My White Privilege

Boston protesters march

Boston “Free Speech” rally overwhelmed by protesters. Aug. 19, 2017 (Photo: via ABC, Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

—James Baldwin



Can’t imagine why I’m thinking about white privilege these days. Maybe it’s because I’m reading White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. It’s not what you think—some white pride manifesto. Quite the contrary. You’ve probably heard of black rage. Those riots and burning cities. This book is about how whites have raged whenever African Americans take a step forward, how we’ve systematically worked to hold them back. At every turn: education, voting, jobs, housing. You name it, we’ve raged.

Maybe I’m thinking about white privilege because of what happened in Charlottesville, and how our president reacted, showing his true colors, his own white rage.

Maybe it was the Dialogue on Whiteness I participated in last fall. For six weeks, I and a bunch of white women sat around talking about being white. In the beginning, I feared that’s all it would be, a bunch of whiney white women. I’ve been on a “diversity” committee before. We didn’t get anything done because we couldn’t get past our ourselves. It’s not only about race, we argued, it’s also about class. Yes, but. The Dialogue was different because of the homework. The readings, the videos, the podcasts.

White people don’t spend much time thinking about being white. We don’t have to. The entire system is set up so we don’t have to. I’ve thought about being a woman, especially when I was denied something my brothers could have because “they are boys.” I’ve thought about being a lesbian. I had to or I’d spend my life alone and depressed rather than happily married.

When did my white privilege start?

I’m going to retire next year. I can do that because I benefitted from a system of advantages based on race. That’s a new definition of racism. As we learned in Charlottesville, there are still those who think whites are better than blacks or Jews, but most of us know better.

So while racism may not be in our bones as a hatred toward another race, it is in our pocketbooks and homes and schools and salaries because, as I’ve been reading, in every decade since the end of the Civil War, systems have been put in place that benefit whites and disadvantage blacks. As Anderson points out, “White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly. Too imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular—to what it can see. It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively, far more destructively.”

What’s ironic about the current white pride movement is that the imperceptibility of white power has blinded them to seeing how they’ve benefitted. So they are left thinking they’ve been stripped of that power when nothing like that has happened. If white people are struggling, it is more because the impediments put in place to block black progress dragged them down as well. If there’s no public transportation, it’s not only blacks who can’t get to jobs. If federal financial aid is cut, it’s not only poor blacks who can’t go to college.

We don’t talk about overt racism anymore—well, not till recently—we talk about institutionalized racism. Whatever that means. Institutions are racist, not us. Nope. That’s not how it works.

There are people behind those institutions and they’ve thought very carefully about how to achieve the results of racism without showing the hand of racism.

A tour through my family history showed me how.

On my mother’s side, I’m a recent immigrant. Her grandparents came from Austria in the late 1800s. Part of that massive German wave of immigrants before the doors started closing at Ellis Island. Her grandfathers left to avoid compulsory military service, so the story is told. They followed others to the U.S. and settled in German enclaves and slowly learned English. They worked and ran businesses and raised families. In 1950, my mother visited family in Austria. Her passport shows it was still occupied territory, just five years after the end of World War II. Do I have Nazis in my ancestry? Possibly. Do I have Resistance in my blood? Possibly. I don’t know and may never know.

On my father’s side, I’ve been in the U.S. since before there was a U.S. He claimed to derive from the stock that settled at Jamestown. Certainly there are a lot of us in Virginia. His mother came from Maryland. Her family came over from England likely in the 1700s.

On a naïve family history tour of the South 20-plus years ago, I gleaned what I could without really knowing how to read courthouse documents. I found my grandmother’s grave. A woman I never met but wept over because if she was half the grandmother my mother’s mother was, I missed out on something special.

On my father’s side, I had ancestors who fought in the Civil War for the South from Virginia and for the North from Maryland. Ironically, it was the Maryland side who owned a slave. The Virginia side fought and died at Gettysburg, deserted, and surrendered at Appomattox. They were farmers and oystermen on the Chesapeake Bay. I didn’t find evidence that they owned slaves, but I viewed only a few records. I’m sure someone did.

There is something surreal about reading a census document on microfiche in a county courthouse in a state where the people are so friendly and lovely that I could see myself living there (so different from us New Englanders). Under the column for slave, to see that mark. The numeral 1. On the line with your family name. In the town your grandmother came from. Related? I didn’t get a direct line, but how could they not be.

You likely can’t come from a lineage that’s been in this country for centuries without seeing that mark. But it still stuns.

