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White Privilege: Not as Automatic as You Think

Updated on July 30, 2017
Before his assassination, Malcolm X understood that all people can and should live together, equally. That he no longer chose to be a polarizing force probably made him more dangerous to the hierarchy.
Before his assassination, Malcolm X understood that all people can and should live together, equally. That he no longer chose to be a polarizing force probably made him more dangerous to the hierarchy. | Source

The first ten years of my life were idyllic.

I was born during one of the worst blizzards in Omaha's history, but my stormy entrance into the world soon turned calm and serene. My grandmother stopped drinking for a while, my great-grandfather was jolted out of a deep, tyrannical, decades-long depression, money was good and my grandfather had not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I remember many days spent outside on my grandparents' farm, catching frogs, digging up treasures in the orchard, riding my pony and basically living a life that many parents would wish for their children. There were never arguments between adults - at least not in front of me - and all in all, I was blessed to live in what appeared to be a loving and well-adjusted family.

I Am White Privilege

There was a time when my family was quite wealthy and influential. We have been in what would become America since 1628, holding positions of leadership in the Colonies, actively participating in the politics that led to the American Revolution and, as Pioneer Settlers of several frontier homesteads, held great sway over the founding of several towns and cities across the midwest. We built schools and churches, roads and town halls. Some branches of our family tree still hold onto the wealth, influence or both, but most of the family has settled into "average" on the social and economic scale. I am well aware that I come from privilege and my children will benefit from that same privilege.

I don't remember anyone in my family using racial slurs or ever saying that people of different races were below us. There had been a figurative fence dividing the town into the Protestants and the Catholics, but by the time I was born, Catholics were attending the local school and it was no longer "forbidden" to go into the southwest part of town or mingle with followers of the Papacy.

Mormons held a strange place in the popular legends that circulated around the family; it was told that Brigham Young himself had tried to take my great-great-great grandmother as one of his many wives, which greatly - and, if it is true, understandably - infuriated my great-great-great grandfather, causing him to stay on in Iowa, rather than heading farther west with the Mormon Pioneers.

My parents had an average house in Omaha, and I thought that people everywhere lived like this. No fighting with the neighbors. People keeping their lawns neat and tidy. No one struggling to get by. There was a little black boy in my neighborhood that was my same age; even though I really liked him, he lived about a block too far away and wasn't always allowed to venture up to our block to play with us (this was kindergarten age and younger), but no one around me ever treated him any differently than any of the other kids in the neighborhood.

Now, you're probably thinking, Well, that's because it was Omaha. But did you know: There were terrible race riots there in the 1960s, not to mention all the problems between the natives and the settlers when the city was in its infancy. White people were strictly forbidden from crossing the Missouri River from Iowa into what was to become Nebraska, because the Native Americans would kill any white person found on the frontier territory. So, contrary to popular belief, Omaha is not a bastion of white, northern European settlers.

By the way, Malcolm X was from Omaha.

And I lived with the opinion that most people - especially white people - lived the same way and were brought up under the same conditions as I had until I was much older.

“I saw all races, all colors, blue eyed blonds to black skinned Africans in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshiping as one! No segregationists, no liberals; they would not have known how to interpret the meaning of those words”

— ― Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X

I lived in Russia for about 6 years in my 20s, and I saw the effects of governmental and financial collapse and how uncontrollable tragedy can sweep over an entire nation, crushing nearly everyone's spirit in its wake. But almost everyone was in the same situation, so almost everyone could commiserate with each other and weep and howl over vodka together.

In the United States, this is not true; the poor and disadvantaged have increasingly become pariahs, regardless of race.

I think that, up until the 1980s, the balance between rich and poor was still being maintained. Manufacturing was still stateside. The wage gaps we see today didn't exist. And even though there were white people that weren't making it, there was still a possibility that they could make it, with enough hard work and luck. But this is no longer true.

The Great Equalizer: United States Military

I married into the army in 2003. I, like many Americans, had romanticized military life before experiencing it for myself; I was greatly disappointed by the lifestyle and was amazed at how badly people in the military live. My ex-husband was an E4 for most of his military career, so I think it's safe to say that being in the lower ranks exposed me to the true inequities our nation has wrought for many of its citizens.

There are many whites, many blacks, and many other races in the military. It is truly our American Melting Pot. Mixed marriages are quite common in the military; much more so than I had ever experienced or imagined as a civilian. What surprised me, however, was seeing that many white enlisted soldiers really had no other option besides joining the military, and faced the same difficulties in getting promoted as all other races.

I was surprised because of how equal it seemed.

I met many white soldiers who were lucky to have been recruited during one of our several campaigns in the Middle East, because honestly, white or not, no one else was going to hire them. And today, while the military focuses on downsizing, I doubt they would be hired. We traditionally think of blacks being from those situations from which it is difficult to escape, but my years as a military spouse taught me that many, many white people are equally prevented from going to college or finding their place in our modern workforce. Because of their background, many whites were no more qualified to become officers than anyone else; acceptance to the Green to Gold program was based on performance, not race.

While stationed at Fort Lewis, I met my best friend, Charlotte. Her husband had been deployed several times and she grew weary of the military life on Post, as many of us do when our husbands are deployed, so she decided to move back home to Scioto County, Ohio.

