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My White Privileges

I grew up so white, I didn’t even notice the privileges I had over black people.

At age 15 or so my white friend and I hitchhiked to a music festival and slept in a random farm field. We got woken up by cops in the middle of the night. We got talked to. At age 18 I skidded a car off the highway and into the median at 70 mph. After midnight on my way home from a party. The cops came to the accident. I got talked to. They called my dad to come get me.

How many times have I been pulled over and NOT gotten a ticket. So many times. Honestly, I have actually shook my head and muttered these words to myself about a cop who just gave me a warning: “You should totally be writing me a ticket right now.”

How many times have I drank or smoked or peed in some “technically illegal” place and not worried one bit. The worst that might happen is that I would get talked to.

As a kid and young man – due to my personality – I did risky stuff even as a white person. If “this personality” had been black, I would be in prison or dead by now. No doubt in my mind about that. Given my shenanigans over the years, I’m lucky to avoid prison and death as a white person! I have gotten talked to and given a pass hundreds of times in my life.

Being white didn’t just keep me from getting arrested, it opened doors for me. Like all those times I have walked through a hotel lobby to use the restroom, as if a guest there, and maybe grabbed a cup of complementary coffee if I felt like it. Honestly, I have used hotel lobbies a LOT and once even used their limo service for a ride across town without being a guest. This is what privilege looks like.

And being white has kept me safe from bad white people. If I see a bunch of white people buying beer at a Seven-Eleven, even bad looking drunk-already white people, I got no problem going in there. I was black there would be places I would be scared.

The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired me to scroll back through my life and imagine if I was black. There are so many things I simply could not have done as a black kid, from big things like stealing another guy’s date to little things like asking a harmless question. I would have had to be so much more cautious about all my interactions.

I have been allowed to live large and take risks because of my white privilege. I know that now. Having read and heard so many stories of what happened to black people in situations just like mine and how their stories are so different, I understand better now.

My privilege in a nutshell? Freedom. I have been free to act out and be myself in ways that black people simply aren’t, and haven’t been allowed. Am I afraid that black people are going to rise up and take away my freedoms? Not at all. Not once have I heard black people say, “We want things to be worse for you.” They are saying, “We need things to be better for us.”

Freedom (also known as independence or liberty) is such a core American value, I think every American should have it. Like me. Yet many don’t. What can I do about that? Three things.

(1) I can tell my story and acknowledge my privileges. Just call them out. Name them. It’s called “checking your privilege.” (2) I can pass along and amplify stories of black people. Help get those stories told. Let’s benefit from hearing more black stories and fewer white stories for a change. (3) Stand up to racism when I see it. I am standing ready. And I hope to have the courage to say to a white guy, even if he’s talking to just white guys, that it’s not okay to say or do racist stuff.

Last note: while the focus here has been on white privilege, other privileges are absolutely in play every time I get a pass: my male privilege, my wealth privilege, and many others. Also, my privilege is not just over black people but over all non-white people. I’m just letting you know that I know these things. Calling out my privilege.

Another last note: My go-to books on racism have been How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and So You Want To Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo.

24 thoughts on “My White Privileges

  1. Craig, I am 82 year old black Great. Great Grandmother, I stumbled up on your piece today, while scrolling thru my computer. I have always told my children that there are some good white folks, you are one of them, I believe that you have good christen parents, that instilled goodness in you. You can guess at some of the hurtful things that I have expierienced growing up in the South, but I learned to forgive and can say today I love everyone, God has blessed me to live a long fruitful life and I believe he has blessed you too. Praise God everyday.

  2. I like your post Craig, I hope you could go further than the 3 steps you give. Number 3 is ” I hope to have the courage to say to a white guy, even if he’s talking to just white guys, that it’s not okay to say or do racist stuff.”
    That’s a useful thing to do, for sure, but it doesn’t go far to address 400 years of structural, systemic, deeply culturally and legally rooted patterns.
    Racism and poverty don’t seem as urgent to white people as climate change, perhaps, but if you’re living with it every single day, it would be nice for us white folks to see it is as an horrific, omnipresent, and urgent issue that goes beyond one-to-one interactions.

  3. Powerful stuff Craig! And most of us white people have some stories like this. You’ve really captured and held a mirror up to many of us on this topic. I think lots of Americans – and I admit to being one of them – thought that with the election of Barack Obama – that we had finally risen above this. But it’s all unconscious assumptions, unconscious behavior, history and cultural attitude isn’t it? This is a truly heartful write and I’m sharing it. Thanks much!

