My nephew just got married in Boston. The celebration was beautiful, and I especially liked hearing all his relatives, old and new, saying how much they appreciated our coming from “so fah away”. You can hear a Bostonian a mile away.
I am a New Yorker. Everywhere I have lived in the United States, people nod their heads when I say I’m from New York. I don’t say “New Yawk” or talk like Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, but I guess regional identities go much deeper than that.
I’m Jewish. That puts me in a distinct minority nearly everywhere I go, except in synagogue and at some of my friends’ children’s weddings. I now live in the rural Midwest. Jews here are more noticeable than where I grew up, or even in Maine, where I have lived the longest.
But more than any of these characteristics, I am white. Before anyone I meet learns about my regional origins, religion, education, or personality, my white skin is apparent, even if I rarely think about it.
When I walk down a city street or into a store, when I stand in front of a class or an audience, when my photo appears next to my name online, I am obviously white. In America, that mainly means not black. We whites don’t usually think about our whiteness, because it has been defined as the American norm. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” he meant white men. Two centuries later, as I was growing up, any deviation from whiteness was still exceptional in every position of authority, wealth, and status.
Whiteness was not just the American norm, it was an American privilege. White skin was a universal passport into businesses, restaurants, clubs, universities, and neighborhoods. Black skin was a handicap. Not only in the South, but in towns all across the US, barriers were constructed to keep black skin out. Golf clubs and banks, college admissions departments and restaurants and real estate agents accorded white skin the privilege of respectful treatment and black skin the handicap of refusal.
Because whites were the great majority, most barely noticed that they enjoyed the privilege of decent human treatment. Blacks couldn’t help but notice their handicap.
That contrast of privilege and handicap continues today. When Oprah was told by a Swiss sales clerk that she couldn’t afford an expensive handbag, it made worldwide headlines, but more serious incidents happen every day to ordinary people of color. Earlier this year black Illinois College students were falsely accused of shoplifting by a clerk with color on her mind.
The so-called “stop and frisk” policy of the New York City Police Department, in which pedestrians were stopped by police officers only on the basis that they looked suspicious, was declared illegal by a federal judge last year, because of its racial implementation: of the nearly 700,000 people stopped in 2011, 84% were black or Latino. The New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told state legislators that blacks and Latinos were purposely targeted “to instill fear in them” that they could be stopped by police any time they left their homes.
The dangers of driving while black are not exaggerated. The Kansas City police were three times more likely to stop a black driver for “investigation”, not traffic safety, than a white driver, and five times more likely to search their car.
I have been thinking a lot about my whiteness lately. The Illinois College campus where I teach is suddenly much more diverse, because the first-year class is one-third minorities. There are African and African American students in my small class on political writing. My department is searching for a specialist in African American history, which has never been taught at IC before. There is no reason to believe that black people see these encounters with me in the same way I do.
The privilege of having white skin in America is that I will be treated as any person should be treated: with respect. I am not assumed to be deviant or dangerous, to be a criminal or a drug addict. That’s a privilege that can easily be forgotten. It takes a trip to China to remind me what it is like to be considered weird just because of the way I look.
Outside of a few cities like Shanghai or Beijing, white people are rare in China, and the Chinese have no social prohibitions on staring. It can be unnerving to have everyone you encounter on a busy street turn and stare, to have bicyclists crane their necks to look at you, to have drivers risk accidents to get a better view.
But that’s still not enough to fully understand how blacks continue to be treated in America. The Chinese are not hostile, just curious. The police don’t stop me. Nobody fears me because of my skin color.
My white skin is an unearned privilege, one which I hope eventually disappears.
Taking Back Our Lives