White Privilege — THE REMIX

In light of all the insanity that has been going on in our world lately, I’ve been trying to find some common denominator in everything. Guess what one element I found to be present in all of these recent events?

PAULA DEEN george zimmerman RACHEL dark girls header

The common denominator is that to some extent they all touch on the topic of race in American society. More specifically, they all speak to the concept of “White privilege”. This is the concept that because one is “White” — whether by ethnicity or because one seems to be what American society considers White as measured by things like demeanor, patterns of speech, attitudes, etc., one has at least a marginally better time of things.

I wrote a piece about White privilege last year when Trevon Martin was first killed. You can read the whole thing here. As I attempted to write about all these things swirling in my mind tonight, it suddenly occurred to me that I had written about many of them in that blog. So I’m pulling from it to present to you today.

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Most White American people will say that they don’t benefit by being White. A few others might concede that even if they do in small ways, it is certainly not to the extent Black people think. When I attempt to talk to them about the topic, I am almost always immediately and totally shut down. They explain to me that they aren’t rich, that they must work as hard as any slave ever did to get and keep what they have, not that they ever personally owned slaves mind you. (Well gee…thanks?) Some will even tell me their families never owned slaves. Some tell me they grew up as poor as any Black family. Some tell me how they had very little or nothing growing up. Some tell me how they struggled and that by the sheer force of their wills, much hard work, a bit of luck, and an opportunity or two that they managed to create for themselves, they made a damn decent life for themselves, that even includes a Black friend or two. (And again, thanks?) They grew up in Black neighborhoods, or near them in some cases. They eat at Popeye’s and love collard greens. They don’t “see color” (my personal favorite.) Their open hearts, minds and experiences make them feel they have earned an all access platinum ghetto pass. This also automatically proves that being Black cannot possibly an automatic detriment in these days and times. If Black people would just get up off their collective asses, stop listening to Li’l Wayne and selling drugs, maybe they would get somewhere, individually and collectively. White privilege is not a factor at all.

BALTIMOIRE POLICE

Black people’s involvement with the destruction of our communities is always cited as one of the reasons why we aren’t in better shape as a people.

Bullshit. White privilege is so prevalent and powerful in this country, you don’t actually have to be White to benefit from it. You can make it work for you if you’re “like White” – more specifically, if you are like what White people perceive “White” to be. How do I know? Because I’ve benefitted from White Privilege in my life and I’m NOT White. But I’m light-skinned…VERY light skinned. And even as a light skinned person who has in some circumstances appeared White, I got the benefit of White privilege.

ME AT MY 34TH BIRTHDAY PARTY

I was born to a very light skinned straight haired Black man. He could “pass” for White, as they used to say in those days. But his skin color was invaluable to him. He knew it was an advantage. In fact, to make sure his skin color would be as advantageous as possible, he made a point of learning to be as well-spoken and articulate as he could possibly be. Now please understand me; I’m not saying that he should not have been as well-spoken and as articulate as he wanted to be, BUT he made sure he was because he knew that with light skin, straight hair, and a “White” demeanor, he would get farther in life. He didn’t have to be White, and couldn’t be, but if he could take on as White of an appearance as possible, he could accomplish more. And he did. He never had to work in the coal mines growing up, which was the fate of nearly all the men who grew up in his community. He got better jobs in his community, because the White men that ran it were more comfortable with him. One of them even commented (within his hearing) that my dad “really missed out” when he wasn’t born White. And every time my dad told that story to me, though it had happened decades ago when he told it, you could still hear the pain in his voice. And all throughout his life, the White men he came in contact with gave him better opportunities than the more “obviously” Black men around him. And they made no bones about it, about the fact that they chose him because he “blended in more”, and wasn’t just a “regular nigger”. In fact, at one time my dad was trying to get a home in a nicer neighborhood than the one we lived in at the time. He knew a White man who was renting a home in the area he had his eye on, and he inquired about renting the home. My dad’s income was more than adequate to afford the home, but the White man said to my dad “Walt, I don’t have a problem with you or your family at all. You all seem very nice. I wouldn’t mind. But what about your friends, or the rest of your family? What would happen when they started coming around?”

DAD IN HAWAIIMy dad in Hawaii.  (Now you know where I get it from.)

But that was “back in the day” you say, when racial prejudice was blatantly alive and well. Let’s fast forward to say, late 20th century, when me, a very light skinned girl was born to this very light skinned Black man. With a bit of care my parents kept my hair straight, and of course they brought me up to be as knowledgeable and well-spoken and articulate as they were. So by the time I was 18, I was rather racially ambiguous as far as my appearance went. I might have been any number of ethnicities, but I didn’t appear Black to the untrained eye. (What does that mean? Black people ALWAYS knew I was Black. Other races were often unsure, or thought I was “mixed”.)

