Usually I take more time to compose my thoughts, but there are times when that is exactly the wrong thing to do. I’ve been trying not to think about white privilege too much of late, precisely because it has been overwhelming my thoughts. Bless me, **ther, for I have sinned
My first genuine experience of my white privilege was when I was 18, and in Basic Training in the Army.
Well, my first CONSCIOUS recognition of my many such experiences; and there had, already, been many. Growing up white, male, and middle-class, even as the butt of no small amount of savage bullying (the consequence of also being skinny, shy, and smart.) Had I any particle of the tools needed to interpret what I was seeing (one of the effects of bullying can be to force a person inwards, rather than outwards) then I might have assigned a greater significance to the first appearance of black students in any substantive numbers at my high-school. I can not imagine on the fear they must have felt; I imaginatively hearken back to the scene from the film Grand Canyon, where the mother finally moves herself and her son out of the ghetto, and the son wanders around the new neighborhood in abject terror because he can no longer “read” anything in his environment. Myself, as a skinny white kid, they frankly scared the shit out of me, because they were all so tough and angry.
But it was in Basic, in the Army, that it first confronted me in a form so explicit that even someone as obtuse as myself could understand it.
There were plenty of black guys in my platoon, and there was all manner of interaction. But there was this ONE fellow — fucking mountain of a man, built like cinder blocks, if only cinder blocks were hard, and a penumbra of rage that came out of his every pore. You want to talk about the very image of the “scawy bwack man,” he was it. I have no idea how it happened (my shyness back then was so extreme, that entire memories got erased well up to my early 20’s), but somehow he and I found ourselves talking, heart-to-heart, in the platoon bay one afternoon, with no one else there but ourselves.
This would have been in 1975, and the made-for-TV movie of Haley’s Roots was very much on everyone’s mind. It was very much on this young man’s mind (whose name, I confess, I no longer recall.) So we were talking about roots, and I learned two important things that afternoon, one of which I was able to share.
The one I shared was that I don’t actually care about my own roots (sort of German, Nowegian, Anglo-Saxon mongrel shit). I was able to share that the reason I didn’t care was because I’d never had to. He was frankly astounded by this, and it was clear from his eyes that such a possibility (of not caring because you’d never had to) had never, in fact, even occurred to him.
The other thing I learned was that he was afraid of me. Well, obviously not of me, skinny kid for whom the “wet paper bag” analogy had been invented, but of who I was in terms of what I represented. The thought that I was scary was simply inconceivable to me. (It was still inconceivable to me 30 years later when a white guy — nominally my boss — asked up front if I was really that scary, or if it was just an act I put on. I had no answer at the time; my best guess now is that my impatience with being bullied got internalized in a serious way.)
The obviousness of my privilege only became more apparent with time. The jobs I got because I was tall, male, and white. The scholarships I qualified for. The judge who buried my bust as a minor for marijuana possession, so that I could enter the Army and legally claim I’d never been arrested. I can still make that claim, despite my “confession” here, because without that record, this is just a story I’m telling. Is the story true? How many persons of color enjoy that luxury?
The statistics are overwhelming: a Caucasian with a criminal record will be selected over a Black person w/o a record, even though their qualifications are identical. A person with a “white” sounding name will be called in for an interview over someone with a “black” sounding name, even though their qualifications are identical.
These facts are too manifest to even bother citing anymore.
I’ve done a fair amount in my life, for a skinny white boy, although little enough of it would ever show up on any transaction sheet that focused on $$. But even in those places where no one was giving me a leg up, I’ve also got to say that few enough people were standing there with their foot in my face, holding me down. (There were a few, but that goes back to the bullying thing, and those d!ckless c@cks*ckers can kiss my pasty white ass. Not that I’m bitter, or anything.)
I don’t feel guilty over my privilege. But I’m disgusted beyond words at those who would pretend I was not — more often than not, persons even more privileged than I was, and continue to be.