I may not be a racist, but I came from racists.

You don’t have to come from a lineage that’s been in this country for centuries to find racism. My grandmother, first-generation, thought blacks were inferior. She wasn’t mean about it, just matter of fact. Like it was common knowledge that they were only good for playing sports and did not have the brains to succeed in college.

And it’s not just race.

When I was a child and a Jewish family moved in across the street, you’d have thought the world was coming to an end to listen to my parents.

That world did not end. Far from it.

Not long after I was born, my father lost his job. He was nearly 50, three kids and a wife (who didn’t work, naturally), a mortgage, and no job. It was 1960.

In 1960, if we’d lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line and been black, my brothers and I would probably not have been in school. Because school would have either been closed in protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision or suffered such a funding gap from the white schools as to render an education impossible. Because as a sympathetic President Eisenhower said to Chief Justice Earl Warren, “All [Southerners] are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside big overgrown Negroes.”

That Brown decision did no more to end segregation than the election of Barack Obama as president did to end racism.

My father, had he been black, would have faced a steeper climb to finding another job regardless of his age. He received unemployment payments but had to fill out a form each week proving he was looking for work and ask permission to leave the area to search wider because, as he stated on the form, “there are no jobs in Buffalo.”

So my father drove to New York City, to Vermont, to Boston, applying for jobs and staying in hotels he might not have been welcome in if he’d been black. He found a job in Boston and then had to find a house for his family. He searched the suburbs, where, if he’d been black, it’s likely no real estate broker would have welcomed him or allowed him to make an offer.

But he was white.

And forty years later, after my parents died and my brothers and I sold the house in a suburb of Boston, its value had increased 20 times.

Had my father been black, and had he been forced to buy a house in Roxbury or Dorchester, I doubt the value would have increased so much.

By way of example, in 2001 I went house hunting, thanks in large part to my inheritance. The city I settled in sits at the end of a public transit line leading out of Boston. The city is 47 percent white. The next town over, which is on the more expensive commuter line, is 87 percent white. In 2001, my now wife and I bought what we thought we could afford, thinking the next town over was too expensive. Sixteen years later, our house has increased in value 39 percent. Not bad, especially given the Great Recession. But if we had stretched and bought in the next town, it would have increased 100 percent.

Why is that?

I don’t know, but I do know that despite 16 years in this city, I feel like an outsider. Not directly, but implicitly. Whenever there is an election for a city council seat or school board seat or for mayor, the candidates, 99 percent white males, tout their “lifelong commitment to the city.” They were born here, raised their children here, and therefore deserve to run the city. If you have not lived here your entire life, you need not apply. So the Asian Americans and the African Americans who make up most of the population are governed by Italian Americans and Irish Americans.

I’m horrified by the violence in Charlottesville, but not surprised. I’m heartened by the peaceful response in Boston, but not lulled.

I’m disheartened to realize that perhaps the best we can hope for is to tamp down overt acts of violent racism. To make it so publicly shameful for the white supremacists to act out that they return to their basements and bunkers and smolder in private.

I don’t know what it will take to put out those embers of rage, clearly nothing so far has worked.

Before Boston, a friend of color posted on Facebook that she couldn’t bring herself to participate. She could not take it emotionally, this hatred in Charlottesville that had loosed itself on America and flamed before her.

As a lesbian, I have empathy, some understanding of what it’s like to know there are those out there who want to see you dead. But as a white woman of a certain age, I also know I blend into the background, I am safe until they come for the list of marriage licenses, which they someday will.

I know I must be part of the solution. As must every beneficiary of white privilege. Because if we wait till we are the only ones left, they’ll find a reason to come for us too.

I cannot—and Boston showed that we do not—leave it to people of color to resist alone. Charlottesville is not their burden. It is our shame. White shame. And it is up to white people to do the right thing.


For more:

James Baldwin quote from “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” The New Yorker, November 17, 1962

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Excellent podcast series: Scene on Radio (Seeing White series)

Excellent NPR site: Code Switch

White Awake combats white supremacy by focusing on educational resources and spiritual practices designed to facilitate white people’s engagement in the creation of a just and sustainable society.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh, Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College

Tim Wise is a prominent antiracist essayist and educator. He’s white, by the way.

Photo: via ABC, Stephanie Keith/Reuters.




  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful words, Elaine. We are in this fight together! Oh, and congratulations on your soon-to-be retirement.

  2. Excellent analysis and historical account.

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