ME SENIOR PORTRAIT

Me, senior portrait.

And I went to a White university, and moved into a dorm room with a young White girl who never knew I was Black until my Black boyfriend came to campus and she inquired about how my parents felt about me dating a Black guy, and how her parents would “totally freak out”. Once she discovered I was Black, our friendship ended. Up until then we had been thick as thieves, sharing clothing, makeup, secrets, everything. But because I was Black and had “lied” to her about it, I was persona non grata. And she told all of our mutual White friends and acquaintances on campus, and they ostracized me as well. I went home for Thanksgiving and never went back. I did not tell my parents why.

TULA 1990 CROPPEDMe, age 22.

When I went into the job market as an adult, I noticed that I was often the first or only person of color in the places where I worked. The other Black people employed there tended to be in positions below mine, and they always expressed surprise and shock to see me there at first. Once they got to know me a bit, they’d say something to the effect of “well I guess you fit in around here”. And once I got comfortable enough in my position to ask my co-workers and bosses about my hiring and how it came about, I was always told the same thing…that I “fit in”. In some cases I stayed with the employer long enough to be involved in the hiring process of other employees, and when discussions about Black applicants came up, there was always conversation about whether the Black applicant would “fit in”, or “be comfortable” or if they would “create diversity”. There was discussion about how the Black applicant might impact the “culture of the institution”, both positively and negatively. None of these discussions ever took place regarding the White applicants. Ever. Not even once. And this was the case even when the Black applicant had impeccable qualifications and stellar references that were at least equal to mine, and the White applicant did not. Once I even asked if this kind of discussion took place when I was hired, and was basically told “well, no. We didn’t need to do that with you. We could tell you were going to fit right in.” My point is that my light skin and “White” demeanor was easier for my co-workers and supervisors to deal with. I am clearly the “house knee-grow”, the massa’s bastard daughter, the quadroon, octoroon, mulatto. And bastard I may be, I still can be afforded some of the privileges that come with the massa’s house. And this isn’t just something light skinned Black people do. Pretty much every Black person who has ever had a “good” job has had to learn to speak extreme “White” in their workplaces. And this isn’t even because necessarily how we speak when not in the workplace is totally intelligible gibberish or would automatically be unacceptable. But realistically, we know that any mistakes in our speech, any slang or vernacular that we might employ in our communication (no matter how appropriate or socially acceptable), anything other than “the King’s English” will be looked upon more harshly than if we were not Black, so we are extra careful with our workplace grammar. Hell, I used to even wear a wig over my huge Afro to keep a part-time temporary assignment I desperately needed. I knew my natural hair would be a problem in this place, and me being broke was more important than me being nappy. The point is that Black people understand the value of White privilege, and we all do what we can, to the extent that we can, to find ways to make it work for us. It so happens that because of my skin complexion, it is easier for me than it is for darker skinned Blacks.

me jerri jada working at eoutletsMe and some of my co-workers at an old job. There were 5 black employees — four women, one man. Three of the women worked in Marketing, one other woman worked as an Account Manager.  The young man who worked in IT. There were a total of about 80 employees (including those onsite and who worked remotely from other locations.)

As far as dealing with Black men goes, there is always a group of Black men who preferred light skinned Black women for various reasons. They were more “exotic” looking, or “interesting”, or…well, all kinds of stupid stuff like that. Needless to say a number of these men always found me attractive because of these preferences, so I always got to hear the ignorance first hand, about how “redbones” (light skinned Black women) are this and other shades of women of color are that. I’ve heard everything from “redbones are freakier” to “dark sistas got bad attitudes” and every type of insanity in between.  I hear I’m more likely to be selected to be a video hoe because I’m light skinned (yay me?), that Black men will prefer me because of my complexion, and I’ve even heard that they will treat me better as well. And the grief I get from other women who have color complexion issues is almost as bad.

love redbones

Really??

And this is not just an issue in this country – almost anywhere in the world that you travel to where you have people of color in varying shades, inevitably the hierarchy of light skin being the preference, of being at the top of the hierarchy occurs. Hell, even dark skinned Italians catch hell in their group sometimes.

This is how powerful White privilege is.

White privilege is in part why Trayvon Martin died. Though many have pointed out that George Zimmerman isn’t “White” in the “purest” sense of the word, (he is at least partly of Hispanic or Latino descent,) the fact is that he was operating out of the White privilege mindset. He felt he had every right, because Trayvon Martin had the audacity to be Black and in “his” neighborhood to accost him (regardless of what the authorities instructed him to do), interrogate him, and take the law into his own hands to whatever extent he wished. Zimmerman was “White”, this young man was Black, which meant he was trouble and meant that Zimmerman had no need to act rationally, humanely, or even within the limits of the law. This is okay because people of color are less than human; if they were, they would be able to work hard enough on their own to somehow create “Black privilege” for themselves. Right?

