So I’ve just been made aware of this thing called ‘white privilege’ (I know, very late to the game), which apparently I have benefited from my whole life without realizing it. This idea is fascinating to me because I am a rather latecomer to issues about racial identity, racial appearance and how I fit into all that as a white-presenting biracial woman in America.
I have explained in previous posts my awareness, knowledge and general ‘education’ about race was scant at best. Race was not discussed in my household, not by my mother who is Chinese nor by my father who is Anglo-Irish. Both of my parents were aware racism exists, but they felt it was not something they could not control so there’s no point discussing it ad nauseum, as long as we were not racist, we’ve done our part.
Because of my white-presentation, I didn’t experience the overt or covert racism, crude stereotyping and micro-aggressions that minorities in this country routinely experience. I went through my childhood, adolescence and adulthood without fully comprehending what it was like to be a non-white person in America. It is not to say my life was charmed, far from it, I had plenty of problems of my own, but none of it had to do with my race.
To fully explore the part white privilege has played in my life, I thought about my father’s life and how none of it turned out as it should for him, though I think it was for the better. My father and his siblings were supposed to have a charmed life, a life full of privilege, connections in high places and their futures handed to them on a silver platter, all they needed was sufficient ambition to want it for themselves and take it to the next level. But due to my grandfather’s alcoholism, and the divorce of my grandparents that ensued, my father and his siblings lives were changed forever. They went from a life of upper-middle class respectability to rural poverty.
My grandfather was a West Point graduate and had an eye on a career in the army. But after his West Point graduation, the army drinking culture caught up with him and he was discharged. He never fulfilled the army officer’s career that he dreamed of. My grandparents then purchased a farm in New Hampshire and tried to rebuild their lives there. But his alcoholism became so unmanageable that he became violent towards others including his children when drunk, which by now had become a daily occurrence, my grandmother had no choice but to divorce him and kick him out of the home. This was 1941, in the middle of the Great Depression and World War II. My father’s life sank into poverty very quickly.
My grandmother remarried several times more as it was near impossible during the 1940s to keep a household going for a single woman with children. During the times when she had a husband, times were better on the farm. When my grandmother was in between husbands, my father had to step in. He, like all children who grew up on farms in those days had to work on the farm. His childhood was effectively over. He didn’t have any play time, he didn’t ‘hang out’ with his friends, he did not have the leisure time that children today have and take for granted. He told me when the work on the farm was finished, he had to get a job in town. His first job was at 12 years old, pumping gas for a quarter an hour. When he got older, he got a job a restaurant, and he did everything, he cooked, he bused, he waited tables, he counted the cash and kept the books. His formal education at the local parochial school ended in the 9th grade. My grandmother needed him on the farm, she didn’t want him to stop his education but there was no choice. At 15 years old, my father was negotiating the mortgage on the farm on my grandmother’s behalf with the local bank. He took care of his younger half-siblings. Ironically, he made sure they got to school and came home safely. If one wandered off in the large farm or in the woods, it was his job to go look for them and bring them home safely, with my grandmother waiting by the door until all of her children are safely home.
When my grandmother finally sold the farm when she married her last husband, who finally provided well for her, my dad left the rural farm life too. But he had no education and no vocational skills to his name. He had a lot of skills, he can fix almost anything, and after his formal education ended, my father, ever the natural autodidact, taught himself everything that he needed to know, accountancy, mechanical skills, later on he taught himself the ins and outs of the garment trade, computer programming, there was nothing he couldn’t teach himself to do. But none of that mattered if you’ve no high school diploma and college degree. He told me at 18 he made his way to New York City, he was a cook at a diner, then he bought a camera and became a ‘stringer’ or freelance photographer for local newspapers. But he realized all these were ‘jobs’ and not careers. He wanted a career in business.
My father knew from early on that he had to rely on himself, there would be no one (namely his father) to give him a leg up. He became totally independent, emotionally and financially at an early age. As he recounted his life story to me, in a matter-of-fact tone as he took me on a trip to his childhood farm, he told it without any self-pity or wallowing, the lesson I learned from his life’s story was not that he had a tough life, it was that we are ultimately responsible for ourselves, we cannot succumb to our own tragedies, we cannot become victims of our own lives. When tragedy and setbacks occur, you dust yourself off, get back up and start again. He was not a sentimental person, he was not overly affectionate or loving, he was always pragmatic to a fault, and at times distant as a result of his upbringing.
