Thursday, January 10, 2013

White Privilege, Philly Style

CAUTION: This scary-looking Negro could be
at an ATM near you soon.
Many, many years ago, I read an essay titled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," written by Peggy McIntosh, a white woman. 

I was floored. The light bulb came on, and for the first time ever, I was able to begin thinking about what I’d always known but had not been able to articulate—that as a person of color I felt the burden of an almost complete lack of assurance that the way I was treated and viewed by others had absolutely nothing to do with my race.

This reality, and a recollection of McIntosh’s essay, were on my mind today, because just yesterday I’d read an article by Alyssa Rosenberg titled “NBC’s ‘Deception,’ and Why Colorblindness is not Progressive”  in which Rosenberg writes: “Colorblindness is a form of privilege, of refusing to connect with people by hearing about their experiences, and of refusing to benefit by understanding the role race plays in your own.”

I appreciate these writings by McIntosh and Rosenberg because they are insightful and lend weight to a painful truth shared by many people of color.

Here’s an example of what I mean. 

Earlier today, my son Adam and I decided to have lunch in Chestnut Hill, a somewhat snooty area of Philadelphia not far from our home in Germantown. 

I have a love/hate relationship with Chestnut Hill. On the one hand, it’s filled with quaint, beautiful shops and good restaurants as well as my favorite bakery.  On the other hand, however, and like I said, the residents are a little snooty. For instance, many insist on  referring to Chestnut Hill as “Chestnut Hill, PA,” and listen, it’s in the city, okay? Stop the madness. 

Usually, I browse the shops without incident, even if I occasionally do get a weird vibe or two from some shopkeeper or while encountering another passerby on the street.

Today, before entering the restaurant, Adam and I decided to stop at a nearby ATM. I needed cash, and Adam needed to deposit a check. 

When we got to the ATM, a woman was already in line, about to begin her transaction. I stood in line behind her (probably a good four feet). Adam stood another feet few behind me. 

Suddenly, the woman turned and, spying Adam and me said “I’ll use the machine inside.” Then she scurried away. 

Frankly, I was happy, because I hadn’t felt like waiting, but Adam said “Hmmm … that was an interesting coincidence.” 

I said, "Maybe she was intimidated by all the buttons on the machine.” 

Adam, unconvinced replied, "Isn’t she going to face the same buttons on the ATM inside the bank?” 

I shrugged. "Maybe she’s going to the counter.” Pausing, and clearly still not convinced, Adam says, "Okay.” 

Only half-joking I said,  "I don’t know. Maybe she thought we were a tag team?” 

Adam says, “You mean, you block her from leaving and then I steal her money?” 

"Yeah,” I say.

Understand, this was a beautiful, clear sunny day in the middle of the afternoon, and I look every inch the middle-aged, middle-class woman, and Adam looks every inch the middle-class, preppy college student. Oh well… 

We’ll never know why that woman (who herself was a person of color, probably Asian) suddenly decided she’d rather handle her business elsewhere. And that’s the point. We’ll never know, but as people of color, we’ll always wonder, “Was it because we’re black?”

And McIntosh and Rosenberg, God bless them, get it. They get that it’s not enough to say, “For crying out loud, stop creating drama. That woman wasn’t thinking about you!” They get that being a black American carries with it such history, in some cases, such angst, that an admonishment to simply “Get over it,” isn’t going to cut it. It’s a privilege to live a life unconcerned with these matters, and I, for one, don’t have that privilege.


  1. ...and prejudice still does exist. Even "good" people have it in them. Even me, in some circumstances. We use the excuse that it's through conditioning, but the truth is the only time I've ever been attacked on the street was by a white man in a business suit. So why the fear when I encounter a casually dressed black man on a city street? Probably something I picked up as a child from the people around me.

    Funny, my husband is a great guy, really! He asked me with a chuckle what my Democratic parents (who are deceased) would say about "this" President? I was floored. I demanded to know what he meant. He knew he was wrong, and dropped the conversation. I said that they would probably love that he was trying to take care of the common man and stop letting the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I learn, every day!

  2. Hi Emom! I always say that I don't believe anyone can grow up in this divided nation and not "feel some kind of way" about people of different races. I just don't see how that's possible. So, I believe we've all got some “stuff” to deal with, and by “we” I’m definitely including me. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Another excellent article. Going to share this on my social networks.

    I know all too well the feeling of 'never quite knowing' - I live in a notoriously racist area and I find myself being extra nice and extra articulate to everyone I meet locally, just in case! It sucks to constantly on edge!

    1. Thanks for the support Serena!

      I cracked up upon reading that you try and be "more articulate." What a world!