Scioto County is beautiful. Its thick forests, bubbly creeks and friendly people should make it an ideal place to live. But there are problems there, as there are in much of modern-day Appalachia. The coal companies, the lumber companies, the stone companies, the steel companies. All have exploited the land and its people and have given little to nothing back in all the decades, and maybe even centuries, that they operated there. Portsmouth, the county seat of Scioto County, was once a booming industrial city at the convergence of the Ohio and Scioto Rivers. But the steel mill in Portsmouth closed in 1995, and there has been no recovery from the financial devastation caused 20 years ago.

Drugs in Scioto County: Out of Control. Crime in Scioto County: Out of Control. There are murders, the number of which is unheard of in cities of similar size. Too many young women go missing. Too many children are missing. Too many turn to selling drugs and prostitution because there are few other options. And you would think, because this is a predominantly white area, that people would give a damn.

You'd think that whites would help whites. Whites could get a leg up. You would think that schools would be well-funded. That no one would be living in crushing poverty. That there wouldn't be countless numbers of babies born addicted to drugs.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

If you are a "soccer mom," living in the suburbs of an upper-class neighborhood, you would most likely never help these people. They are missing teeth. They speak slowly, with a drawl. Their clothing isn't necessarily stylish or new. Many of them are overweight and sick; sickness caused by chemicals from industrial plants, with little regard for the health of those living in the surrounding communities. With no regard that they are white people.

These are the people - and there are thousands, if not millions of people just like these, in pockets all over the United States - that have never and will never benefit from "White Privilege." No one will ever give them a job based solely on their race. No one will ever look at them and think, Oh, that person is white, so I should give them a job. These are the people who have been exploited by corrupt industries and their schools will never be better because they are white, their cars and houses will never be better because they are white, and most certainly, their communities will never be better because they are white.

When the mills closed, the opportunities died.
When the mills closed, the opportunities died. | Source

White Privilege is not as endemic as the media would have us believe. There are certainly white people who, like myself, are privileged. But I can say, with certainty, that not all white people have an "in." I have met blacks, Latinos, Asians and countless other people who have more privilege than white people I have met in Scioto County or the military. People who have, for generations, found it impossible to raise themselves up or raise their standing in their communities.

This inequity comes from poverty and all the demons that run hand in hand with it, and poverty doesn't care what color your skin is. Privilege no longer cares what color your skin is, but rather, how much money you can bring to the table. It has become so callous that it even withholds the scraps. We must fight this inequity by putting aside racism and fighting for justice for all humans, regardless of the color of their skin.

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    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Anthony Johnson 

      2 months ago from Peoria, Arizona

      I liked this article. It shows how privilege is more socioeconomic that race related. That has been my experience so far anyway. I understand that White privilege exists, but I have not seen it in my life overtly on many occasions. If I am in a suit and tie as a Black man, I am the one who people pay attention to. If I speak properly, I am the one people listen to. There may me White privileged, but it is not as simple as race, culture and economics play a big part. Anyone who fits the bill can have White Privilege in my opinion no matter the race. I would rather call it European Cultural Preference instead of White Privilege.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      12 months ago from Ohio

      Carrie, I recently wrote an article on white privilege. I did not bring out how hard it is for impoverished whites. You do a wonderful job of that. I am struggling to understand if it is white privilege or socioeconomic privilege. Thanks for writing this. :)

    • profile image

      big E 

      2 years ago

      Black skin makes you look stronger, younger, reduces your chances of getting robbed, gives you more flexibility on what you can and can't say, gives you more sex appeal more protection. I would prefer to have black skin.

    • pumpkincat210 profile image

      Courtney Rhodes 

      3 years ago

      I spent part of my childhood in rural Tennessee and then my high school years in a wealthy suburb. Culture shock! In Tennesse, I was considered wealthy and most of my friends weren't. Your neighbors (if they didn't live a mile away) were friendly and people helped each other where they could even thought they were poor. When I moved I wasn't considered wealthy anymore and neighbors weren't at all "neighborly". Everyone kept to themselves unless forced and forget about asking your neighbor for a cup of sugar, you'd be lucky if they opened the door. White privilege may have been true in the past, but now white people are held to completely different standards and meritocracy is not one of them. We are last to be picked at colleges until the quota of other races have been met. The same with jobs. These types of programs are harmful to all. It sends the message to minorites (which are really the majority) that you do not have to try as hard because of your skin color. It sends the message to white people that you won't get chosen no matter how hard you try because of the color of your skin. This causes tensions and ultimately is racist. Policies that are being implented are greatly dividing the races in hopes of uniting them and this is a huge failure of logic.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 

      3 years ago

      Lately I have seen more illegal immigrant privilege than any other. For instance that felon who was deported five times and was still free to murder an innocent woman. If I did anything remotely similar they would bury me under the jail.

    • Brynn Thorssen profile imageAUTHOR

      Carrie Peterson 

      3 years ago from Colorado Springs, CO

      You grew up in Appalachia. You must have seen this firsthand.

    • profile image

      Nathan 

      3 years ago

      This is all my experience too. Thanks for illustrating it from your own life.

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