My father came of age in the 1960s but the whole counter culture and cultural revolution of sex, drugs and rock and roll totally blew by him. He said he was busy hustling. He had no time for that. He couldn’t understand why people would spend their days smoking pot and ‘dropping out’. Until the day he died, he resembled someone from the 1950s.
In the end, he did achieve his business success in Asia, he was his own boss and he was great at what he did. He did all of that on a 9th grade education. When I think back on his story, I see it as a story of perseverance over circumstance, of not giving up and never giving in, always striving for the next goal and never ever make excuses for yourself. Ever. I never think back on his story and feel sad that he lost his childhood, because he never projected his story that way to me. And I never thought about his story from the perspective of how his race had to do with his ultimate success.
When I think of my father, I think ‘white’ but I don’t think ‘privilege’, his life was the opposite of privilege, which was why when I first heard the term ‘white privilege’ it was totally ludicrous to me. It’s another ‘blanket’ term invented by someone to describe a race as though that race is a monolithic entity. I had no time for over generalizations. And if you told him he had white privilege, he just might punch you in the face.
However, when I think deeper about it now, because my father was white, and though he grew up in poverty, my grandmother still imparted the proud WASPy values of her childhood to her children, she imparted her Anglo heritage (she was from a prominent family back in the day) to all her children; to be proud, my father and his siblings carried themselves not as poor country kids but as proud WASPs down on their luck. No matter how desperate things got for my grandmother, she held on to her trove of family silver to show her children whom they really were in her mind. They were never white trash, they were the genteel poor. It only dawned on me now that he used this privilege, this unspoken but ever present white privilege, the pride of white ancestry to get ahead in life. When I was visiting my grandmother in her small but cozy Cape Cod style home in New England, filled with expensive antique furniture in every room and her family’s trove of monogrammed silver on full display, one would never have thought she lived in such dire poverty once.
Inadvertently, throughout my upbringing, my father imparted the same WASPy-ish values to me too, don’t complain, don’t whine, dust yourself off and try again, over and over until you succeed and be proud. That was his life’s creed. But he was able to do this because he was a white person. He had the multitude of opportunities to try over and over again because he wasn’t harassed by the police at every turn. He wasn’t a black man living in the Jim Crow South or in the ghettos of the North. He, as a white man, was left alone to do his thing, to succeed and fail on his own terms and minorities are not afforded this privilege, just to be left the hell alone by law enforcement and other government institutions.
When I think of my failures to date, I can honestly hand on heart say it was mostly my fault, whether it was because I acted impulsively, I was unthinking, I didn’t deliberate enough, I didn’t try hard enough, whatever it was I own it. I cannot in good conscience say it was due to racism or sexism any other -ism. I refuse to become a victim. In situations where I am a ‘legitimate’ victim, I allow myself a time period to wallow and get those ‘poor me’ feelings out of the way and then I move on. I inherited all of this from my father and my mother, they were both similar in that way. But this is white privilege. This is the best example of white privilege. This type of thinking is only afforded to people who have the opportunity to dust themselves off and start over again and again unharassed by outside forces.
For black people, every stumble is marked with an arrest and jail time or court fines, it makes it very hard for them to start over. Every time you get incarcerated or more municipal fines get piled onto your record, it gets ever much harder to start over. Heck, if you are always being pulled over by just trying to get from point A to point B, it makes you not want to leave the house.
So, yes, though I struggle to acknowledge it at times, I do benefit from white privilege, because of my racial appearance and because of my heritage. I was taught white privilege by my father, though he was unaware of it and I most certainly was unaware of it.
Many biracial children I’ve met seek to racially and culturally identify with the minority side of their family (non-white side), I was not one of those children. In fact, I found this trend to be troubling. It’s very hard to suppress half of your genetic history (nor should anyone have to) and all the traits that come with that history, whether it’s good or bad. I have no trouble expressing white ‘viewpoints’ and ‘Chinese’ viewpoints interchangeably, sometimes in the same situation. I feel no conflict there. To disregard my white side would be very disrespectful to my father, he overcame so much, he gave me so much.
To acknowledge a privilege you have just by your racial appearance and not a privilege you earned is uncomfortable and at times jarring. But in my case, to not acknowledge it would be disingenuous and self-serving. So, yes, I own it. I benefit from white privilege. It is my hope in the very near future, this term ‘white privilege’ will no longer be relevant because all races are afforded the same privileges.