I’m gonna go pick out my ‘fro. Peace!

TULA BLACK AND WHITE HEAD SHOT

Me, today (more or less. I really need to get more sleep.)

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My dad wanted me to “pass” for White…

When my dad was alive, (March 3, 1916-July 18, 2002), he tried to encourage me to “pass” for white. Now before you jump down my dad’s dead throat, a bit about my dad’s history.

My father grew up in a small coal mining town called Jenkinjones, West Virginia, not too far from Kentucky. His mother was a very light skinned red haired woman named Lucy, and his father was (rumored) to be White. In fact, the census records for my Grandma Lucy actually list her as a “quadroon” (which was a person who was at least ¼ White) and not as “colored”, as Blacks were called then.  As a result, my dad was a very light skinned Black man with wavy jet black hair and light brown eyes. He managed to survive in Jenkinjones in part because the White men in the town knew who his dad was, though they didn’t openly acknowledge it. A result he was given a job running the local post office and general store in town instead of going to the coal mines to work – the coal mines did offer the local Black men employment at wages far superior to work they might have found in other places, but it was still extremely dangerous, even deadly, work. If a Black man could manage to avoid the coal mines and still work in Jenkinjones, it was quite an accomplishment.

My dad was very intelligent. Everyone recognized this early on, and even the reddest redneck in the town had to admit my dad was a “smart nigger”. In fact my dad often told me the story of how he once heard two White men in the town talking about how smart my dad was, and one said to the other “you know that nigger missed out on a whole lot when he wasn’t born White”. My dad seemed to consider that a compliment, and took consolation in the fact that White men considered him smart.

My dad spent a great deal of his life making absolutely sure no one ever thought he was the “average nigger”, as he would say scornfully. “We are not average,” he would say to me, speaking about himself and me. “We are unrecognized geniuses.” He always made sure he was well spoken and memorized dictionaries full of words. He was never loud or disorderly. Though he couldn’t finish high school because he had to support his mom and his brothers and sisters, he educated himself as much as he could. My dad aspired to be an artist, and he ordered art books by the ton. He drew and sketched and painted whenever he could. He never left Jenkinjones to pursue his dreams though; he always stayed behind to take care of his mother. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if he had left to pursue his art. My dad didn’t leave West Virginia until his mom died in the very early nineteen sixties, and then went to Paterson, New Jersey, where he managed to get a job as a commercial artist (what you would call a graphic designer today). He married my mother (finally, after many years!), and they gave birth to me. My dad was 50 when I was born. My dad didn’t like the “revolutionaries” that were coming along at that time, the Black Panthers and Malcolm X’s and such. He felt like they were just causing trouble and making the White man angry. My house was full of “White” things – paintings by White artists, classical and orchestral music, etc. As a small child I studied ballet, and when I wanted to join the African Dance group because “they seemed to be having more fun and I like the drumming” as I explained it, he refused to let me. “You don’t need to be taught to shake your tail,” he intoned. He would never let me participate in sports, saying “the last thing you need is to be worrying about running faster and jumping higher. That’s what’s wrong with us now, because that’s all we care about doing. Do something with your brain instead.” My parents taught me all about “White” things great and small. For example, they taught me all the proper place settings for a formal meal — I knew the difference between a dinner fork, a salad fork, a soup spoon and a dessert spoon before I was ten. I learned about Norman Rockwell, whom my dad thought was the greatest artist who ever lived. We read “Reader’s Digest” in my house, my mom had to beg dad to let us get a subscription to “Jet” and “Ebony”. And of course, my hair was relaxed as soon as it was determined I wasn’t going to inherit my dad’s straight hair.

But my dad had a plan for my hair…

When I was about 15 my dad brought home a long curly red wig one day. Don’t ask me where he got it because I don’t know. But he gave it to me, and with a sly wink he said, “you know Petula, you are growing up to be a pretty young lady. With your complexion, you could have any color hair you want. Or any texture.” At the time I had relaxed hair cut into a style called a “snatchback”. I didn’t quite understand what he meant so I didn’t say anything, and he continued. “Well, I mean, there is no reason to just limit yourself to the hair you have. You could have any kind of hair. So maybe you want to try this one day. I mean, it might be fun, especially around people you didn’t know. It would almost be like a game, like pretending to be someone else.”

So I took the wig with a “thank you”, still not quite sure what to make of the whole thing. It was around Halloween though, so I thought maybe he was suggesting that I dress up and go to one of the local Halloween parties that the recreation centers held. At any rate I never used the wig. Then he brought home a shoulder-length blonde wig, and gave me the same speech. I took the wig again, still not really understanding. So I mentioned it to my boyfriend at the time, and he said with a chuckle “your dad wants you to pretend to be White.” Now I thought that was the silliest thing I’d ever heard. Why would I want to pretend to be anything I wasn’t…especially another race? My boyfriend went on to say, “well, maybe he thinks your life would be easier that way. And I mean, you could pass for white to be honest. You’re light enough.”