  4. Good one, Craig, that resonates. I was fortunate to be confronted by advantage relatively young (18) and head on, and am thankful for that. Like the three actions, but they are starting points. Keep it coming…

  5. Craig, you’ve done it again! Looked deeply into your shadows and spoken honestly without blame so the rest are inspired to do the same. Thank you. I am working daily with this lens. Some other resources than the excellent ones mentioned above are Sherry Mitchell’s book, “Sacred Instructions”, and her work to heal collective trauma (all skin colors) through the Healing Turtle Island ceremonies over the past 4 summers at Nibezun (above Old Town, on the Penobscot). Lately “My Grand Mother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem has opened my eyes to the underlying trauma that fuels human hatred and “othering”; this includes white trauma that he traces back to the middle ages and came to these shores with the colonial settlers looking for “freedom”. Privilege has deep roots and is hard to notice, so thank you for noticing and inspiring me and all of us to do the same.

  6. Craig- Thank you for sharing. I have had so many of the same reflections of my own white privilege. With a very beautiful diverse family, I have had the opportunity to learn much from my children’s partners and their experience and look at the world with anxiety toward what the future hold for my children and grandchildren. I feel an urgency that I must admit I didn’t have until my family became more diverse. I love the books you have raised up as well as some in the comment section. I appreciate the work you do everyday to name issues but then offer actions we can take to address those issues.

  7. I think that the word “privilege” is an unfortunate word, since it comes from academia and brings with it some pretentiousness. It also seems to exclude the working class who I’m sure don’t see themselves as privileged in this wretched economy. I’m sure that it puts a lot of people off who might otherwise listen to the facts. “White advantage” might work better, and I prefer to use it in everyday conversation.

      1. I would agree that poor white men who have been through the prison system are more likely to be treated differently by the police. My son for example was jailed many times for drug-related crimes and he is a target in our community. I also think the issue relates to those who stand out. For example, A person with a “spastic” disability might be seen as someone on drugs. Black people stand out as do others who don’t conform to the norm.

  8. Thank you, Craig. May the journey be one of enlightenment for all of us who choose it. Reading, listening, and learning the real story is a beginning. I like your 3-step method for what comes next.

  9. Well said, Craig, and previous commentators. We are all oppressors and oppressed at various times, based not just on skin color (“race” is a social construct invented by whites to create privilege, so I don’t use the term) but also gender, sexual orientation, economic and social class, ability/disability, religion or belief systems, and age (we were all young once).

  10. Thanks Craig,
    I really saw a lot of myself in your story, although for white women, it is an even different story of socially constructed fear and an unjustified need for protection. I’m gonna give that some thought.
    I want to share some stories that have opened my eyes a bit. Amber Ruffin is a comedian and writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers and there is a video on YouTube that was aired just after the George Floyd murder that is just eye-opening, “Amber Ruffin Shares a Lifetime of Run-ins with Police” I love her segment, “Amber Says What?” as well, because humor is a great communicator, but these stories are anything but funny. Don’t let that deter you, though, she is an amazing story teller.

    Also check out Emmanuel Acho’s “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” on YouTube. There are a number of videos to chose from.

    1. Thanks Theresa!
      Yes, I would like to hear more on this from a woman’s perspective.
      Thanks for the recommendations.

  11. As a white female of privilege, perhaps my level of privilege as a woman is somewhat less than that as a white male but nevertheless, much greater than that of any person of color. My personal reminder that I have white privilege occurs every time I drive my car. If I exceed the speed limit by even one mile per hour, I automatically think that, if I was black, I would likely be pulled over. This thought comes to me every time I am in my car. I have read one of the two books you recommended, “How to Be an Ant-Racist but have not read the second one yet. However, I would like to recommend a couple additional readings. I learned a great deal from reading, “White Fragility” by DiAngelo. For those white people who believe we are “woke”, we still have a lot to learn. I also learned much from reading “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. Before reading this book, I had no comprehension of the absolute devastation caused by the Jim Crow laws. This read was truly life changing. I am now reading Wilkerson’s second book “Caste”. I think I will be equally changed by this writing. I have also found that choosing to watch tv journalists of color has given me an invitation to learn so much about the ways that people of color need to navigate this world. For example, I just learned about the proposed law called the Crown Act. This has nothing to do with the royal crown that may come to mind. Rather, it refers to a proposal to protect people of color from being punished for the way in which they choose to wear their hair (cover their crown). Nobody has ever criticized me for the way I wear my hair while in one example, a young black student was assaulted by a teacher who forcibly cut her braid. We have so much to learn and I am pleased that you have started this discussion in your group. Thank you, Ann Johnson

    1. Thanks for your own stories, Ann, and for the recommendations.
      Very much appreciate you writing all this up and sharing it with us.

  12. Craig, I rally appreciate your naming and calling out our privileges which I as a WASP male share with you.

  13. Thanks Craig for your honesty and courage. Ibram Kendi’s book is intense but you have motivated me to finish it. It can be overwhelming to take it all in some days. Maybe that is as it should be. It does hit you and stop you in your tracks.

    1. Thanks Bob.
      So nice to hear from you.
      Yes, there’s a lot to be said for getting hit and stopped in our tracks.

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