Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whose Privilege?

I remember the first time I heard the term white privilege. It was at a faculty in-service about diversity, back when I was still a teacher. I also remember my reaction when I first heard it:

It was a load of crap, because I was quite certain it was something else.

I had what I thought was a fairly middle-class upbringing. I knew people who had less money than we did and I knew people who had more money than we did. That meant that we were in the middle. We grew up in a two-family house with a dark and dusty cellar that had a coal furnace in it; but I also knew people who lived in single-family houses with finished basements.

We weren’t rich, but we didn’t want for anything, and had nothing to complain about. When we wanted bikes, we got them. When we wanted electric guitars, we got them. There were three TVs in our house: one in the living room, one in my sister’s room, and one in my room. That way we never had to fight over who got to watch what. We knew people who were teachers (a lot of teachers), lawyers, doctors, hairdressers, autoworkers, accountants, carpenters, retired military veterans, and who knows what all else. I had friends with swimming pools in their yards, and friends who had ponies at their birthday parties. There was one set of friends who had a large house out by the lake, and they hosted a cookout every year that brought in old friends from miles around.

All of these people were black. And all of these people instilled in us the idea that we could do anything we wanted…after all, just look at them. Yes, I knew there was prejudice out there, but big deal. These people succeeded, and so could I, if I had the right skills and a little bit of luck.

And because I knew I was middle class, and could succeed at anything I put my mind to, I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone.

But this wasn’t true for everyone.

I had a friend who didn’t feel the same confidence to succeed at whatever they tried at that the people I grew up with did, and who was always afraid of being found out to be “an impostor.” This friend’s family came from a working-class background, and when they made it to the middle class, and moved to the suburbs, it was total culture shock for her. She was always feeling that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t fit in, that she had to prove herself to everyone. Ironically, her family had more money than mine did, but she was comparing herself to a different batch of people than I was.

By comparing herself to what Elton John would call “sons of bankers, sons of lawyers,” she felt like she was poor and at a disadvantage to everyone else.

Even though she was white.

The thing was that I felt that I had more advantage than she did because I compared myself to different people. She was comparing herself to what I considered to be rich people…people that I felt it was pointless for me to compare myself to. And yet, because these were the people she grew up around…people with a few more advantages out the gate than she had, she felt that she was at the bottom of the pile. And when you feel that you’re at the bottom of the pile, it doesn’t matter whether or not you really are.

Similarly, when you feel that you’re middle-class, with all the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, or purple. If you feel it, you own it, have the self-confidence that goes with it, and are able to make things happen for yourself.

Based on how I now see white privilege defined, it’s undeniable that she had it. But no one defined it that way back then. In many very real terms, I did have more privilege than she did. And I did because I saw myself as being solidly middle-class, with no need to worry about what anyone else thought of me.

I had middle-class privilege.

And that’s a priceless thing that many people with so-called white privilege don’t have.

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