#173  Buzzwords: White Privilege 

Buzzwords: White Privilege

Word lovers unite! We can gather under a banner opposing the creeping horde of buzzwords infiltrating our lives, that meaningless, imprecise abundance of sloppy shortcuts that fail miserably on so many levels. Nuance begone!    Subtleties begone!! Complexity is hereby and forever banished! The media has been filled with talk of “White Privilege”. Maybe I can vent my eyre concerning such shortcut terms.

A quick Google search definition of privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. I have felt that “privilege “has indicated some kind of wall for, as long as I’ve been alive and as far as I’m concerned walls keep people in every bit as much as they keep people out. In my childhood in an all white border town “privilege” equated that which earning more money provided—a better house or neighborhood mostly. It meant being able to remove oneself or one’s family from scarier aspects of hardship which often meant meeting the day-to-day hassles that filled the lives of those of us who had less (money that is. We didn’t usually consider ourselves as lesser in any other way). I wasn’t aware of cars or travel or things like private schools that may have been concerns of those with plenty of monetary resources. I was white living in a white community so for me “white” had nothing to do with privilege at all. Because we lived on the northern border there was, like everywhere else, a pecking order that was based on ethnicity—French versus English in both origins and language—not color or race.  Both French and English speakers had money, or not. 

Many years later, but when I was still in my early twenties, I was living in base housing at Camp LeJeune, NC and that is when I got my first up close and personal experience of the “white” part. I was sobered but not daunted because our friends were mixed race couples with whom we shared a bond of being anti-war in the midst of the war killing-machine training grounds that was the purpose of that Marine base. War, not “White”, was my focus although I became aware of the deeply ugly aspects of the racism that poked out like daggers on innocent occasions.

I’m trying to flush out and contrast “privilege”with a feeling superior in specific ways, a feeling of knowing things that are hidden from others, that you are a member of a group with unique insight, talents, or skills. From examples from my own life I am trying to find delineate the difference of superior Knowing versus Privilege. These are the images coming into my head:

*Circa 1986: immigrants cooking on a fire escape hibachi in Boston. Is their version of cooking, their ingredients and spices and techniques seen by them as better than the cooking going on in the rest of the building particularly if that cooking is odorless microwaving (or whatever quickie cooking techniques were available) the contents of cardboard packaging? Did those immigrants feel privileged? Perhaps in being in a new land but within their new existence I doubt they would think of themselves as such. The smells from those hibachis certainly spoke volumes of about a different relationship to food than held by the wrinkled noses passing by. 

*As a child I loved the French Canadian traditions celebrated as the members of my best friend’s family married. I, as an only child, secretly ached to belong to this vibrant group of people especially in the exuberant energy expressed as they came together to celebrate new unions. That fast fiddling! The dancing! The shouts of joy and laughter! 

*Many years later a colleague brought the photos of her wedding held in her home in India. The copious photos showed a celebration in which her uncles carried her to the ceremony in a basket. The range of beautiful colors of their clothing challenged what was recordable with a camera. The ceremony, she explained, lasted for hours and required changes in wedding attire for different parts of the proceedings. Her family in India may well have been “privileged” as both she and her husband had earned graduate degrees but when both of them returned to the United States I somehow doubt they felt privileged, as they were crowded into a small but affordable apartment when their daughter was born. Still, they carried a culture that knew a far different way of being than those of us around them and most of us didn’t have a clue.

*The last memory I want to share is watching the outwardly professional demeanor of a graduate student from China working behind a library reserve desk. The patron, student or faculty (I saw this happen with each), approached and asked for the material they needed. Often their description was incomplete so the desk assistant needed further information. Closed American ears (how many times I have watched Americans tighten their ability to hear at the first hearing accented speech) were attached to berating, impolite mouths on many occasions yet the Chinese Desk Assistant never once lost her professional demeanor, who located the desired material and checked it out to the rude patron. Where does “privilege” apply in this case? Who felt themselves as superior during these exchanges?

To the definition privilege I would add that privilege can be in operation when the ones who actually may be privileged may not recognize it as such. Now “white privilege” seems to represent things that I don’t believe are privileges at all. I see this concept as a wall, a barrier to understanding, an antique obstacle like driving a Model T Ford because that is all you have and not because you are a classic car hobbyist. I realize that many view themselves as privileged and that they have a rightful place at the top of one chain or another but really, isn’t this a self-evolved fantasy not shared by everyone?

Note: I realize that I am straying far away from the usual ways white privilege is being described in our current society (and around the world). Feel free to take issue with my point of viewing this issue.

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