Living White

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of race lately. That might seem like an odd thing for a middle class white woman to think about but it’s been on my mind nonetheless.

One of my cousins recently posted on Facebook that she had just finished watching The Help and the ending had made her cry. A friend of hers posted “The ending made me laugh. Stupid white guilt.”

The comment made me sad. True, I’ve never treated anyone like that and I never will, so from one angle, any guilt I feel is stupid. But sadness is not the same thing as guilt. Furthermore, the people depicted in that movie were living what they thought was normal. What am I doing right now that feels normal but is actually deeply wrong? How will that “normal” be portrayed in movies 50 or 60 years from now? What impacts are we still experiencing from the damage done so long ago? And do those of us benefiting from white privilege have no obligation to address those impacts?

White privilege is a difficult thing to define and a difficult thing to see if you don’t know where to look and it’s a term that surely makes a lot of people roll their eyes. People like that Facebook commenter, without a doubt.

But acknowledging white privilege is not about feeling guilt. It’s about noticing the advantages you have that others don’t, big or small, simply because of the color of your skin.

A black woman sits in the cubicle next to me. In addition to talks about work, our weekends, movies, family, and everything else, we have frequent talks about race. She, along with a couple of other black friends, has opened my eyes to the disadvantages of being black. Being stopped by a police officer because you don’t look like you belong in the affluent neighborhood you are driving in. Being followed by a store employee as if you are about to steal something. People making assumptions about your socioeconomic status and family history.

One of my best friends growing up was black. It wasn’t until recently that I learned why her mother never let her go to the mall with the rest of us. She was afraid that if there was ever a problem – claims of shoplifting or something – her daughter was the one that would be assumed guilty.

This makes me sad. I don’t feel guilty, just sad. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish my black friends didn’t have to warn their children about dangers that I don’t have to warn mine about. I wish they didn’t have to put up with things that I don’t have to put up with.

I noticed a subtle form of racism and white privilege in the cafeteria at work recently. A fairly sweet and friendly woman runs the short-order grill. She jokes around with most of the customers and is pretty accommodating.

Last week, a black man waited for his omelet to be prepared. She was preparing it as she usually does, spreading the egg out thin, then adding the contents to one half and folding the egg over. He asked her if she could scramble it all up together, demonstrating with his hands what he wanted.

She did as he requested but rolled her eyes and told him dismissively that it’d taste the same either way. He didn’t respond. She started harassing him. She sometimes sounded like she was trying to joke around but there was an edge to her voice and animosity in her manner. At the end, she adopted a falsely sweet voice and loudly announced, “Here you go… SIR.”

I found her behavior rude and when I had the opportunity, I slipped away to tell the man that I prefer my omelets scrambled too. She accommodates other odd requests without the kind of belligerent behavior I witnessed that day, but I didn’t make the connection to the possibility of it being motivated by race until today.

Today, I waited in line behind quite a few people. I had a lot on my mind and wasn’t paying much attention. Someone had apparently asked to have his sandwich put in foil instead of the styrofoam box. A woman, black, said that she’d like hers wrapped in foil as well.

I didn’t see the first person get his food but I watched as the grill lady wrapped the woman’s sandwich in foil and then place it in the box. I mentally shook my head, thinking I bet the woman wanted the foil instead of the box.

Sure enough, when she handed the box to the customer, the woman said, “I didn’t want the box.” She then removed her wrapped sandwich and returned the box. She wasn’t overly friendly or demonstrative or apologetic about it but she also wasn’t rude or upset. She was just matter-of-fact. I don’t want the box. Here it is.

When she walked away, the grill lady rolled her eyes at the next customer and said, “As if she expects me to be able to read her mind.”

I was taken by surprise. The customer had not expected her to read her mind. She had misunderstood and the customer had clarified. So why the animosity?

I thought back over the many times I’ve stood in that grill line. The only two times I can think of her being disrespectful to a customer’s wishes was with these two people, who shared one distinct trait.

Was I experiencing a small form of white privilege? Were all of us white people going through that line being afforded more respect than the black people? Did we have more right to express our wishes? To be served by friendly and helpful staff? To ask for something special?

I believe we were. Now, there’s always the possibility that when you start looking for something, you’ll see it even where it isn’t. I recognize that. And maybe I’m doing it now. Or maybe I’m finally waking up and truly seeing what’s going on around me. What I’ll do with the enlightenment is still an open question.

13 thoughts on “Living White

  1. I completely agree with your assessment! I’ve had a lot of the same observations about white privilege and get equally disgusted when other whites act so dismissive or downright rude when the mere suggestion of privilege or discrimination is made. Thanks for writing about this.

  2. As I prepare for baby #2, I find myself thinking about this a lot. I wonder what kinds of experiences my children will have that I will only ever understand conceptually.

    A girlfriend just sent me an article about microaggression. She works at a college campus and the article was required reading. I haven’t made it too far into the article, but the instances you describe are perfect examples of it. To someone not tuned in, they would not realize they were witnessing anything more complex or sinister than a little grumpiness. But for one who experiences dozens of such encounters a week? Or even a day? They don’t have the luxury of rolling their eyes at the concept of privilege, because they live it’s antithesis.

