Reflections on White Privilege

aging in place black lives matter

…Teach your children well

Their father’s hell did slowly go by

And feed them on your dreams…

~Gram Nash

 

Aging in Place

Recent events in this country have given rise to many difficult and much needed conversations between individuals. I had two insightful encounters just last night; one with an Asian descent young doctor and later in the evening as I was leaving, with an older African American woman who cleans the clinic at night. Both exchanges were mainly listening exercises by me, a white, baby boomer male nurse. I left each encounter deep in thought and soul-searching…

White Privilege

The term “white privilege” is attributed to Peggy Mcintosh, (White woman) a feminist/activist and associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She first employed the term in 1988 when writing an opinion piece exploring and framing how society was systematically dominated by a white, male power structure.

I first encountered the term in the early 1990s when it was frequently directed at me during my studies in the education department at Portland State University. I admit I was not only defensive but puzzled by the aggressive nature of the accusers. After all, they did not know me nor the challenges I faced to be in the classroom sitting next to them.

I struggled with being labeled with “white privilege” because I had worked hard all my life and made tough choices—not taking the path-of-least-resistance. I hadn’t (in my PAST opinion) had much “privilege” and in fact, many of the minorities and women had been offered greater opportunities in the form of student financial grants and jobs than I did as a struggling white male lacking resources. Something I later learned was due to a phenomenon called “the resurgence of the repressed.”

Historical Context My White Maleness

When I was born my father handed me over to my aunt and skipped town (flew off to Hawaii with another women I found out much later in life). He abandoned three tiny children with my mother (who had a high school education and no driver’s license and she never did drive her entire life) to fend for ourselves. I never saw him until later as an adult and only briefly. He never visited, never called, never paid child-support, never sent birthday cards or holiday greetings. He was a violent alcoholic and mistreated my mother, spent time in jail for embezzling money from older adults in a nursing home. He was not a good person nor the ideal father figure.

We were taken in by my grandmother and my mother’s sister and brother. Seven of us shared a small one bathroom, three-bedroom home until we were old enough to leave home after graduating high school. Our entire lives growing up we had summer jobs working in the fields, including my mother. We rode the bus early in the morning to pick beans, strawberries, and other fruits alongside other lower-class white and migrant workers from Mexico. I can remember falling asleep as a child on damp 100 lb. bean bags in the soft cool dirt. And being scorched by the mid-summer sun as we worked the rows of freshly irrigated strawberries.

As kids we never went to summer camps (we were expected to earn money to buy school clothes), no trips to Disney Land. We did go camping and had wonderful family times in the woods. It cost little to tent camp and as kids we did not know the difference. I was aware of other kid’s experiences who lived on the other side of the tracks—literally and figuratively. They went to tennis camps or went on European vacations. This was a parallel universe and was so far out of reach in my imagination of possibility. These were the children of the professional class; they lived in an elite section of town and had all the advantages of those with means.

I remember in junior high (I worked on weekends in the store where my uncle was a checker) being invited to go on a skiing trip with some kids from the other side of town. I was excited by the invitation but fearful because I did not have skiing equipment (they all did and knew how to ski from taking lessons for years). My mother, at the time could not afford the equipment nor health insurance for me, so I had to sit in the ski lodge as the other kids skied all day. I was mortified inside but did my best to act like things were OK. I never forgot this experience.

First Generation University Grad

No one in my family had ever gone to college, my uncle did not finish high school because he had to drop out to take care of his dying father. He worked in a grocery store as a clerk and later in a large metallurgical factory. My aunt worked in the office of a metallurgical factory as well for over 50 years, she was the rock, and my mother worked in a factory, then split shifts as a cook at a local nursing home, then in a cooler cutting meat (she was a lifelong vegetarian and that must have been hell)—these were jobs she could walk to because she did not drive.

These were hard working honest people, who took care of us growing up. They also did not trust people with educations. I was at a family gathering once and they were talking about how the individuals in their workplaces with educations were “the crooks and lazy ones.” That never left me also.

