White Privilege

In 1997, I passed the Philadelphia School District’s test for English teachers, and picked my first school from among the openings. The choices seemed bleak: each position was at one of the persistently dangerous schools- that’s to say, schools that were predominately African American. I chose William Penn because it had an underground parking lot, and it was the closest to my South Philly home.

Though I’d always thought of myself as open-minded in matters of race– I hated racism in all of it’s forms— I was afraid of the students. I was a forty-five year old woman, and my students were between the ages of thirteen and eighteen— just children. Why was I afraid?

It’s hard to pinpoint the reasons, but I supposed it had to do with fear of the unknown. It’s part of the human condition to fear what we don’t know, right? Maybe, but I didn’t fear the students I taught in Japan.

I must have learned to fear African Americans at home. Though my parents neither uttered the N-word nor any racist rhetoric, I see in retrospect that they were as prejudiced as the rest of the White community, which lamented each bit of progress made by Blacks in accessing what the rest of us not only had, but took for granted.

My folks didn’t sell our house and flee to the suburbs to avoid living near African Americans, but they were as guilty of white-flight as those who did. Colored people at the amusement park? Find a new place. In the neighborhood pool? Can’t swim there. On that bus route to center city? Don’t take that bus. It was as though they had a disease we could catch by mere proximity.

I hadn’t realized how obvious my feelings were until a student complained in a journal about being feared by white teachers. And my fear, I realized, was completely unfounded. That made me deeply ashamed of myself.

Yet I resisted the idea that my fears were racist in nature until my first professional development at the Philadelphia Writing Project (PhilWP). There, I read a piece by Peggy McIntosh, called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Ms McIntosh mused that Whites are carefully taught not to recognize the ways in which we are privileged. She formulated a list of fifty advantages she enjoyed, through no effort on her part– as a result of race— she calls them “unearned assets.” Among my favorites were these:

*Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

*I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

*I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

White Privilege is not merely a concept. We don’t need to hear about Trayvon Martin to know it exists. People of color are penalized every day in myriad ways because some of us cling to the unearned advantages bestowed on us with our skin color.   It’s time to call ourselves and each other on any assumption, implicit or explicit, of racial superiority. It’s past time.

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About Myra

I'm retired in Costa Rica, having lived in Philly, State College, Salem Mass, and Kawagoe Japan. You might call me a career gypsy, but my last and best job was teaching English to some of the best and brightest kids in Philly. I'm new to blogging and websites, and will probably make all the mistakes there are, but now I'm sharing my writing. I moved to Costa Rica in June of 2009 with my husband Jack, my dog Buddha, and Jack's two cats, Hobbes and Noir.
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3 Responses to White Privilege

  1. Jerry Zaslow says:

    Superficially, without the benefit of surveys, I have observed over the last few years that more people are “color blind”. There are many more “mixed groups’ than I witnessed growing up during the Great Depression”. Observe the following examples: more racially mixed groups eating at restaurants, raciially diverse groups working as clerks and administrators in hospitals. various types of professional entities, schools including public as well as private colleges and universities, social events both public and private, public officials, etc.

    I am in my eighties and I have the benefit of personally experiencing various walks of life since I was a child. Long life enables one to make more vivid comparisons than those under the age of 40. So, let us all try to observe and develop long term perspectives.

  2. Cindy Dwyer says:

    What an eye opening, honest post, Myra.

    I’ll share an eye-opening moment of my own. I used to work in a city, in a building across the street from the projects. Luckily I walked in the other direction to get to meetings, etc. during my workday.

    One bitterly cold winter morning I was walking back to my office. It was so cold I waited until I was just at the gate that surrounded the building to reach inside my coat to pull out my ID badge to swipe the door open.

    Right at that moment a large black man was approaching me from the other direction. He looked fine to me – completely non-threatening, just a man trying to stay warm and walking to wherever he needed to be, just like me – so I didn’t think twice about him at all. But when he saw me reaching into my coat, he back peddled a few steps until he realized I was only pulling out my badge.

    In a (very) small way it was funny that I made a man easily twice my weight nervous, but mostly it was sad that he feared that as a white woman I feared him for doing nothing more than walking down the street. I felt terrible thinking he worried I would pull out mace or a gun or who knows what to “defend” myself just because of his color.

    After we realized what happened, we exchanged awkward smiles. But I really understood for the first time how it must feel to be discriminated against simply because he was a large black man, when he had done no wrong. It still bothers me today, but at the same time I wish more people could experience this for themselves to develop better understanding.

    • Myra says:

      Thanks for telling your story, Cindy. Once I had my eyes opened, I couldn’t believe how many times I saw racism in operation in Philly. I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed people being stopped by the police for the crime of driving while black.

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