Skip Pollard: White privilege is flipside of black repression
I always considered myself to be unprejudiced, having been raised by socially liberal parents who taught me to judge a person based on their character rather than the color of their skin.
At the same time, I’ve been a lifelong beneficiary of “white privilege.”
The town where I grew up in the 1960s — a racially diverse though largely segregated suburb of New York City — was among the first in our state to have mandated school integration. When they started bussing Black kids to our elementary school, just a couple blocks from home in our white neighborhood, I had to cross a picket line of white ladies protesting.
When I got to my class, I saw a Black kid I knew from church sitting there looking really, really scared. I didn’t get it — I knew he was a nice kid. When I asked my mother what all the fuss was about, she told me to ignore it; told me it was all nonsense. She had no countenance for bigots. And so, I grew up largely oblivious to just how systemically bad racism in America really was. Blissful ignorance was one of the benefits of my “white privilege.”
After college, I got into the advertising business in New York City. One of my first jobs was with a major international agency with over 1,200 employees. One day we had a huge company-wide meeting. Walking into the auditorium, I commented to a colleague “Try and find a Black person in the room.” There were none. And though I’d been a very mediocre college student with no unique qualifications, I’d landed a good job with a prestigious firm. This was “white privilege” at work.
Some years later, en route back to New York after a vacation in Australia, I booked an overnight stay at a fancy hotel in Malibu. After checking in, I decided to go in search of a good bottle of wine and some nice cheese to enjoy with the ocean view. Not knowing the area, but presuming there must be a deli or bodega nearby, I went wandering down the street to see what I could find. A few doors down, I happened upon a small grocery that, at first glance, seemed stocked with what I wanted. Upon closer inspection, however, I discovered the selections to be woefully pedestrian. Hoping I wouldn’t have to settle, I turned to the only other person in the store — a middle-aged Black man dressed much like myself in casual beach attire — and asked “Excuse me, do you live around here?”
The man’s eyes widened, his body tensed, and he answered in a distinctively defensive tone “Yes, I do!” “
Oh, good,” I replied, “Tell me, is there another grocery store nearby? Someplace I might find a better selection of cheese and wine?”
The man relaxed a bit and said, haltingly, “No – this is the only store around here.”
“OK, thanks.” I replied and went about my business, not realizing until later how my query had been interpreted. While I was simply looking to find out if this man was a tourist like myself, or a local who could provide information on the area, my inquiry came across as questioning whether or not he “belonged” in the affluent town of Malibu — his reaction a reflection of white privilege endemic in American society.
As a white man, I’ll never know what it feels like to have to defend my right to be someplace based on the color of my skin. On the few occasions where I was stopped for a traffic violation, I never worried about being hauled out of my car to be handcuffed, beaten or killed. And when I’d go jogging after work, in the dark, I never worried about somebody mistaking me for a thief on the run. These are all reflections of my white privilege. The average Black man in America — no matter how well-educated, well dressed or successful — does not share my experiences.
Hopefully, at some point, this will change. But for that to happen we must all first acknowledge the racism inherent in “white privilege,” and the damage it inflicts upon our non-white brothers and sisters. White privilege is the flip side of the coin to Black oppression; each gain realized through white privilege is paid for through Black repression.
In order for a society to be fair and just, opportunity and justice need to be colorblind.
Skip Pollard lives in Grass Valley.
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