their goal was to make sure that “the lowest white person was higher than the highest black person.” Through a reign of terror, such as lynchings, false arrests, and harassment they kept Black Americans in fear. They passed discriminatory laws that prevented Black Americans from being successful. Sadly, the police were called upon to enforce these racist laws.
The Nazis were so impressed by the Jim Crow laws that they implemented some to oppress the Jews. Before the Final Solution, they followed American’s blueprint, taking away job opportunities, wealth, and confining Jews to the ghetto… sound familiar?
I urge you to take the few minutes to watch “the race.” Watch how some of the students saw that it was fruitless to race, other students wanted to win regardless of their advantages, and others tried to be supportive. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4K5fbQ1-zps
There is a phenomenon in Psychology called Learned Helplessness. Learned Helplessness happens when animals or people who continue to be thwarted eventually “give up” and do not see an opportunity even when it is presented to them. In a typical human experiment, participants were exposed to loud, unpleasant noises and told to “press the lever” to stop the sound. Half of the participants had levers that worked and the other half had levers that did not work. All participants in the latter group gave up pressing the lever; even when they were given a second session (and the lever worked). The participants had learned that it didn’t matter what they did, so they quit trying.
Imagine what it is like to be told that it doesn’t matter what you do, you will be treated differently, not only from your experience but by your parents’ experiences and their parents’ experiences. Despite the elimination of Jim Crow laws, ubiquitous cell phones capture discrimination and harassment against Black Americans even today.
I am impressed by anyone who can “make it” through the system. But we must remember that we can only build ourselves up by our bootstraps if we are given boots.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.