    And before I had my son, I had no idea. I truly thought racism was over because I hadn’t knowingly witnessed it.

    Now I get how key that word “knowingly” is, and wish I could explain it to others.

    • Excellent observations. And thank you very much for giving me a new word in my vocabulary. I was using the word passive-aggressive when thinking about those scenarios, but it never felt quite right. Microaggression fits perfectly. The sad thing is, the woman might not even realize she’s doing it. I suspect that, being a low paid service worker, she still views blacks as being “below” her so when she encounters one that clearly isn’t, she can’t handle them treating her the same way all the white people ordering food do. What I wonder is how much of it is subconscious and how much of it she’d be willing to acknowledge and even defend if confronted, which is chilling for me to think of. It’s easier for me to believe people act like that out of ignorance, but I suspect that’s a fantasy.

  3. This reminds me of a lightbulb moment for me thirteen years ago. Guilt was not the feeling, it was shock and embarrassment that I’d never noticed, it was horror and sadness about this broken world:

    I complained that I’d gotten my first traffic ticket.
    My co-resident, male, my same age, who drove nearly the same make/model/year car as me, also just out of dental school, said, “I always HOPE for a ticket! ‘Come on, officer,’ I’m thinking, ‘just write me a ticket and let me go on. But it’s always, ‘Step out of the car,’ ‘Where have you been,’ the looking in all the windows… (sigh) I wish I could just get a ticket and get to class!”

    • When the Trayvon Martin story was in the news, Roshaunda shared an article or blog about black people being followed and suspected in stores. I think it was her sister-in-law who responded with a story about an encounter she had in a store and then Roshaunda commiserated. And I was stunned. She and I are so much alike that it had never occurred to me that she had had significant experiences that I had never had… and never would have. I felt that same shock and horror and sadness that you did. I think that’s why it’s so important for people to talk about experiences like that. Because once you see it, you can’t turn the seeing of it off and maybe you make the world a slightly better place because of it.

      • This was a great post. Thank you for being so open with life and so open to looking at your life through a different lens.

        Something that’s funny is that I don’t see being followed in a store as a significant experience. It seems a run-of-the-mill experience to me, because it happens so frequently to so many people, including me and my circle of friends. I think we all gauge “significant” differently. Being flat-out called a “black b*” for example, would be significant to me, because that has only happened once to me, that I can recall. But I know for some people, unfortunately, it is more than a onetime experience.

        I think, however, that you view it as significant is good. Your ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and to face your upbringing head-on is amazing. Right now I’m thinking about what seems normal to our time that in 50 years will be considered atrocious. The first things that come to mind are the disparities in education and the inequitable distribution of wealth in our country. But then I have to remind myself that by world standards, I am one of the wealthiest people on the planet, simply because I have things like a home, a car, ample food, and a good education, that I take for granted. Will my lackadaisical attitude about how fortunate I am be vilified in decades to come? Am I one of the fat cats that I so easily denounce?

        I’m thankful for a friend like you. While you are working on being a better you, you’re helping me be a better me.

        • You know, as I wrote that, I wondered if you would see it as I did. I didn’t meant it as a “significant” event like giving birth or getting married or something. The better word perhaps would have been “substantial”. It happens to you and people you know enough, as you say, that you view it as normal – yet it has never happened to me. And I didn’t know it ever happened to you until recently.

          Interesting thoughts on what’s normal in our time. I think you’ve got some good ideas. I also suspect that the treatment of people that deviate from “normal” biology (gays, transgenders, asexuals, etc.) will be viewed as horrific in the future – even if it is never established by science as being genetic or hormonal. But, again, I don’t treat them badly so it still doesn’t answer what *I* am doing. Maybe nothing. Or maybe I’m a fat cat with you. 😉

          I am thankful for you too. I’ve been enjoying your brief posts lately but I *really* like it when you dig in with a full fledged story like you did for MLKJr Day. I LOVE reading about your kids.

          • Thank you! Obviously, I’ve been playing around with my blog. I like taking pictures and captioning them. I also felt like I should have something to say that isn’t about my kids. I’m interested to see where I go.

            • Sorry if I’m over-commenting. I realized a few things: 1) It’s ok if everything I want to write about is about my kids; that doesn’t mean that’s all I have to say, and so what if it is. 2) When I talk about my kids, I talk about a lot more than just my kids. 3) Having feedback from a friend and a fan of my blog really is very helpful.

              • Are you serious?! Do you really think I’d ever have a problem with you commenting? 😉 I’m always tickled when that little W shows up on my phone to tell me I have notifications and I’m delighted that I got multiple – MULTIPLE! comments on this post.

                Yes, you definitely talk about more than your kids when you talk about your kids. And, yes, there’s nothing wrong with talking about just them. And, yes, I’ve been enjoying your captioned pictures.

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