File this under “Things I wanted to say, but couldn’t because I was a pastor of a parish.”
But, actually, now being out of a parish, I wonder if it should really be filed under “Things you need to say as a pastor of a parish.”
The title is sarcastic, by the way.
Because it’s not “cool,” right, or what have you to be able to pretend white privilege is not a thing. It’s actually a…wait for it…sign of privilege. That very privilege you’re trying to pretend isn’t real is what allows you to pretend, with some ignorant success, it isn’t real.
We were sitting at a bar. The meeting had been called because I’d been saying things from the pulpit that caused him to squirm.
He bought the first beer, which I was grateful for. And I genuinely did like him, and continue to, despite the conversation.
“You’ve used this term recently,” he said three sips in, “‘white privilege.’ What is that?”
He looked at me as he took another sip.
“Well, it’s the inconvenient truth that you, as a white person, and a white male in particular, were born with a certain backpack of goods that set you up for success in life, not by your own doing, because our culture is biased toward people who look like you and me.”
It was the Cliff’s Notes version, but I had yet to take a sip and knew we’d probably need another round. I stopped and took a drink.
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “I was born poor. I worked hard for my money. I was the first in my family to go to college. I don’t think I had a very good backpack,” he said.
“Well, you certainly had obstacles. White privilege doesn’t mean that white people, especially economically depressed white people, don’t have obstacles. It just means that, despite your obstacles, you had a leg up.” I took a big drink.
“Nope,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “Tell me, when you apply to a job, what does the application say your name is?”
<he said his name>
“Now,” I said, “did you know that your name, as compared to a name that is more non-traditional…a name distinctly not white by culture <looking at you Karen and Chad>, is more likely to be read and full and hired? Just by the name. That’s white privilege.”
“My boys,” he said brushing past my example, “had <he looks around and lowers his voice> black friends all through school. They’d come over to our house. They were the same; no difference.”
Pro-tip: if you lower your voice when speaking about a different ethnicity or culture, you’re probably participating in subconscious racism.
Ok, back to the story…
“Did you ever ask them?” I inquired.
“Did you ever ask them about their experience? Or is this just what you observed? Did you ever ask them how many times they’ve been pulled over? Or followed in a store? Or passed over for a promotion? Or had athletics shoved in their face because it was lifted as the only legit way they’d get into a school? Did you ever ask them?”
Well, no…” he said honestly.
“Then I don’t think you really know about their experience. You get the privilege of pretending their experience is the same as yours because your frame is the one all other pictures have to fit in. That’s white privilege. And yes, you had some challenges, and your whiteness helped you overcome them. They don’t have that leg up. It’s just true.”
Beer was gone. I ordered the next.
“I still don’t buy it…”
“When I was teaching in Chicago, a lot of my kid’s parents drove very nice cars. They had little money, but nice cars with huge lease payments. Know what one of them told me about that? They said they did that so that people like me would take them seriously. Now, know what I drove? A beat up Honda with two missing hubcaps that I never replaced because, why bother? I never once thought I’d have to do anything to be taken seriously. And I never thought that because my status as a white male just afforded me that luxury no matter what car I drove…”
“They didn’t have to do that,” he said. “That’s irresponsible.”
“Easy for you to say,” I said, emboldened a bit by the beer, “because you’ve never had to fight for legitimacy on an uneven playing field.”
He shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”
“My Philosophy teacher in college once said, after a long discussion, ‘Tim…I cant force you to see the truth.'” I smiled.
But I was serious.
“I’m going to keep talking about it,” I said.
He nodded, though I knew he wouldn’t stay in the pews if I did.
I did. And he didn’t. And there we are.
I guess it’s part of the privilege to just go somewhere else and not have to be reminded of it.
I met a girl many years ago who was a writer, just like me. She was raised in a middle class family, like me. Her parents were educated, like mine were. She attended the best schools, like me. She went to a well known and respected college, just like I did. She dressed well and was literate, like me. We were not rich, either of us, we did not wear diamonds and furs; we were both middle class, and our parents took great pains to bring us up well, to tell us not to go out of the house in pajamas 🙂 and to get educations.
Here’s the deal: when I went into a store, I was able to browse and buy, or to simply browse with no interference–but NOT her. You see, my friend is black. I am white. “So what?” you say. I used to say the same thing, and having black friends, white friends, Philippino friends, lesbian and gay friends, this, for me, is still a “So what?” But not for everyone.
I went shopping with my friend one day, my black friend, early in our friendship. We’d been talking and laughing, having a wonderful day, but once we entered the store, she became quiet. She kept her hands visible. She touched nothing. I wondered about this, asked her if she was feeling okay. She responded with a very clipped, “I’m fine.” I didn’t believe her, but I thought I better ask her again when we had more privacy because she seemed to have drawn into herself and I thought maybe she was uncomfortable about discussing a problem in public.
Soon, we entered a very narrow aisle in the store where pillows were displayed. I picked one up and examined it, but she remained still and quiet. Suddenly, a store employee was crunched in the aisle, fluffing pillows that did not need fluffing. My friend and I moved to another cramped aisle, and the store employee followed and began setting perfectly set pieces straighter on the shelves. She was in our way and I asked politely if she could do that later–she ignored me and continued. So my friend left the aisle, moved into the next without a word to me, and the store employee followed. I followed them both. My friend then quickly left the store, tears streaming down her face. I ran after her, and she snapped, “They announce ‘Clean up in aisle four,’ why not just add ‘N****r in aisle four’ ?” I told her that, no, that wasn’t what had been happening. She kept crying, “Yes, that was what was happening. We were being followed almost as soon as we entered the store.” No, I said, that couldn’t be true. Then she reminded me about the store employee who hadn’t left our sides in the clothing section of the store, who arrived there just after us and had an insane fixation on touching the hangers (not moving them, but pretending to) as if it had been imperative those hangers be moved a quarter inch to the left or right on the racks. I was silent, remembering how silly I thought that store employee was, and how I never connected her unneeded presence with anything other than her own foolishness. “Of course you think it’s not true,” my friend said to me, used to white people not understanding. “You’re WHITE. You obviously didn’t know why that other girl was fluffing those already-fluffy pillows in an aisle too narrow for even ONE person to shop in there.”
I was shocked, not only because I realized we HAD been followed, we had been followed because of the color of my friend’s skin, and I was shocked because I had been oblivious to it. I had never been followed by store employees in my life. “That’s why I was quiet,” my friend told me with a gentler voice. She knew my eyes had opened. “I was quiet because I didn’t want them to think I was being a ‘disruption’. I kept my hands in clear view and didn’t touch anything because I didn’t want them to have an excuse to accuse my black ass of stealing!”
I was so hurt for my friend and also furious for her. I started back into the store to give them hell, but my friend held my arm. She didn’t want to make a scene, she was afraid that police would be called. I started to say that I didn’t believe they would call the police because of an angry customer, and my friend just stared at me. “No, they won’t call the police because of an angry customer, but maybe they’ll call the police because of a customer who is angry while being black.” She insisted I let it go, so I didn’t go back in the store, but I didn’t let it go. I never stopped remembering it, and feeling my friend’s desperation, her anger. Normal desperation. Normal anger. Except, when it’s displayed by someone who does so while also being black.
I will never forget that day and I will never forget that some people are singled out because of the color of their skin. I am not ashamed to be white, I was born white and had no say in it. My friend should not be ashamed that she was born black, either. She is kind, funny, intelligent and beautiful. But those who make negative judgements based on appearance of their fellow creatures? Yes, those people should be ashamed.