My life, my heritage, is far from "privileged." And yet, it is, and I am.
Updated: Jun 16
By WHITNEY WHITE
Like many, I've been watching news coverage over the last few weeks regarding the protests and demonstrations centered around the death of George Floyd and the BLM movement.
Like many, I've wondered and worried and honestly haven't said too much.
Part of the reason is at the start of 2020 I took a social media hiatus, never ever dreaming 2020 would be, well, you know.
Part of the reason was I truly wanted to listen and watch and process what was happening. But the biggest reason was out of fear. Fear of judgment. Fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Fear of causing more harm. Fear of confronting my own white privilege.
You see, I certainly do not consider myself "privileged." I don't come from money. I don't have a "name" to trade on. While I am white, I am a woman and I do tend to speak with a bit of a drawl. My life, my heritage, is far from "privileged." And yet, it is, and I am.
Let me explain.
On one side of my family, I'm only a 2nd generation American. My great grandparents immigrated from Germany during the outbreak of the First World War. I've seen photos of the boat (I use that term generously) they came on - while my great grandmother was pregnant.
I've seen a photo of their signatures in the books at Ellis Island. I've heard the stories of growing up in the north, German immigrants working as field hands, stable boys, dairymen and women. I remember visiting aunts in Michigan as a child who still spoke German and made their own beer. They worked hard. Assimilated as best they could. Followed the rules. It wasn't easy by any means.
The other side of my family can be traced back to pre-civil war. Scot-Irish immigrants that came over in the bellies of boats only to transition to wagons - if they were lucky - to find a new start in this new place promising free land. Fair skinned and red-headed, my dad used to tell me they were run off from where ever they went.
Fast forward a little bit and we can now trace our roots to Isaac Cowan, a local businessman with his own unflattering lore that you can still hear about today at the Stephenville Historical House Museum. At any rate, they finally settled in as farmers and cattlemen. Not an easy life.
And yet, despite the historical maligning of Irish immigrants and German immigrants, here I am just a few generations later - I can speak a few touristy phrases in German, not a bit of Gaelic.
Honestly, I know more Spanish than either of my ancestral languages combined. With the exception of my very Irish influenced complexion, you would have a hard time pinning down my ancestral DNA without the help of 23andMe.
I can walk through the streets, the stores, the world, without someone yelling Nazi in my face, or accusing me of being a raging alcoholic. Not that I have evidence that my ancestors with either of those things, but that's the common stereotype. I can avoid questions about my political views, my religious beliefs, I can even blur my socioeconomic status. But my skin tone is out there for all to see.
And therein lies my privilege.
Admittedly, I've been guilty of saying to myself: Ok sure, I'm white. But I'm a woman as well. Women have historically, across all cultures and societies, been nothing more than chattel - breeding livestock. True. And I have a deep disdain of going into auto parts stores or walking onto car lots to this day because of how I have been approached and treated my salesMEN in the past - Oh honey (and I quote) no one doesn't NOT buy a car because they don't like the color. You just need to take your pen and sign right here.
Um - excuse me?
Granted, as a woman I do have to look at other situations differently. Walking around at night by myself, generally not a practice of mine. Leaving a drink unattended at any social gathering - not the best idea. Having a planned "out" anytime I had a date in college was kind of a safety protocol me and several friends had with each other. Heck, I have even learned to play the "Oh well you know helpless little ole me" card. Not proud of it - just saying.
But I can avoid those places. I can ask male friends to buy the parts for me. I can even walk right in and deal with the chauvinists without worrying that someone will call the COPS on me. And even if someone does call the cops?
Well, my first thought is NOT OMG I'm definitely going to jail tonight or - will tonight be the night I don't go home at all?
Several months ago, I was shocked, stunned, saddened when one of my children made an outcry. I won't go into detail, but my very first thought (as soon as I could form a singular cognitive thought) was we're going immediately to the police station to file a report. That's just what you DO. But that response is the very illustration of PRIVILEGE.
It's not that my life is rosy and great. It's not. TRUST ME. But my privilege is that when it's not, my assumption is the system is here to help me.
What if I had been conditioned my whole life to believe that the police were not there to help people like me? What if my first thought was - why bother, they won't believe me or even do anything about it anyway?
Victims have a hard enough time sorting through those kinds of thoughts. I cannot even begin to imagine what that process looks like for someone who sees, regularly, confirmation of the biases of the system. BUT THAT IS MY WHITE PRIVILEGE.
Of COURSE the police are here to help me. Of course there are victim services out there for support. Of course the materials are in a language I can understand. Why would I ever think otherwise? I have nothing in society telling me that it's any other way.
As a mother, of course, I worry about sending my children out - now more than ever. I have to coach my daughter on the ins and outs of being safe. I have to teach my son how to be a responsible adult. I have to worry about all the millions of things that every parent around the world worries about. But you know what I have never ever said to my children?
If you're ever out with your friends, or walking down the street, and the police approach, make sure you immediately put your hands up, stop moving and do precisely what they tell you and when because if you don't, they will most likely tazer you and possibly shoot you. And the fact that I didn't even KNOW this was a conversation that parents of color have to have with their children until this week - THAT MY FRIENDS IS WHITE PRIVILEGE.
My life is not easy. I'm betting yours isn't either. My life matters. Just like yours. That's not at all what this is about.
This movement, this atmosphere, this moment in history is about recognizing who we are as a society. What our shortcomings are, how to recognize them, address them, and fix them so that the generations that come after us don't have to start all over again.
We are one nation - and no that didn't originally include much of anyone other than rich, white, anglo-saxon men. That's not to demonize anyone at all. But it's to say that we REALIZE we are a different society now than we were at that time. That we have GROWN and MATURED as a nation, as a people.
Look, we all grow, we all change. Think if we didn't allow technology to blossom and build and work out the bugs, we'd all still be using green screen computers and bag phones. (You younger people - Google it) We'd never have a human being on the moon - much less be able to dream about a station on Mars.
If we don't grow and change as people, we will not only miss out on all the wonderful opportunities that lay before us, but we're ALL doomed to be stuck in regressive behavior.
I also recognize that we owe quite a lot to the indigenous populations that were on this soil long before any of us. I can't even begin to address the atrocities perpetuated on native peoples.
We, as a government and society at large, didn't even TRY to hide our malice. Let's NOT repeat those mistakes. We want to say we're better than that now? Great! I believe it, too. But you have to do more than just SAY it. We have to PROVE it. And together, I believe we can.
"They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up." - Martin Niemoller