I don’t like the term white privilege now that I have an understanding of what it means. When I first heard it, it made me think of affluent white people in fancy country clubs, sipping martinis and playing tennis or golf. I lived much of my childhood on a street of townhouses adjacent to such a club, but my parents weren’t of the strata that could afford going there. In walking home from school, its golf courses were an obstacle I was expected to circumvent, but instead I would cautiously and stealthily traverse. I got good at watching for golfers, and crossing between swings. Most such golfers were kind about my trespasses, but some weren’t.* Since then, I realized, paraphrasing Groucho Marx, posh country clubs are exactly the kind of clubs that wouldn’t have me as a member, and I wouldn’t join if they did.
And then, I never really experienced white privilege in the workforce. Yes, I was tall, handsome, male and Scandinavian pale — the ideal clerical employee by all appearances, fit to work my way into managerial ranks — But I was also awkward, antisocial and specialized in IT before clerical offices commonly had IT devices. It was an age when typewriters were the norm, and WordStar was state of the art, before LANs and Windows servers became commonplace. I also didn’t react well when employers pulled shady shit that was abusive to their employees, which they did at a remarkably high rate, and that was what eventually made me unemployable.
Years later, though, when writing at cafes was the Bohemian Thing To Do, I was always able to sit down at a cafe and not order anything and not be bothered by up to an hour without getting nagged.** I’ve also been allowed to use the bathroom facilities of such places before ordering. And this poses extreme contrast to what happened at the Starbucks at Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia on April 12, 2018, that not only showed inhospitality to Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson (refusing to let them use bathrooms before a purchase) but the clerks called 9-1-1 to report them for trespassing only three minutes after they entered the place. (According to the Late Show, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson arrived at 4:35. 9-1-1 was called at 4:37). Nelson and Robinson were arrested, handcuffed and detained for eight hours. The district attorney decided not to press any charges.
Does that present an example of white privilege? Because that is not privilege at all. That’s a basic right. Nelson and Robinson did not stink of feces or lack of hygiene. They weren’t brandishing weapons. They weren’t shouting at imaginary colleagues. They weren’t playing Gangsta Rap at loud volume. Nelson and Robinson did not do anything untoward, and yet they had the police called on them, and were detained on a dubious charge for eight hours. That’s not absence of a privilege. That’s an absence of basic human decency. It’s a failure of civilization to preserve equal rights and equal consideration for all.
The shops at Rittenhouse Square, it turns out, have a history of being less-than-welcoming to nonwhites. In one case a man was searched while leaving a bookstore, and a book he owned was challenged. He was detained until the shop owners confirmed none of their stock was missing. In another case, a long-term Apple Store employee revealed the Rittenhouse Square outlet had a policy to closely monitor black walk-in guests (but not white walk-in guests) and to kick out black teens (but not white teens). Black women have reported harassment by security at couture resellers.
White Privilege in Pennsylvania, 2018 — basic decency not extended to non-whites — means being treated as human and not as vermin.
As I think about it, this smacks of a lot of other experiences I’ve had regarding disappointment in my society. White Privilege is like discovering my smartphone was made by slave labor in a Foxconn plant in China or that the US has ongoing programs to massacre villages as part of its national security policy. I don’t want White Privilege, and I don’t want to patronize institutions or establishments that privilege whites but not nonwhites.
But at the same time White Privilege is not getting murdered randomly by police because they confused my phone for a handgun in the dark. I’m torn in that I don’t want to get gunned down by the police, but also that my pale skin is what keeps the police from gunning me down.
Can’t they not gun me down because I’m a human being, an American and am regarded as having a right to live?
* This was La Cañada Flintridge in the seventies and eighties. In its 2010 census it reported 68% Caucasian, but in the 70s and 80s, persons of color were pretty rare. My elementary school had maybe two or three dark-skinned kids. The community’s whiteness meant lines of division were between churches and social strata. Membership the country club was one of those delineating indicators.
I’ve realized no amount of homogeneity and conformity in a society will ever allow it to get large without tensions between groups. Racial, cultural and religious divides are simply the most convenient ones to draw when looking for someone else to blame for society woes. Large societies will always feel like pluralities, and those societies that learn to suppress or tolerate that feeling are the ones that will dominate.
** It is considered gauche to not patronize an establishment once you’ve decided to hang out there, but it’s also equally gauche for the hosts to be pushy about it, and my colleagues and I would avoid places that did. Typically I’d come in, settle down and then buy something within fifteen minutes, even if it’s just a coffee or small snack. I might wait longer if I came in during a rush and there was a line. Some places would get pushy, and would set and enforce concrete rules (e.g. No hanging out for more than one hour or No using the restroom until you buy something) These kinds of measures typically resulted from consistent teen or college-student visitors (who were broke and noisy). But these sorts of rules would spoil the ambience of casual hospitality, and make the place unfit for bohemian society.
San Francisco cafes commonly featured a pluralist range of customers, so an incident like the one at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks would not occur due to race…or religion, or sexuality, or association with a counterculture. San Francisco society is very tolerant of weirdos, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to living there. Also, there were a lot of cafes and we bohemians could be really choosy, favoring one cafe over another as a meeting place based on trivialities like snack selection or where power outlets were placed.