A friend recently shared an article about “white privilege.”
Growing up in a working class family in Detroit, I didn’t feel particularly privileged. My dad liked to point out that we always had meat on the table—a sign that we were doing ok. But privileged? Not so much.
And then after high school, I moved to southern Virginia, where being white was definitely a privileged position. I could live wherever I wanted and go to any restaurant or beach (at the time, beaches were still segregated, and although restaurants and housing were not legally segregated, they were in reality).
I experienced prejudice because I was a “Yankee,” but people only knew that when I spoke.
While working for the FBI in Virginia, an agent transferred in who was also a “Yank.” He and I often shared experiences of being northerners living in the south. On the day of his transfer out, I sat beside his desk saying goodbye. As I would with anyone else, I went to hug him. He reflexively stopped me; I was confused.
“Do you see that door up there?” he asked, pointing to the exit some sixty feet away. I nodded. “If I let you hug me, I will never make it to that door alive,” he said. He was an African American. I wasn’t thinking about the difference in our skin color, but he could not forget it.
Years later, I was living in Pennsylvania and regularly visited someone at the state women’s prison. I usually went on weekdays and would be the only person checking in at the gatehouse.
The security check involved going through a metal detector and sometimes having a wand passed over my body, like the security check at an airport.
I went through this same routine on every visit, until one time when I arrived at the gatehouse and another woman was already being checked in. I watched as this woman was taken by a female guard through a door off to the right, and the door was closed. After the door closed, I stepped up to the counter and went through my usual process.
I cleared security and was waiting for the door to the prison to open when the guard escorted the woman back into the room. I wondered what happened behind the closed door, but I could not go back, so I did not get to ask.
This same scenario played out periodically over the years and I finally asked the guard what went on behind the closed door. “Strip search,” she said.
Each of the women I saw escorted to the side room was African American. In more than ten years of visiting that prison, I was never strip searched.
These and other experiences have helped me come to a deeper understanding of how the color of my skin matters. I know that being white usually means I can move through the world without even thinking about the color of my skin, and that, in itself, is a privilege.