I am a Black Woman Who Grew Up Around White Privilege. Trust Me, It’s Real.
I moved around a lot as a kid, but ultimately, I came to settle in a tiny suburb in central Florida. We weren’t anywhere near the only family of color in town, but I can’t say the same for our neighborhood: save for one East Indian family who eventually moved out, I was the only chocolate chip in that cookie for years.
On the outside, things were fine. I had friends, I played regularly with White classmates, and my White teachers adored me and fostered my love for writing as they would in any other child. I was always either the only person of color, or one of maybe two people, but I never felt alone. That whole “I don’t see color” thing? I lived it. And it seemed pretty damned Utopian on the surface.
Here’s the thing though: we all saw color. All of us. And ignoring that fact allowed white privilege to thrive like none other.
Before I get into what I mean, I know some feathers are probably ruffled. I know there are people muttering to themselves that I don’t know what I’m talking about, because their family had to work for every little thing they had. Their first cars were junkers. Their dad worked long hours. Their mom was single and on assistance and they ate sugar sandwiches for dinner sometimes. That all sounds rough, no question, but that is not what we mean by “privilege.” Not in the slightest.
We mean that you have the privilege of finding salons and hair products for your hair in every store you go to. You have the privilege of your children being seen for their age and their innocence, instead of older and guiltier. You have the privilege of being able to wear your hair naturally without it being seen as wild or unprofessional. You have the privilege of speaking up for yourself without people yelling weird and oft-debunked statistics at you to prove that you are, in fact, part of a race of savages. You have the privilege of being considered for jobs and roles on TV that aren’t “drug dealer #1” or “loud sidekick #2.” And when you receive those roles, you don’t have to hear comments about your presence being “pandering” or seeming “forced.” Hell, you even have the privilege of denying any of this, because in the end, people look at you and see an equal. They look at me and they see someone who could be angry, aggressive or possibly “ghetto,” which is used when people want to otherwise say “uneducated, loud, and embarrassing.”
I know all of this because I grew up around it as if it was nothing. When people would tell me that I “didn’t sound Black,” or that I was “so eloquent, unlike stereotypical Black people,” they truly meant it as a compliment, and I took it as such. I learned to beam with pride when I’d hear these things, because it meant I was accepted. I was treated kindly by a number of people in my White community without truly realizing that it was because I was “acceptable” and “safe” due to how I didn’t sound how many ignorant and sorely mistaken minds had assumed my people sounded.
I’ve talked to a number of other People of Color who grew up as I did, and we’ve all experienced the same very strange phenomenon. We’ve lived through these compliments, enjoyed them, prided in them, for years before eventually realizing what we were accepting. I can only speak in theories here, but I feel like our minds adapted in a sort of defense mechanism wherein we never looked any further into the things said to us, because to do otherwise would have been realizing we were surrounded with people who only loved us for being as similar to them as possible. We wanted to have friends and community, as anyone does, and in our situations, that called for allowing things we otherwise wouldn’t in order to seem “safe” or “acceptable.”
I still remember sitting in a living room with a friend’s father. To my surprise, he burst out with the n-word.
“Thing is,” he said, “anyone can be a n*****. White people can be n*****s, too. All it means is a dirty and worthless person.”
I remember wanting to tell him that I didn’t think that was the correct way to look at it, that he was bringing up a word that literally made my sheltered stomach drop when I heard it, even though I’d never been called one in my young life. But I feared being ostracized if I dared speak out. I knew from experience that speaking for yourself or rocking the boat was how you asked to lose friends. So I didn’t say anything. I nodded, because it seemed the best way not to upset anyone.
This, I think, was the biggest example of white privilege that I experienced throughout my life in the south. I did not have the privilege to speak up for myself. I did not have the privilege to feel unafraid of telling others when they were insulting my race, or speaking about me as if I was some special breed of dog. I didn’t even have the privilege of speaking on American slavery without receiving dirty looks and comments about how “that was a long time ago,” all while watching many neighbors and friends drive around with Confederate flags and slogans about the south on the backs of their trucks.
I was often the only one afraid when I’d see decals saying “I ride with Forrest (referring to Nathaniel Forrest, the founder of the KKK).” I was the only one hurt when I’d see things reading “If I knew this was going to happen, I’d have picked my own cotton.” I was the only one to ever want to talk about racism or race or history, only to have people ask me why I had to talk about it, or to quickly change the subject. These were things that affected me and the way society sees me directly, but they made White people uncomfortable, and so I couldn’t talk about them. Things that made me uncomfortable, though, were fair game because I wasn’t supposed to be “so sensitive.”
I saw these things happening when I didn’t know what white privilege was. At the time, I wouldn’t have even believed that it was a real thing, because the people around me most likely would have told me it wasn’t real. That is, if we ever talked about it. Because White communities do not talk about it. They don’t have to. No one is affected within the bubble that’s built, and anyone who does bring up anything adjacent to white privilege is immediately dismissed.
