April 1, 2021
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White Privilege

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Privilege to white people is like water to fish: merely an environment we swim in and never think about. Here are some of the elements we take for granted.

As children we are special, interesting, unique subjects of attention to strangers, to be cared for, protected and fostered. If you are lost, a policeman and an entire crowd of solicitous people cluster around until you are reconnected with your family. If you misbehave, excuses are made. No one ever hits you. In 1964 (in the dark night of the soul it is always 1964) when I saw a teacher in P.S. 193 slap a black student, I was astonished. I had never seen anyone hit a child.

I spent almost my entire time in public school in "Intellectually Gifted Children" classes which were almost all white. This too was a feature of the landscape we never questioned. We were trained to think we were special, and destined to rule the nation, or at least to carry out needed roles of trust, to be doctors if not mayors. We had never faced any significant obstacles or set backs of any kind. The world was certainly ours.

In early adulthood, there was an understanding that if anything unexpected happened, there was a relative or friend or someone a friend could introduce us too who could advise on it. If you received a speeding ticket, or had a problem with your taxes, there was someone who could help you. This was such a given of life that I did not realize that there are forms of information wealth and poverty as impactful and pernicious as the financial kind. I only really understood this when I started to defend African American homeowners in foreclosure proceedings. They had been cheated twice, the first time by a banker or broker when they signed an adjustable rate mortgage no one explained would become unaffordable in a year, and the second time when someone knocked on the door promising that, if they signed over the deed, he would save their house. They had no one in the environment who could warn them they were being conned. I would have had someone save me from either danger.

At some point, I had the epiphany that in many cases, the very same people who saved me, either preyed on other people, or (in the most benign scenario) did not know them to help. There was an intermediate class of the moderately villainous, who did not actively harm people, but felt no duty to help them: school administrators, bureaucrats who dealt with minority, information-starved populations , but felt no significant duty to them. Something which happens which is of the greatest significance which I also took for granted is when a stranger warns you: in Barbados, a hotel clerk advised, "You don't really want to visit the Oistins fish festival". One of my Iconic moments of realizing that a stranger felt no duty was the tattoo artist who failed to advise me not to place an image on a hairy shoulder rather than a hairless place on my arm. I still feel indignant nineteen years later, because the number of times in my life strangers providing services felt no duty to me has been vanishingly small.

Most of all white privilege is captured by that sense of being first among equals, deserving a little more attention than others. Until the 1990's, most of the black people I met were in service jobs, janitors, housekeepers, subway conductors and booth attendants, the people who parked your car outside a restaurant. One knew at the same time this was a democracy in which they putatively were equal before the law, yet expected and accepted their deference. White people also resented their resentment when they allowed it to become visible; I can't count the conversations I have overheard about angry black people who the speaker felt, owed them the consideration their skin demanded. Sometime in the 1990's, I and my wife attended a Saturday afternoon showing of a new Spike Lee movie and were startled by the middle and upper middle class black people who sat all around us-- and whom we never met in daily lives in Brooklyn and Manhattan. They were admirable, and we weren't important to them. It was like being in a theater full of French people, living in their own lives, being attentive to one another. That day I learned something important about my whiteness.

In Amagansett, in a very white part of the country, once or twice a year I am standing in line at the post office behind a white person ranting for long minutes at an African American clerk, who is not paid enough to actually live in the Hamptons, about a lost piece of mail or something similar, and I daydream of resigning from the white race. I have written elsewhere of what I regard as the conditionality of my whiteness: I now think that at Columbia and Harvard, exploring WASP society, I was Almost-White. In Brooklyn, where I only knew a single white Protestant family until the 1970's, where everyone in the world who wasn't black was Jewish, Irish or Italian, being Jewish felt like being the whitest person on scene.

I also discovered that white privilege can be accidentally (or, if you are brave enough, deliberately) surrendered. When I grew my hair shoulder length as a teenager, cops in my neighborhood felt as entitled to stop and frisk me as they did African Americans. More recently, attending demonstrations and working as a legal observer, I have watched NYPD beat a lot of white people, even those who looked like the cops attacking them-- because they had put off their privilege by coming to a demonstration to support a particular political position. White people at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, or supporting Native Americans at Standing Rock, get treated almost as violently as the humans they are there to support.

Though I no longer wish to identify as white, you don't shed privilege that easily. I have probably been pulled over while driving fifteen times in my life, and nobody ever shot me while I reached for my wallet. For several years, I drove a beat up old Lincoln Town Car we inherited from my wife's father, and I used to get stopped in that vehicle once a month or so. I began asking the officers indignantly (which too was white privilege) why they pulled me over, and got answers like, "You were swerving a little". But I could always see in their eyes as they approached and I rolled down the window: "Oh, you are white".