(cross-posted to Daily Kos under Barriers and Bridges)
I’ve been thinking about how white privilege has affected my life. I look at all the breaks I caught in my life as cute smart white smileycreek and wonder…what if I had been born cute smart black smileycreek? How would it all have turned out?
I can’t really know, of course, but please try to understand as I work my way through the possibilities.
First, a bit of economic and cultural background which I’m going to hold as constants for black smileycreek : I came from a lower middle class family whose fortunes were rapidly disintegrating when I, the youngest of eight kids, was born. As my father’s alcoholism progressed we moved from the two story house I was born in to a series of increasingly shabby apartment complexes. After Mom divorced him and went back to work (starting out with a minimum wage retail job), I was 14 and the last child living at home. We ended up in a small apartment on the edge of a poor neighborhood right next to my fully integrated high school. We didn’t have a phone or car. She filed for bankruptcy so she wouldn’t be responsible for Dad’s back taxes. Going against her pride, she even applied for welfare but was denied because we were just above the poverty line.
Throughout my school years my fellow white students’ families were mostly far better off than mine. I wore hand-me-downs, had one good pair of school shoes, and was acutely aware of lacking the advantages of those around me. I couldn’t take part in school sponsored events either due to lack of money or parental involvement. My parents had their own issues to deal with; they were not, to put it mildly, PTA or car-pooling types.
So now I wonder: With everything being equal, how would black smileycreek’s experience have been different? I don’t know, but I’m going to try to walk in her shoes.
Throughout my primary school years I was often overlooked for not being one of the well-dressed kids from a privileged family. Still, I was often singled out for being a bright kid who was moved into advanced placement classes. I was a solitary soul who was not a troublemaker and tended to make and stick with one good friend at a time.
So, now I wonder. Would bright, introspective black smileycreek also have gotten just enough positive reinforcement from her teachers, the kind she didn’t get at home, to realize she was smart and could make something of herself? Or would she have been mostly ignored?
I don’t know. I find it hard to imagine what her early life might have been like.
In high school I got my first job. I wrote a diary about it mentioning the current unemployment statistic of 24% for teenagers. In the comments Meteor Blades pointed out that the unemployment rate for black male teenagers is at 50%. And it suddenly hit me– I would never have gotten that job if I had been black smileycreek. There were no black people who worked at that Long’s Drug Store. I didn’t even apply for that job– the manager knew my (cute blonde) older sister and when he saw me in the store the idea popped into his head. Had he seen black smileycreek in his store the idea might well have popped into his head that she was more a potential shoplifter than potential employee. I was hired because I was cute and perky and it looked good to have an in-house gift wrapper. While I wasn’t hired because I was white, it was an unspoken prerequisite.
Perhaps black smileycreek could have gotten a similiar-paying job at a McDonald’s. She might have had to apply for numerous jobs and be rejected who knows how many times. Maybe she wouldn’t have had that self-esteem enhancing experience of having someone approach and ask you to work for them.
How many times does an experience like that add up in a young person’s life? I don’t know.
I wanted to go to college. No one else in my family had, except for one brother who attended on a scholarship to avoid the Vietnam draft. All I had to do was look at my mom’s life to know I wanted something better than being tied down with kids and then find myself alone, only able to eak out a minimum wage job. I wanted to do better than she had, and deep inside I had this burning need to be of service. I recently found an overdramatic poem I wrote at age 15 on that subject, and the sincerity in it was fierce, clumsy and real. I imagine black smileycreek with that burning need to make the world better. Would that have kept her shielded from despair, would it have helped deflect the world’s casual, unthinking racism?
I don’t know. I find it hard to imagine.
The nearby community, state, and even University colleges were affordable in 1974. There were grants and scholarships I qualified for, but I couldn’t both go to college and support myself. This is the same set of opportunities and dilemmas that would have faced black smileycreek, but I think it would have also been harder for her in ways I can’t conceive. What I did know was this– I needed a way to support myself while working towards a future.
I applied to the local County Hospital for training as a X-Ray tech. This was a two-year program of full-time on-the-job training. You worked forty hours a week, got a smattering of classes and the end a chance to take a licensing exam.
Would black smileycreek have gotten into this program? I think so. There were three black technicians on the staff, and two of the six students who were accepted were Hispanic. It was a teaching hospital where people of various races and nationalities worked and trained.
Would black smileycreek and I have had different experiences there? Oh, yes. One day Sharla*, a black technician, was wheeling a gurney across the hall to the emergency room and ran over the toe of an indigent white man who was slumped across the floor. Enraged, he leaped up and slugged her in the mouth, hard enough to knock a front tooth out. She and her tooth were hustled to the dental surgery ward where it was successfully reimplanted. That was the only violence I ever saw there, and I wondered if the same man would have slugged me in the mouth if I’d run into him. I was pretty certain he wouldn’t have. Sharla’s work life was clearly different and more dangerous than mine. It was a life haunted by insults and epithets spoken or unspoken, and by violence, real and implied.
And here’s the pivot point where I can categorically say black smileycreek’s life and mine would have taken different paths.
I went to look for a job as an X-ray tech starting at the upscale Catholic hospital in town because it was the nicest, the cleanest, and best-paying of the three local hospitals. They were not advertising for a job. I walked in, asked to talk to the Chief Technician, then asked for part-time work I could schedule around my classes. I offered to work the hours regular employees didn’t want; the nights, weekends, and holidays. He created an 18 hour a week job for me made up of late afternoons and Saturdays.
Would black smileycreek have gotten that job? I can flatly say no. That Chief tech was a narcissist who in time also struck me as a bigot. He would likely have smiled and offered black smileycreek an employment application and then put it on file and never given it another thought. It wouldn’t have been discriminatory because there was no actual job opening available. He liked me. He liked how I looked and so he created the position for me. How do I know this? Because when I left town for grad school four years later the position disappeared when I did.
Black smileycreek could have gotten a job at the dirty, noisy, chaotic county hospital for less pay and worse conditions while othe
r graduates of the program moved on to better places. That was how it had worked out for the other three black technicians who worked there. I know because I asked them. Though they applied they were not offered jobs elsewhere.
I see black smileycreek working her way through college as I did, getting grants and scholarships. But I can’t imagine how much more weight she would carried. The deck would be stacked so much more heavily against her, even if she was never called the N-word to her face, or punched out; even if everyone smiled and was polite to her face. There are doors that never would have opened for her as they did for me.
I don’t know how what path my life would have taken from there as black smileycreek. I do know that I wouldn’t be living in this house (another lucky fluke) or be in the profession I’m currently in (another set of lucky breaks that wouldn’t have been there for black smileycreek).
But I hope – no, I know – that black smileycreek would also have found a path that led to making a difference in other people’s lives. I know her soul. She would have gone to college…and beyond. Other doors I can’t even imagine would have opened, though; of this I am sure. I know she would have held on to that burning desire to make a difference.
I just can’t begin to know what barriers she would have encountered along the way or how she would have dealt with them.
It’s humbling to contemplate.