I was born privileged. It’s a condition I cannot erase, but still, it’s something for which I’m told I must apologize and make amends. Fingers point and voices demand I be shamed. Just by existing, I oppress others, disadvantage others and deny justice to others.
My privilege? I’m white.
I drew life’s long straw but now I must make amends for things I never did.
By world standards, I am unbelievably blessed. I did nothing to justify becoming an American! I grew up in a Midwestern family of five. Until my father died when I was thirteen, I had two parents who protected me and gave me opportunities to explore our world. What did I do to deserve that? With my dad gone, a sixty-four year odyssey of opportunities to earn my keep fell into my lap. I haven’t missed any years off since then. The jobs weren’t always glamorous like my stints of making bathtubs and shower stalls, or cleaning other people’s toilets, or working outside on the South Dakota prairie in 114 degree days behind a paving machine laying hot mix for a new highway. I got fired more than once, quit a bunch of times and yet people kept hiring me. My pay checks weren’t fat and plenty of times I ran short of money—oh hell, completely out of money. But privilege just kept smiling on me.
As I bounced through life I met people who were stronger than I was, better looking than I was, had more money than I did, could run and jump and hit better than I could. Their prestigious jobs, foxy cars and swanky homes reminded me how privilege just kept smiling on me.
You will excuse me if I remain a bit uncertain about this privilege business. If the color of my skin explains my “privilege,” then tell me what explains why Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, the Reverend Al Sharpton or the founder of the Black Lives Matter movement have so much more walking around money than I do? I don’t have multiple mansions cared for by hired help, protected by private body guards and manicured by gardening servants. Is that a function of the color of their skin? By comparison, my privilege, it would appear, is decidedly shop worn.
And yet there is no getting around the reality that I am unbelievably blessed with my family, my health, and my work.
If I am to make amends, how can I do so without unwittingly botching my amends and further aggravating my original sin of whiteness? I can’t peal my skin off. I suppose I might try John Howard Griffin’s trick of darkening my skin, but then I would risk being accused of playing “black face” and I have no interest in finding out where that would get me. So, where do I go from here?
In attempting to unpuzzle this privilege business, I kept hitting dead ends until I came across an article by James Lindsay which gave me an insight into my dilemma. My struggle has been a Sisyphean ordeal: “You must understand racism and admit that you cannot understand racism. You must admit to your complicity in racism and pledge to do better knowing that it is impossible to do better. You must be an ally but accept that you will always do your allyship wrong.”
In other words, this privilege (or racism) issue is a black hole from which no white person can escape. I can beat my chest, walk on hot coals and wear a hair shirt, but I will forever remain white. I can’t buy my way out of it, though some suggest my guilt might be slightly assuaged if I tried.
Patrick Buchanan wrote years ago that if there is no solution, there is no problem. If you can’t fix something, there is no point in even trying. So, with this in mind, I have moved on from pretending to have guilt for being white. Instead, of “privilege,” which is such a vacuous concept, I now acknowledge my good fortune by admitting I have been “lucky,” and that has absolutely nothing to do with the color of my skin. The sun circles over everyone’s head. We should acknowledge the gifts we have and enjoy them with a grateful heart.