I hear and read the term white privilege. Plenty of people explain it.
How do the following fit into the concept?
For context, for about a decade of my childhood, my mom’s house, where I spent half my time, was in poor neighborhoods, especially Rockland Street in Philadelphia in the mid-70s, or bordered them where whites were minorities. For a while our house was one of three white families on a block with maybe fifty houses.
Other kids (non-white, if it matters) called me “honkey”—kids I didn’t know. That is, kids would shout it at me across the street.
Once, waiting for a bus home from high school with friends amid a lot of other people, a band of maybe half a dozen other kids (non-white, if it matters) came through the waiting crowd. I felt a hand reach in my pocket and concluded the band of other kids were trying to pick people’s pockets. It happened fast enough that I couldn’t identify which kid did it, but called out, “Why you try to pick my pocket?”
One of the kids got right up in my face, eyeball to eyeball. I don’t remember what he said because while I was looking at him, someone else punched me in the jaw from below, hard. I didn’t black out but I felt it. Had I been saying something with a “th” I could have lost my tongue. My friends told me the obvious, which was that one of the group came out of nowhere to punch me. The kids all scattered.
I was mugged at least five times growing up. The muggers (non-white, if it matters) collectively got three bikes from me and two from friends who happened to be riding with me two of the times. I also got mugged in Amsterdam at knife point (by a white Dutch person, if it matters) in graduate school and probably a few other times I can’t remember. I got hustled in three-card monte and a few other scams.
On Rockland Street, some kids (non-white, if it matters) once put a lit firecracker in my pocket that went off. I was under ten years old.
Later, in high school, I loved the movie She’s Gotta Have It. When School Daze came out, I went to see it its opening day with a couple friends. I didn’t think about what the audience would look like, but as far as I could tell, I was the only white kid in the theater.
In my high school, the term “white” generally meant uncoordinated and uncool. When someone said, “you’re so white,” it meant an insult. I remember using it that way myself.
In college, I volunteered for years at a soup kitchen in my neighborhood. Some of the guests who ate there came regularly enough to recognize the volunteers. Once one of them (non-white, if it matters) said to me, “You’re white, but you’re alright.”
My father, a history professor, got government grants to live in India, his main focus of study, and took my two sisters and I on a couple trips. When I was very young, I was a towhead—that is, I had very light blond hair. Sometimes in open areas, kids there would swarm around me, touching my hair. It didn’t make me feel welcome. Actually, it scared me. They also reached into my pockets.
In college a student shamed me for being white in a way that I took decades to recover from and still have trouble talking about—enough that I can’t share the details here.
In the past couple years, after a leadership class session in which my examples of leaders were Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Mohandas Gandhi, a student criticized my examples being all—I’m not making this up—white men. I think the student may have said American too.
I’m not trying to make a point. I wonder if or how others think of the incidents.
I have a hard time seeing them as a series of isolated incidents contrary to a backdrop. They feel systemic, especially the high school insult.
They were certainly formative. To this day, I still see getting violently mugged by people in gangs or with weapons five or ten times as a normal part of childhood and am not sure what fraction of the population also considers it normal. Is it aberrant?
I haven’t tried to disentangle what protection, fear, or other reactions have come from such experiences and how they lead me to see the world or behave.
I don’t know how to describe the feeling of someone with a knife inches from your skin threatening you if you don’t give that person money. Or for a group that could collectively overpower you steal your bike with one of them brandishing a wrench in your face. In broad daylight you feel, or at least I felt, helpless, yet also that I should have done something and pathetic when I didn’t. I wasn’t even ten years old.
Are these stories part of what people mean by white privilege? I honestly don’t know.
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