But we saw it everyday. We didn’t know what to call it, and we were often gaslit into believing we weren’t, but we saw it. We lived it. Hell, we even dated it.
Yes, a racist can date a person of color. My first (White) boyfriend called me a monkey shortly after we broke up. My (White) ex-husband wore Confederate flags and made nasty jokes about people of Middle Eastern descent, ensuring that he directed some of these jokes towards the only Muslim person in his military unit. And before anyone asks, no, I never said anything in response because by then I’d been taught that it was acceptable for things like this to be said as long as the other person was “joking.” Sure, the other Marines in my ex’s unit fed a Muslim Marine eggs Benedict and laughed as he vomited upon learning that he’d been fed ham against his religion, but that was OK, because it was a joke.
That’s the thing about jokes: there’s usually a little truth to them. Any of them. I write jokes often about my husband, my children, myself…and I can tell you that while I may exaggerate, there’s always a nugget of truth to my annoyance, or to my confusion, or to my frustration. Jokes don’t happen in a vacuum. The same goes for jokes about race.
Another thing about jokes: they’re not particularly funny if the person they’re targeting is only laughing for fear of being excluded, or if they’ve been told so many times that “it’s a joke, lighten up,” that they’re forced to automatically tamp it down in favor of acceptance. We grow up around that, too.
Look: I’m not here to say that all White people are sitting around, rubbing their hands together and plotting to be racist. That’s not how this works. Racism is no longer the overt exclusion of races from restaurants or buses. It isn’t splitting water fountains or burning crosses on lawns anymore; those perpetuating abject hatred and fear have learned that those things aren’t acceptable anymore. Instead, it’s become throwing money at laws that keep traditionally “Black” neighborhoods poor. It’s using different language to differentiate a “poor” White man from a “lazy” Black man. It’s ensuring that a guilty White man’s news article includes photos of him with his family and mentions of his accomplishments, while a Black man’s news article — guilty or not — includes old mugshots or photos of him at his worst, complete with mentions of his skin color and past transgressions that don’t have anything to do with the story at hand. Racism isn’t painted with a broad brush anymore; instead it’s one of those annoying-as-hell 3D pictures that you’d actually have to work to see.
Above all, you can’t forget that this country was built by White men. From this nation’s birth, the class with power was White. They were the masters, the governors, the ship’s captains, and the generals. They were the traders, the rich, and the ones who held 99.9% of the powerful seats. There is no logic in the denial of the laws and traditions that were established to protect those people. Nor is there any sense in pretending that those in power immediately saw their slaves as people the moment the chains came off those Black wrists.We’re lying to ourselves if we pretend that those slave owners, largely angry and sore about a Confederate loss, didn’t pass their toxic beliefs onto their children, who passed that along to their children. And that old money, when it began to speak louder toward our laws and our societal values…do you think it went towards laws to better Black lives? In a country that loves tradition above all else, do you think that it was encouraged to suddenly see those on top as equals? Do you think that the country gladly welcomed a push for change, even from the beloved Martin Luther King, Jr, who many white voices have bastardized into a demure, soft-spoken caricature?
Or would it make more sense that we still hold onto some of those racist traditions and beliefs without even knowing it anymore? That we’ve become so used to upholding Whiteness as a standard of normalcy, of beauty, and of wealth that it’s no longer noticeable? Kind of like seeing a large, unsightly hole in wall: initially, you notice; with each day you see it, though, you become less and less aware of its presence, until it’s just…part of a house. That is, until you go to someone else’s home and see that what you have isn’t at all normal.
It took me going to someone else’s home after 30 years to see this. Leaving Florida and moving to Austin, then Oregon, showed me that I had become super used to the holes in the walls of this country, because I grew up around what I later learned was white privilege. Listening to people try to explain away an officer leaning on George Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes took the cowl all the way off, finally, and now I see what many of us are afraid to see: that we never moved from that tradition of giving Whiteness the benefit of a doubt, and from seeing Black lives as more expendable. It’s why I usually can’t even bring this up without someone trying to tell me that, essentially, this disproportionate behavior is deserved, usually because they’ve found some oft-debunked or out-of-context stats that suggest that Black people are more dangerous/less trustworthy/somehow worse than others. This not due to truth, so much as it’s due to a need to keep the pro-White bedrock of our country as strong as they can.
This is what I mean by “privilege.” The United States especially has grown with a built-in trust and love for you that the rest of us don’t receive.
I’m not expecting those of you who actually benefit from it to get it after reading this article for a few minutes. But perhaps it’ll plant a seed. Maybe you’ll realize that this isn’t a new thing, that it isn’t some sort of indoctrination attempt by leftist crazies or whatever you’ve been telling yourself. It’s simply a real thing that we won’t allow to silence us any further. Even if we don’t have the privilege of saying it without being called racist names or being attacked, we’re still doing this because our children deserve better.
So do yours.