Privilege. White privilege in particular. I’ve been hearing a lot about it lately. The concept seems to spark a lot of heated conversations, as race often does. But this issue seems particularly combustible in response to how white people respond to it.
Most people of color have an opinion about it and can explain their stance. But many, not all, white people are either unaware of the concept or resistant to admitting that it even exists. If they argue against white privilege, or question if it matters anymore, they’re labeled as the epitome of having white privilege.
In my opinion, most people of color aren’t necessary asking white people to do anything about white privilege in particular. But a simple acknowledgement would be enough. Or at least, a start.
Now, I’ll admit the idea of white privilege is not something I think about a lot. As a biracial woman, black father and white mother, when it comes to race I deal with my own particular set of concerns. But I was curious to explore…what does privilege, particularly white privilege, mean to me?
In my mind privilege is something a person receives without having to earn it. How one handles, processes, and is aware of that baton pass is the crux of this issue. Growing up my mom would make statements like, “So and so comes from a privileged background.” She’d usually say this with a slight head tilt and wide eyes, clueing me in that we were entering a sensitive topic.
The word “privilege” was meant to imply all the things she didn’t want to say – at least not first and not out loud. It was as if the word was intended to cloak a person and their family in a type of mystery or secrecy, almost trying to keep them safe from people knowing they were rich. Or maybe, protecting the rest of us from the reality that these people were the “haves” and we were the “have nots.” Privileged usually meant a person came from “old” money. “Old” meaning a passing down from generation to generation type of rich. Wealthy. “He works,” head tilt, “but he doesn’t really have to.” The implication was that his family had a long lineage of having worked in the upper echelons of an industry like government, or the entertainment business, oil, etc. Basically, these people were locked in and set for life.
Words like “different ilk” “status” “class” “elite” “well to do” became associated with privilege. And the notion I was left with was, that’s just the way the world works.
So the word “privilege” alone conjures up ideas of being wealthy and upper-class. Hopefully, a person born into this type of lifestyle, at some point understands how they’ve benefited. They live in a big house, drive a nicer car at sixteen than most adults do at 36, they have the option to go to better schools, and don’t have to get a part-time job at Wendy’s. They understand because their privilege is tangible. They live in it, drive it and experience all that it offers.
So when we talk about “white” privilege in particular, most white people associate it with money. Having things, not having to work, being handed advantages on a silver platter simply because of their white skin. They’ll be the first to tell you that you’re crazy and that life has been hard for them too.
They can’t relate to the concept of white privilege because this type of privilege isn’t so tangible. It’s more of a silent asset. It’s an advantage they received from birth and rarely have had to think about. It’s an ease in which a person moves through society.
Upon arrival most places, there is nothing about the color of a white person’s skin that conjures up a negative emotion. It’s as if they’re a blank slate and everything they do from that moment on will dictate how they are perceived. In essence, they have control of their own perception. That’s because white is the standard. It’s the norm, it’s even-keeled, and is associated with the most powerful people in the history of this country. When a person of color arrives on a scene, a host of perceptions will most likely follow them.
This all got me thinking about my mother and some of the conversations we’ve had about her early days dating my father. My mother is white and never realized she had white privilege until she was seen holding hands with my black father. I think that is part of the issue. Even though a person is born white it’s not something they have to be aware of especially if they live around other white people. The only time they might become aware of their privilege is when it’s challenged or taken away.
My Mother fell in love at eighteen. She’d never dated a black man before and quickly became aware of how staring people were making judgements about her character. She said she felt, “Icky and dirty. It was like people were always searching for that something in me that must be so intrinsically wrong, so corrupt and damaged, that it would cause me to be with a black man. How could I give up my status in society to be judged as some sort of freak. It was a horrible feeling to be seen that way everyday, everywhere we’d go.”
Before my dad, she was just a young woman making her way through daily life. She’d graduated high school and was working a summer job to save money for community college. She said the only time she got any obvious attention, it was usually from men, and sexual in nature. But like most women, she learned how to handle that energy. Yet being with my father she realized she had to relinquish a comfort she’d gotten used to. She went from being a young woman to being a white woman who desired black men. All of a sudden everyone had an opinion. People were curious, suspicious, disappointed, disapproving and labeling her as having low self-esteem and being a nymphomaniac. She got used to the stares but found it a little more challenging to accept the undercurrent of racial issues that had never crossed her mind.
