News & Views » Guest column

A moment of recognition from one of the privileged

Recognizing white privilege


1 comment

Let me tell you about the day I understood my white privilege.

It wasn't even in the States. It was in Paris, 20 years ago.

On December 3rd, 1996, a bomb went off in the Metro. The state responded with the usual actions, including bringing in the army. This meant that major metro and train stations were patrolled by gangs of uniformed young men with automatic weaponry. That was the first time I'd seen anything in person that could be labeled a "machine gun," and seeing it in the hands of uneasy 19-year olds with serious faces and practically unlimited powers made me nervous.

But not that nervous. Even though, according to French law and especially as a non-citizen, I was supposed to carry my identification papers on me at all times, I continued not to.

I wasn't about to bring my passport to work with me every day, and I knew that chances were slim I'd be stopped. I knew that even if I were stopped, being white, female and American, I would suffer minimal, if any, consequences.

Thus as I walked one morning through the underground maze of the Gare de l'Est metro station, I gave little thought to the group of four armed men in fatigues heading my way in the near distance.

That is until one of them reached out and put his hand on the arm of a man in front of me. A man with dark skin and darker hair, who one might expect to speak French with an Arabic accent. Or maybe speak little French at all.

As I passed by, I saw the man pull his wallet out, and my heart went out to him. I didn't know if he had been born in France, if he was a citizen from one of the French territories, if he was here on a visa, if his papers were in order or not.

I only knew that he was certainly very, very nervous. Even if he had spent every minute of his life on French soil — unlike me — his immediate future now hung in the balance because of his appearance.

Alison Leininger
  • Alison Leininger

That's witnessing the other side of the coin from my white privilege; the side that suffers while I benefit. The side that is peopled by other beings with equally valid lives, but who are viewed through a different lens and who live under that lens every single day.

White privilege means options. It means choosing not carrying your papers if it's considered to be too much of a bother. It means choosing which neighborhood to live in, which college to go to, which city to move to, which job to take, where to open a business, where to take the kids on vacation.

We're given those options because of the role white supremacy played in world history; because our great-grandparents were allowed to read and write. Because our grandparents went to the good public schools and the biggest church in town. Because my parents were expected to go to college. Because of course their children would attend the best schools they could afford.

And all this choice means we grow up knowing how to be heard. We know how to seek out like-minded individuals and form a non-profit to change unjustice around us.

For the most part, people like me don't have to take the bus to work, to daycare, to Family Dollar for toilet paper. We have cars and folding tables and Saturdays off when we can work to get out the vote. We have computers and internet access to tap into online resources like BBC or Nextdoor or the city government's website. We are connected to a greater society; we feel like we belong.

We don't have to scream to be heard. We don't have to break windows, throw rocks or set garbage cans on fire just to get the news cameras to point our way. And when the cameras do point our way, we are seen and heard as human beings, because of our skin and the way we pronounce our "r"s.

I don't feel guilty about being white. It's not my fault. But I would feel guilty if I didn't acknowledge that it's made my life easy in countless, nearly imperceptible ways.

And that acknowledgement means I can see "Others" as the people they are, living the same life with different burdens. It makes me want to help. And if you've learned something from reading this, I hope that means I've taken the first step.


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment