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Bishop's Monday Message: My Story of White Privilege

Posted: June 22 2020 at 07:16 AM

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White privilege. Did you just brace yourself, if you look like me? It’s a term that’s been around at least since the late 1980s, but we have heard and learned more about it recently. Many of us benefit from white privilege.

Yet I would imagine there are some of you who have wrestled with the term as I have. What do you mean by “privilege,” you might ask. You might have had an upbringing like the one I did (or more difficult) so that you rankle a bit at the use of the word “privilege” in your own story.

Let me explain from my own experience.

I grew up in a home where we had few resources. Finances were very tight and tighter. My mother had to go to work outside the home because we didn’t have enough money. This was the source of great shame and consternation: women weren’t supposed to work outside the home. In fact, I remember my grandfather trying to get me to convince her not to. I saw little advantage in that scenario, since for her to go to work would give our family more money for the basics like food!  

So “privilege”? Yet now I see that even though we didn’t have a lot of resources, we were white and my mother could get a job. We were pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps…the bootstraps on our “white boots,” if you will!

I grew up in a context that even though I graduated first in my high school class, no one had the imagination that I could or would go to college. Seriously, I didn’t even take the SAT until July before I showed up for college in September when I just decided to go. I was accepted quickly after applying. But I wonder now if the college would have so readily accepted me if I wasn’t wearing my “white boots.”

You might begin to hear an undertone of sexism in my family’s culture. Not wanting my mother to work outside the home even when it was a necessity, for instance. It was, I might add, probably the best thing that ever happened to her. Plus, no one imagined that girl-children could be and do whatever they wanted. It was a serious hindrance, but at least I had my “white boots” on when I started walking my own path.

My father wouldn’t fill out the financial application for college, but I was able to pay for my college education initially because I had several jobs during high school. As I look back on it now, I see that there was no way I would have had those jobs and been paid as much as I was if I didn’t have my “white boots” on.

Our family experienced some difficulties along the way but I didn’t have that daily, chronic, debilitating experience, such as domestic violence, severe mental illness or addiction. But throw in those experiences—and if you’re able to yet overcome them—it may be tough to get your head around “privilege.” And yet what if you didn’t have on those “white boots”?

Years later when I was in seminary, my aunt came to visit me and asked, “How did you know to plan your life like this?” I laughed! There was no planning. I finally decided to start opening some doors and stepping through them. If things worked out, great. If not, I’d try the next door. Most of the doors I tried opened to me, and while I didn’t always know where they would lead—and often it was a hard trek—I kept going. Many of those doors would shut and even slammed in my face if I didn’t have on my “white boots.”

So I appreciate the struggle for some with the word “privilege” when every step of the way into adulthood (and maybe beyond) was taken without much if any help or resources or even support. It’s like climbing a mountain—but climbing the mountain with our “white boots” on. 

White privilege doesn’t mean that we didn’t work hard or that what we’ve accomplished was unearned. It’s to understand how much harder it would have been (and is today for many people of color) if we didn’t have on our “white boots.”  As soon as someone saw us in our need and determination, they looked at our white boots, consciously or unconsciously, and often gave us a chance.  As some have said, white privilege is moving and having our being with the “power of the benefit of the doubt.” While driving, out taking a walk at night in your own neighborhood, going to a bank for a loan, “white boots” will get your toe in the door more often than not!

The root origin of the word “privilege” means laws that impact individuals and communities. It’s more than laws, but systemic and structural ways that people with “white boots” take for granted and are often invisible to us. How about the house where you live? Or even the whole suburb? If it was built after World War II, it may have been built because of the loans the GI Bill gave to veterans in addition to an education—if you had “white boots” on. African American veterans were systematically denied those same benefits. (Did you know?) 

I don’t think having “white boots” makes me a bad person. It’s not like I can take them off! But it helps when I remember how my “white boots” have gotten me places that others may not have been able to go with as much, if not more, determination than I’ve had.   

If your story is even a little bit like mine, I encourage you to stop and reflect on how you got where you are. Then wonder and (realistically) imagine how it would have been different if you didn’t have on your “white boots.” And then, how will YOU open doors for others?

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