By 1973 she was divorced, single and raising two biracial children alone. Without the presence of my father the energy around her was different. She was back in her white woman daily flow. No stares, no judgement. She admits life just wasn’t, “so heavy anymore. I could breathe again.” But now she had a different type of energy to deal with. Being the mother of two biracial children. Our brown skin and curly hair made people aware that she’d been with a man of color. With this knowledge people were still making assumptions about her character, but they weren’t as intense as when she was married to my father. When asked about our ethnicity, her reply was always, “Their father is black”. She said, “People are going to have their opinions. I can’t control that.”
But that wasn’t necessarily true. When I was fourteen I witnessed her control a racial situation to her advantage. By thirty-five she had a pretty good idea about how the world worked. She was looking for apartments and had made a call to a property manager. During their conversation he told her about the complex. She responded by explaining her line of work, mentioned she was divorced and had two kids. As he described more details regarding the level of safety in the neighborhood, she got wind of something.
He said, “it’s very safe here…because…well… we are careful about making sure we pick the right type of people.” She could tell he was white, and she knew he could tell she was probably white. With that comment he was implying two things. One, mostly white people or “qualified” people of color lived there, and two, if her whole “situation” wasn’t white or wouldn’t “qualify”, this wouldn’t be the place she should apply.
Immediately she thought about us. Her two brown kids. My fifteen year old brother in particular had made some bad decisions in the last few years. He’d stolen shiny hubcaps, pilfered money out of his friend’s parents’ jacket and pant pockets, stolen chips and candy bars from convenient stores, and rummaged through her ex-boyfriend’s garage, taking anything he deemed cool. He also liked being out after dark with his friends and didn’t seemed concerned about any rules she’d laid down. To sneak back in he’d jump fences and crawl through his bedroom window. No landlord wants to see that.
He wasn’t the worst kid but he was definitely going through a “phase”. She felt she was doing the best she could as a single mother and that apartment was exactly what she wanted and could afford. Bringing us would cast doubt in the landlord’s mind. Why are her kids brown? Are they part black? Will their father be coming around? What kind of woman is she for being with a black man? Will there be more black/brown/minority people coming around?
She went alone. She explained that she wanted a safe environment for her kids to go to school. A more relaxed town like Antioch seemed perfect since we’d just moved from San Francisco where city life proved to be a little hectic. She even shared that she’d been in an abusive relationship for several years and was looking forward to being single and starting fresh. She admits she pulled some cards that day. Her white card was definitely one of them. She wanted him to relate to her, to feel for her, and want to help her.
We got the apartment and the minute he saw me and my brother he felt duped. He never laughed or talked with my mother again unless he needed to tell her something. He was always spying through the crack in his curtain when we walked by and any rules we broke at the pool or in the laundry room, he was there to remind us.
I didn’t like that feeling of being enemy number one but my mom explained that she did what she had to do. She admitted not bringing us, knowing he’d assume we were white. She knew she didn’t have to mention we were half black and it was illegal for him to ask. Nobody technically did anything wrong, but this was how the situation played out. It would feel a bit uncomfortable for our year lease, but we were safe because of anti-discrimination and housing laws.
Now, I can’t say that I’ve discovered any big epiphanies revisiting these stories. But I’m definitely more aware of my awareness of white privilege. I see how my mother became aware of hers through her experiences. She knew how to use it but also not to abuse it. She tells me that sometimes she’ll be in a situation where someone calls her on what they believe is her having white privilege. Her first response is always to say, “you don’t know me, my kids are mixed…I was married to a black man,” like that’s going to save her.
But she always checks herself because she knows it’s almost as bad as saying, “but I have black friends.” She knows that being white in the world is a privilege and that she’s got it. It’s something that just is.
The best way she knows how to acknowledge it is by offering a listening ear.
Nicole Knowles is a guest contributor to Black Mom White Mom Blog. She is a writer and fitness instructor. As a hobby, Nicole writes of her experience growing up biracial and interviews others encouraged to share their personal heritage and racial experiences.