I had an unusual upbringing. My parents were both mentally ill, homeless, and addicted to drugs. My siblings and I slept in a three drawer dresser (one drawer for each of us) in the back of a van my parents drove up and down the country. When my dad got too violent, maybe taking a knife to my mother, maybe tying her up and striking her, we would stay in a women’s shelter or a homeless shelter. Not for too long, though, because there was a constant need to outrun Social Services and the police.
The psychotic, dangerous road trips would always end with my father in jail, my mother in a mental institution, and my siblings and me in group homes or foster homes. These bastions had their own drawbacks, namely physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, but they were a short reprieve from hunger and homelessness.
Notably, I lived in a condemned house in Detroit in a neighborhood called 7 Mile in the 1990s. I have greeted a box of government cheese with tears of relief.
I have accepted that I would die from exposure to the elements, hunger, or violence more times than I can count, not fully understanding to this day how I am still alive. I have spent nights in homeless shelters, days on the streets, slept on snow-covered city benches and in abandoned buildings, feared for my life, and prayed to die instead of living another day in undignified hardship.
There is not a person on this planet that could call my life easy so believe me when I say:
if I can understand white privilege, so can you.
If you rail against the idea that you don’t benefit from white privilege because you have had a tough go of it, I’m sure that you have.
Poverty is not uncommon in this country. Mental illness is not uncommon in this country. Trauma, hardship, and struggle are a part of every person’s life. White people who resent being called privileged: I get it.
You may look at your life with its abundant struggles and genuine hardships (poverty, mental illness, trauma) and become angry at the audacity of the media or your “woke” friends or people of color calling you privileged.
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to have a charmed life to benefit from white privilege.
One to one, you, as a white person, may have it much worse than say, your Black neighbor.
Perhaps your Black neighbor went to private school and had two loving parents with stable jobs. All the while your parents split up, your dad drank too much, and you were sexually abused. Maybe your Black neighbor went to college, became a doctor, and married the man of her dreams. You had to go right into the workforce, maybe even dropping out of high school to get out of your abusive situation. You’ve been unlucky in love, unlucky in life. How could you possibly be privileged and not your neighbor?
This is what trips up a lot of white people when it comes to understanding white privilege.
You must first understand that the concept of white privilege doesn’t take anything from your experiences.
White privilege in no way means you had an easy life, were given everything, were born with a silver spoon in your mouth.
It says the struggles you had were not made harder by the color of your skin.
I was a victim of violence, but not because of my skin color.
I was a victim of poverty, but not because of my skin color.
I was able to get a job, get housing, communicate with the police, and get medical treatment and the color of my skin specifically did not make those things harder.
The above is not the case for Black people in this country.
I would go a step farther and say white privilege means your own personal hardships weren’t the same hardships of your parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so on. I was raised in a van and spent every Christmas visiting my mom in insane asylums. My great grandparents were middle class and had perfectly average Christmases.
But the parents and grandparents of Black people in this country have experienced a system that has not benefited and advanced them for hundreds of years. Racial inequality rages persistently, relentlessly through the decades. They do not have the privilege your children or their children have to outgrow it. The march of time does not take them farther from the problems of their ancestors, and when time will not march for them, they have to march for themselves.
There is a self-absorption that often comes from surviving devastation.
An inability to look beyond yourself and your problems because they are so hard, so time-consuming, so all-encompassing. “Don’t call me privileged just because I’m white,” is the cry of a person who can’t see outside of their own struggle (and ironically, their own privilege).
Fighting for my survival in no uncertain terms has sharpened an instinct that says “I have to take care of me and mine and the rest of the world can burn.” But when the rest of the world does, in fact, start to burn, look up and realize:
it’s not about you or me.
This is not about my past or yours or how many times life has been unfair to you or to me. This is a movement that exists in its own right. Your perception of your struggles being diminished is just that: a perception. It does not take priority over the struggles of the hurting and disenfranchised millions in this country.
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