You can do something or be something for years and never realize that what you do or what you are has a name.
I’m going to tell five stories about the exercise of my white privilege. Only two or three come to mind so I will have to do some hard thinking about the others. The danger, of course, is that my life experiences are so encased in white privilege that I won’t be able to sort out specific stories. Perhaps so, but I am undeterred.
The most important and overarching exercise of my white privilege has to do with raising our children. We have four children, one is a birth child who White, and three are adopted, they are all Hispanic. The child who is White glided through school and, as fortune would have it, she went to integrated schools, rode the city bus to a central city high school, worked in a black neighborhood, and maneuvered all this with very little help from her parents. We had only to make the occasional connection and cheer her on. There was, no doubt, white privilege involved in all that, that she was able to move so seemingly effortlessly between the White east side and the Black north west side; everyone who knew her and us helped her do that. Writing this helped me see this for the first time, how, perhaps, we used our white privilege to open doors for her which she was then willing to enter but perhaps would not have been open without our white privilege. A story for a different time.
This story, not really a story, but a set of impressions, has to do with our adopted kids. There are no details here, no plot line. There are just dozens of times when we walked into a classroom, came to a meeting, met teachers in a hallway with our kids in tow – the myriad jokes and recollections of the surprise that our Hispanic kids had White parents. We made this into a family joke. Meeting one son’s teacher in the hall of his high school, “Are you his social worker?” So we laughed about that.
But the truth of the matter is that we were aware that our whiteness was a weapon, a defensive weapon. We didn’t see it as white privilege, we saw it as making sure that our whiteness got between our kids and institutional assumptions and reactions based on their being Hispanic. So something would happen at school and we would show up because it was essential that teachers and administrators saw that we were White. We never talked about this as a strategy, it was reflex. I guess you pack a pistol on your hip long enough you don’t even remember it’s there.
It is hard to describe, body language being what it is, so imperceptible, such a faint scent of attitude, but I can recall so well, even now twenty years later, how some teachers’ entire aura would change at the moment of recognition. Oh. They have white parents. The physicality of it is impossible to describe. They aren’t who you thought they were, right?
We didn’t use our white privilege to make lives better for anyone else. We used it to get our kids through a school system that often seemed bent on discounting them and when they graduated we moved on. We knew the power we had but we just used it for our own purposes. Maybe that’s a bad thing. I think it was what life demanded at the time, the fog of parenting being what it is. I don’t apologize but I do acknowledge. White privilege served us in many ways, that it was to protect our kids may be a redeeming feature. I’m not sure. I am just telling my stories here.
By way of context, we live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city of about 600,000, which has the distinction of being one of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S.