A student of mine got his nose a little out of joint when a speaker at an assembly mentioned the concept of “White Privilege”. I could see that he having the reflexive response I suppose anyone has when they think they are being told that “they have it easy”; life is hard, being human is hard, no one has it easy.
I told the class the story of the Halloween snowstorm from a few years back when just about anyplace in the region with above ground power lines lost electricity for days or, in some cases, weeks. My house in the core of the city, provided as it is with underground power lines, never lost power as a consequence of the storm and so we ended up being a shelter for some in the aftermath of the storm.
Among our refugees here in the house was my mother. Her home, selected by her and my father decades and decades ago as Berkshirites, sits on a well-wooded dirt road on the city line; nestled in the forest with only one home as a neighbor and separated from a Jewish synagogue by a berm and some old growth shrubbery. My mother always kept an enormous freezer in the basement packed with meat and she became concerned, as the power outage went on, that all of that food would go to waste. Given that we now had anywhere from 3 to 6 extra mouths to feed beyond the 5 people already living in the home we decided that it would be a good idea for me to rescue as much of the food as I could from her freezer.
Because my mom’s street was still impassible, strewn as it was with the foliage laden branches whose sudden nearly universal breakage had caused the storm to be so disastrous, I decided to access my mom’s house by way of the Temple Beth El parking lot. A short slog over the berm and through a small patch of woods seemed easier than a 1/4 mile walk all the way down Brentwood Street. As I trudged back through the woods, heavy laden with 7 or 8 grocery bags of loot pilfered from my mom’s basement, I noticed that my car now shared the enormous parking lagoon with a police cruiser; there was one of Springfield’s finest relaxing old school with a newspaper and a coffee.
In my mind I went through the explanation for what I was doing. As I walked up to officer I blurted out: “It’s my mom’s house, I was just getting all this from her freezer. The power’s out and…”
He looked up at me, said “Yeah”, and went back to reading the paper.
Do you think, if I had been a young Black guy, or Puerto Rican, the cop would have been so nonchalant? I don’t. I think he might have asked for i.d., or he might have asked a follow up question. Something. And that, my friends, is an example of White Privilege.
I went on, speaking extemporaneously in English (I’m a Spanish teacher) to explain that privilege can accrue to almost any group in a given circumstance. As I thought about it I realized that two experiences I had had that week were perfect examples of minority privilege in my community.
On Tuesday, coming home from our favorite local organic farm, I was about to cross Maple Street with a heavy bag of foodstuffs. I could see that I had been spotted by a man across the street who had checked his perambulation and was now eying me for a request for donation to rescue him from some made up personal catastrophe; broken down car, lack of bus fare, his son traded a cow for some magic beans. I wasn’t in the mood so I did my best Clark Griswold imitation for a few seconds by feigning obliviousness to what he was about to attempt and then altered my path walking straight to my front door instead of remaining in the crosswalk as any good designer of food additives would do. Ha ha, I won that round.
The next day I was accompanying my step-daughter to her play rehearsal. I had noticed a food truck parked nearby and decided to pick up dinner there instead of cooking in the extraordinary heat of this late May. On the way back I was satisfied with the hipster-like urbanity of my food truck purchase. So caught up was I in the joy of the moment that I stopped being hyper-vigilant:
-Yo, yo man, can I use your phone to make a call man.
-I can make a call for you if you need me to.
-Sure man, you can put it on speaker phone, man.
The fairly large high school age young man was still wearing his school uniform at 5 pm. As the phone rang and his friend picked up it became more and more clear, with every “yo yo, let me have the phone man!” that this was a ruse intended to steal my unlocked iPhone. I explained that I was never going to just give him my phone. I communicated the obviously pre-scripted message of “meeting him at the park” and said that I had to go and that was that.
He contemplated whether or not he would risk trying to grab the phone, decided against it and we went our separate ways. Ha ha ha. I won again. A$$hole. (That was not part of my classroom telling of the story)
There were a least another dozen people or more on that block. I was the only White person. If I had been Black, if I had been Hispanic I would not have been targeted and I have to say that of all the frustrating elements inherent in living in a poor minority neighborhood for a middle class White guy number one for me would have to be the fact that I am always a mark. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it pales in comparison to the frustrations of being poor and minority in general, but as pains in the ass go, constantly being lied to and being scammed…by my own neighbors…is the most frustrating.
My neighborhood needs more diversity. Which here means more middle class White people. If there are enough of us at some point I won’t seem to everyone else, despite living here for all or part of the last 4 decades, like I got lost looking for Wally-World.