After a while my dad began to ask occasionally if I had tried on the wigs, or if I planned to wear them. I told him that I had tried them on, but I never said whether or not I planned to wear them. When he’d ask I’d say that I’d forgotten, or that I was busy with schoolwork. Once he had me try on the blonde wig for him, and he nodded proudly when I did. I quickly took it off, feeling ashamed and not knowing why. Finally one day I overheard my dad and mom talking. She was telling him that she knew what he was trying to do to me with the wigs, and she didn’t like it. He told her he was just trying to make my life easier. He told her that they had raised me to be refined, gentle, kind-natured and good-hearted, and that all of that would be ruined by associating with Black people extensively. He pointed out how I was often teased in school for my smarts, my eloquence, the way I carried myself. He said Black men would ruin me because they would treat me roughly, and he didn’t want that for me. So why shouldn’t I “pass”, since I was already so light skinned and raised the way I had been? But in spite of my dad, my racial identity was never an issue for me, even with my dad’s influence. I never was confused about what I was and who I was. I don’t know why, because I certainly should have been. I certainly got teased for being so light skinned, and “talking White” and “acting White” and all that, but I knew I was Black. I knew about my history from my own reading; I had been reading history books like “Before The Mayflower” from the time I was a child. I also knew enough about how the period in history in which he grew up and what he went through to understand why he felt the way he did, and to understand why he was concerned. I knew he just wanted the best for me, and to him the best meant White. But I never believed that to be true. I knew I had to just humor him and it would be okay. One day he’d be proud of me, even as an openly light skinned Black woman.

When I first went away to college, I went to a “White” school. My roommate thought I was White up until Thanksgiving, when she met my boyfriend. When she found out, she stopped speaking to me, and we stopped sharing clothing and makeup at her request. My dad said “see, I told you. She didn’t have to know you were Black.” That hurt coming from him, but again I remembered his past and let it go. When I stopped relaxing my hair he almost had a heart attack, but I ignored his pointed staring at my kinky tresses and his comments under his breath about how “someone my complexion wasn’t supposed to have knotty hair”. As time went on, he was always proudest of my “Whitest” achievements – if I got something published in a “White” publication he praised me, if I got something published in a “Black” publication he cared significantly less. But I never said anything out of respect for him as my dad, so years went by with me saying nothing…until my daughter was born.

My daughter was light skinned like me, and kinky haired like me. But her hair was black, like my dad’s. I remembered his pleasure at his first grandbaby’s birth, how he would admire her when she was a baby and toddler, beaming proudly. I was pleased that he was so pleased with her. One Sunday morning when I was visiting, she ran up to “Pop Pop” as she called him, and hugged him tightly around his knees. He picked her up carefully, and he sat down at the kitchen table gingerly balancing her on his knee, smiling. She smiled up at him, and I looked upon the scene tenderly, feeling proud and pleased. And then my dad said, “Petula, you have a beautiful little girl here. You should be proud. But it is a shame about her hair.”

And it all came back to me. And worst of all, my daughter grabbed at her hair with both her little hands, pulling at it, saying in a plaintive tone in her sweet little voice, “Pop Pop, Mommy, what’s wrong with my hair?”

I rushed over to her, tearing her from his lap. I was seething, absolutely livid. My daughter saw the dark anger in my eyes and said again louder, “mommy, what’s wrong? Is it my hair?” I managed to cap my rage long enough to smile at her, bounce her on my hip and say sweetly, “no baby, your hair is beautiful. But go talk to Grandma while I have a few words with Pop Pop.” She clung to me with one chubby hand, the other still clutching her hair. I hurt and ached for her, but knew how I handled her in this moment could set the stage for a future of confusion and self hatred. “Your hair is just fine baby. Go ask Grandma. She’ll tell you.” My daughter continued to seem unsure. “Go ahead,” I said, still smiling. Finally she seemed to feel at ease, because she smiled back and I put her down. Before she ran out of the kitchen she said to her grandfather, “I like your hair Pop Pop. It’s so shiny.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said to my dad in those next few minutes. But I made no effort to be respectful, to be mindful that he was my dad, to remember his past. At that moment, he was just someone who had hurt my baby. I remember yelling at him,  at the top of my lungs. I remember cursing at him. I remember crying. I remember saying things about self-hatred, about love of self, about White not being right. I remember letting my rage fly at him, unfettered and full throttle for at least 3 minutes. When I “came to”, all I saw was the shocked, remorseful look on his face.

“Petula,” he said. “I did the best I could.”

I knew that was true. So I just nodded and said, “yes, I know.”

And with that, we finally understood each other.