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VALERIE SCHULTZ: Understand the privilege of skin


Columnist Valerie Schultz

How to start this column? Maybe with a proposal: If you are a white person who doesn’t believe white privilege is a thing, stay with me. Just for 900 words. I know that you have possibly sworn never to read another word of mine, but humor me. I can explain white privilege to you, because I have lived it. I have taken it for granted all my life.

I was born to white parents in a white neighborhood. Thus begins white privilege. I did not earn the right to be a baby in a middle-class American family, but there I was. I was loved and fed and housed and educated in a safe environment. If my parents struggled to pay the bills, I didn’t know it. My dad went to college on the GI Bill. My folks got approved for a home mortgage. At school, I was a regular kid. Nothing about my appearance made me seem dangerous or different to others. If you grew up similarly, you benefited from white privilege.

I got older, got good grades, went on family vacations, made and lost friends, survived adolescence, learned to drive, learned about sex, had my heart broken, got into college, all the usual things. I heard about prejudice in our society, but I didn’t live it. I never suspected the world was not my oyster. Because it was. Sure, life bumped and bruised me, but I assumed my future would work out fine. I belonged, without question, everywhere I went. That was my unexamined white privilege, and maybe yours, too. We didn’t do anything wrong. We were just white in the United States.

But those of us born into such privilege must now look at our lives with eyes wide open. Rather than writing 900 words of blame, I hope instead to shine some light on how white privilege has obscured our vision and made us unaware of injustices that, even if we have not actively perpetuated them, have been happening in front of our faces.

Wonder with me: What would it have been like if, when I was a kid, Santa Claus and all his helpers were Black? If all Barbies and Kens were Black? If all Disney princesses were Black? If everyone in government and all the faces on TV were Black? If God was Black? If Jesus was Black? My white childhood would have been completely different. My obvious whiteness would have set me apart, skewed my self-image. I would have known I didn’t fit in, that I wasn’t meant to be part of this society, that people like me were unwelcome and even feared. All by the time I finished grade school.

My family might have taught me to expect name-calling and bigotry and random undeserved hatred, and to swallow my reaction to mistreatment, because if I protested, the situation would get way worse. I was to keep a civil tongue in my head and my gaze neutral and my hands visible on the steering wheel if I were pulled over by the police. Because being white, I would definitely get pulled over by the police many times. I was to understand that some unenlightened people would credit my accomplishments to affirmative action or preferential treatment or minority quotas. And I was to let it all go for the sake of maintaining the precarious peace of my existence.

That’s what it must be like, for starters, to live without white privilege. Not that we can know. We are not subject to systemic racism.

Here’s more evidence of my white privilege: When my white kid, in a manic blackout incident, was arrested by cops with their guns drawn, she was not shot dead. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t luck; the color of her skin saved her life. I hadn’t taught any of my kids how to act around the police so they would not be killed: White privilege means that it never occurred to me to do so. If you’ve never had that talk with your kids, you own white privilege, too.

Here’s a white-privilege Facebook post: “Have you ever noticed that the police leave you alone if you aren’t doing anything illegal?” This only applies to white folks. Black people get shot in their own homes, even in their own beds. See the deaths of Botham Jean or Breonna Taylor, among many others, who were deemed a threat because they were Black.

Here’s a haunting BLM protest sign: “How Many Are Not Filmed?” White privilege means that we don’t fear police misconduct or have to rely on cellphone footage for any prayer of justice prevailing. We believe the police are here to help us. When we call them, they actually help us.

Blindness to my white privilege makes me part of the problem. But rather than get defensive, here’s what I must remember: My rights are not diminished when someone else’s are protected. My life is not threatened when someone else’s is respected. My voice is not silenced when someone else’s is heard. My history is not erased when someone else’s is taught.

Same goes for you, if you’re still with me. Clearly, we must work harder to change course. If fear has made us cling to our privilege, we must be braver. If ignorance has insulated us, we must be smarter. To take the higher road at this American crossroads, we must step into other shoes.

Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at The views expressed here are her own.

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