White Privilege Working Hard for Me

I want to share a couple of personal instances when I have been aware of white privilege working hard for me. There is still so much denial about privilege in general and some folks who believe white privilege/subtle racism may still be around but aren’t able to see it in their own lives because they are poor or wear a hijab or whatever else impedes them from accessing more privilege. So here’s a few times when long before I knew the term white privilege, I knew that I was getting something just because I was white. And I insist that other people are also aware of these of instances when they see white privilege working for them, but it is just a huge no-no for us to talk about. After all, if we talk about it then we will lose something so dear and easy to have and we may have to do something not so easy and agreeable to change the problem. So, here we go.

When I was about 20 years old I was already burnt out on roommate drama and was searching for a studio of my own. I was living in the culturally diverse, though economically challenged,  Tenderloin district of San Francisco and was looking at places just a few blocks away from my current rental. I made an appointment to see a studio on the back of my own block and when I arrived I found that another potential tenant was also viewing the spot. He was at least a decade and half older than me, dressed better than my thrifting-art-student-self, and had a slight accent as he was Vietnamese. I got a little nervous about my competition.

It was very likely that he made more money than I did, even though our applications might not reveal that and I felt sure that he was probably more responsible than I was and therefore a more desirable tenant. But I also felt that the white manager might suspect, like I did, that the man didn’t want the apartment just for himself, as he was saying, it seemed unlikely that a middle-aged Vietnamese man would be living alone. He lives in a stereotype in which it is assumed that he will either live with a big extended family or with a bunch of other single immigrant men. Conversely, it is known that most single young people need parents or roommates to afford the cost of living, but white girls are given a “pass” by other whites who will believe the white girl’s incongruity over a person of color’s statement. By being a young, nice-looking white girl, I live in a bubble of “positive stereotype:”

A “positive stereotype” is any generalized belief about your gender, race, ethnic, class etc group that is positive, rather than negative. So for example, both the beliefs that Asians are intrinsically spiritual, (please see the Buddha of Suburbia) or that white women are docile, are positive stereotypes.

The Tenderloin had much fewer white apartment seekers those days and unlike looking for a place a few blocks up, I felt I had a strong lead against the competition. I had an inherent feeling that I would get the place even though he was probably more deserving. And that feeling stems from having previously benefitted—in unspoken ways—from white privilege and knowing that it was there for me.

I got the apartment. Now, we should all know that undue biases are unethical, but here is how undue biases are illogical. I didn’t make enough money to live in that fabulous studio and moved out soon enough (rather than being a “good” long term tenant) having used the deposit for the last month’s rent. And I didn’t live there alone like I said that I would. I had a few friends living there with me over the months that I rented the large studio and I’m sure we racked up more than one person’s share of water and gas usage, which was included in the rent. One friend did some damage to the built-in bookcase and another burnt a huge, iron-shaped hole in the middle of the rug—which would have been covered by the deposit, but again that was wrongfully used for rent. These are things mature people generally don’t do. A wise manager would have checked out our applications and maybe he would have been ageist in his bias, but renting to me just because I was white—not a win/win situation. And really, if he had checked my rental references, well. . . .my only defense is that I was young.

Another example. At about 22 years old I was taking Amtrak across the US from Oakland to New York. Somewhere along the way two sheriffs entered the car I was seated in and an announcement was made that they would be randomly searching people as we were crossing some state’s line. It is unclear to me what they were looking for, but it was stated that it was “random.” Although I have never considered myself as such, twice during this journey I was described as a “hippy.” Maybe it was the vintage suede jacket or maybe the army backpack, but whatever it was other people thought made me look like a hippy, being called such was one reason that I was very nervous about these searches. The other reason was that I had illegal-to-transport-over-statelines stuff in said backpack nestled at my feet. No need to worry for young white girl though. The sheriffs’ first random search was with the two non-descript African American young men seated a few rows further into the car from me. By non-descript, I mean they didn’t look “hippy” or “hood” or anything else that would draw attention to them. They were just young, male and black. After spending sometime going through their personal items, the sheriffs moved down the car and out of my sight. Again, as a problem with racism, common sense flew out the window and the hippy girl from San Francisco who was a bail-needing-guarantee was passed by—because she was white.

