Musings on white privilege

When you grow up watching your mother cut up two or three hot dogs and mix it with a can of beans and some ketchup to feed a family of nine for dinner, you don’t think of yourself as privileged.

The notion of privilege also seems foreign when you grow up hearing tales of Catholic quotas at Iowa University’s sororities and fraternities, or “Irish need not apply” signs faced by immigrant ancestors.

The penal code enacted by the British against the native Catholic population in Ireland is remarkably similar to laws in the United States that made educating slaves a crime.

So, it was interesting to attend a seminar at Greensboro’s new International Civil Rights Museum that discussed white privilege and other racial matters.

Yet I’ve often recognized that the GI Bill helped pay for my father’s education and my parent’s first house. My mother came from a family that valued higher education for women so much they moved across country to attain it for all five daughters in the mid 1800s.

My family faced discrimination and prejudice because they were Irish, Catholic and poor. They had too many kids, crammed into too little space and they talked funny. Many assumed they were drunkards, given their ancestry — a charge that hit home more often than not. Others assumed they were lazy, stupid and couldn’t be trusted. Sadly, the rhetoric of hate hasn’t changed all that much. Just ask Arizona.

So, my ancestors didn’t have it easy, but they also enjoyed many privileges accorded to those with white skin that weren’t accorded to those with brown or black skin.

The GI Bill that moved my family from a poor city neighborhood  of Irish and Italian immigrants into the college-educated, middle class suburbs was stopped by redlining and other legally sanctioned forms of discrimination against African-American GIs.

The college education my mother received led to a home that valued books and trips to public libraries, museums, parks and other community resources. My mother read to me; she read to all of us. She introduced us to music and song and culture and manners and taught us which fork to use and how to look people in the eye when introduced. 

My mother refused to let us say, “Yes sir” or “Yes ma’am.” She thought such terms were demeaning to us, and after all, weren’t we as good as anybody else? Ichoose to use those terms now, as a sign of respect. They don’t have any power over me. I’m not worried, as my mother and ancestors were, of anyone confusing me “with a shanty Irish maid” or a “scrubby Dutch” – our two main heritages.

Yet I also recognize that words have power, and that privilege is best viewed from the vantage point of those who don’t have it than those that do. Most white people, myself included, don’t like to hear about white privilege. Not wanting to hear about it, doesn’t make it any less true.


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