College was something I wanted and needed but my grades were not the best, there was no family money saved, and no one had gone before me to show the way. I was on my own. I took out loans, applied, work crazy hard to get my grades up, and made many mistakes in the process. Little-by-little I had success after success; small at first then greater…I worked in a nursing home as a Certified Nursing Assistant while working towards a nursing degree.

ICU Nursing/Professional Education

I gained confidence and work with discipline to achieve my seemingly out-of-reach goals. I earned my BS in Nursing, passed the boards, applied to an ICU internship, and won one of three spots working at a local hospital in the Portland Area. I had a twenty-three-year career in Acute Care Nursing, and simultaneously earned two master’s degrees and finally a PhD. I worked, sacrificed, borrowed money (I am still paying student loans), and achieved beyond my wildest dreams.

I paid off car loans, student loans, bought a modest condo, and later a small home. I donated to charities, volunteered at the YMCA, Meals on Wheels, and other events like the Portland Marathon, and embarked on a speaking career about aging and wellness, as well as this website/blog. I mention all this context to share my experience. I have no doubt White Privilege played some part in my advancement in life. Ironically, as a white male, I have spent my entire adult career working as a gender minority in nursing and many of my bosses were/are women of color.

My path has been non-traditional, rocky and at times heart-wrenching. Often it has not felt as privileged as I have been told. Yet I know that I may not have been privileged as those on the other side of the tracks, the franchised, with full tuition paid never having to worry about student loans, legacy business to glide into, high-value property to inherit, trust funds or exclusive clubs. But “White Privilege” as I have learned, comes in other “currency.”

Trick-or-Treat Life-Lesson in White Privilege

Coming from meager beginnings and a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice does not make you immune from white privilege as I am very aware of. Recent events and conversations have caused me to reflect on an event early in my childhood which turns out, was my first evidence of White Privilege. It was Halloween in the small mill town in Oregon where I grew up. My mother was putting the final touches on costumes for myself and my childhood African American friends. Sonny and Frank were the children of an Air-Force solider from Texas stationed in an area just outside of town. Our family befriended them as they became members of the Kiwanis club sponsored football team (grade school) on which I played.

This small town rarely saw black people as most minorities in the area were migrant workers from south of the border, Native Americans or the Chinese family that owned a local restaurant, or from the insular-world of the university 10 miles to the west; a world away. I remember feeling good about sharing our home and lives with these newcomers from a distant land. I was never taught to be racist and proud of my immediate family for welcoming them with open arms. Not all extended family members felt that way.

I will never forget as Sonny, Frank, and their younger female cousin were getting dressed up with us. My mom was creating their outfits for a night of trick-or-treating when they held up their bags which would collect the goodies, and exposed small clubs or nightsticks in each bag—even the smallest female child. Mom asked what the clubs were for? Their father had told them to use the sticks to protect themselves from harm if they encountered trouble.

My mother’s demeanor darkened, and a palpable sadness came over her face. She quickly changed course and assured the kids they would be alright and would be safe. Go have fun and come back with tons of candy was her parting message—you will not need the clubs.

She was right, we had a fun night of neighborhood trick-or-treating without incident. Yet, I often wonder if she didn’t follow from a distance to make sure of it.

Childhood Lessons on Race

Looking back after all these years I now see that the Halloween incident with my African American childhood friends was my first taste of White Privilege. NEVER in my young life did I as a white kid have to worry about violence being perpetrated against me trick-or-treating. That was not on my mind—yet it was something my small friends of color had to consider as a possibility. Their joy had to find room to accommodate that stark reality…That is unjust, period.

A Change is Going to Come

Stand in Solidarity with people of color, being “Othered” is a crime against humanity. In quiet moments I encourage you to do a life-review and like me, reflect and think deeply about how white privilege may have shown up in your experience if you are Caucasian. Then share it, have a conversation, and better yet find a way to make someone feel appreciated for their diversity then work for equality. A change is going to come…

 

See

White Privilege

A special thanks to the Asian MD and the African American Night Cleaning Person for a conversation that caused some soul-searching.

*update note: Since writing this I talked with my 94 year-old aunt, she too still remembered the Halloween incident with my African American friends. Obviously it made a life-long impression on her as well.

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