Maybe some people will deny these things happened because I am white, but others may see the truth here and question “what are we supposed to do about?” Should I have bowed out of the apartment or jumped up and called to the sheriffs “Pick me! Pick me!”? That’s a hard thing to consider isn’t it?

A few things that I am doing to stop contributing to racism and injustice is 1) Know thyself. Be aware of my own indoctrinated racist and other biased ideas. If you are a person who is striving to improve yourself, than you should see learning about your own biases as work to improve yourself. Undo some of the wrongful/hateful things you were intentionally or unintentionally taught by family, peers, educators, media and so on. 2) Don’t contribute to injustice. When you are in a position of power (such as hiring someone or similar) work hard against your own and others’ unspoken biases. Choose the right person. 3) Educate yourself about how these injustices happen and how you can stop creating injustice at your own hands. 4) Let’s talk about the unspoken. Tell me about a time when you saw your privilege working for you. Let’s put an image to the seemingly elusiveness of racist situations.

Excellent further reading:  “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”

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4 thoughts on “White Privilege Working Hard for Me

  1. salaams. i really appreciate that you bring up these difficult convos and that you point to your own experiences in a way that i think others might have an “aha” moment of recognition.

    one of the situations where i once benefitted from white privilege (because i am pale enough to pass, didn’t have so noticeable of an accent at the time, and wasn’t Muslim): when i was 19 or 20 i worked very briefly at a drugstore chain. i was quickly offered an assistant store manager promotion. but there was a Black woman (early 40s, so presumably also more likely to be stable than i was) who had worked there for 3 or 4 years, had trained me and was still my go-to person when i had questions, and who even i could see was a very dedicated and responsible employee. when i was offered the position, i flat out asked why they would offer it to me and if she had turned it down. they didn’t even flinch or question (because as a fellow assumed white person, they don’t need to hide their prejudice from me, right?) why i would ask that and told me bluntly that they would never consider her for the position because “when you give those people a position of power they take advantage of it” and some tripe about how certain customers would be pandered to. i didn’t take the promotion and ended up leaving the company shortly after, because i got evicted from my apt and couldn’t get to work anymore, i.e. i was not particularly stable or responsible (though to be fair, it was a wrongful eviction). for more than a decade after, until it went out of business, i would occassionally stop by that store to pick something up (literally, the last time was 4 or 5 yrs ago) and that same woman was still working there. as a clerk. she had never, in all her loyal service to the company, been offered a promotion, while management came and went.

    1. Walaikum Asalam,
      Thanks Aaminah. This was in part inspired by our brief talk about how social activists deny subversive racism while sticking to their agenda(s).

  2. Something similar happened to my sister a few months ago. In the UK (as in many places) it’s illegal to drive while using a hand-held phone (you can use a hands-free attachment or Bluetooth) and my sister (who is white, like me) was caught talking on her phone while driving and flagged down in south London by the police. The cop gave her a lecture and posed the possibility of them having to call her parents if she was in an accident.

    My sis, who lived in her own flat with her boyfriend (now house and husband, respectively), replied, “why would you call my parents?”, meaning she was a grown woman and you wouldn’t call my parents, rather you’d call the guy I actually live with (actually, no they wouldn’t as she wasn’t married to him at the time). The cop got all apologetic but warned her not to talk on her phone while driving again.

    I don’t think I’d have got away with doing what she did and giving a copper a lecture to boot. Needless to say, neither would anyone of colour. There are certainly positive stereotypes that attach to white women, particularly in the eyes of white men, that don’t attach to any other group.

    1. The Institution of White Womanhood! Yes, it exists! But let’s keep the focus on personal narratives of our own so we can recognize and own our privilege and then work through from there, otherwise we are finger pointing and derailing. Thanks Yusuf

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