This post is from Feburary 10, 2009.
White Privilege, a social relation
- A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities.
- A special advantage or benefit of white persons; with reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.
- A privileged position; the possession of an advantage white persons enjoy over non-white persons.
- The special right or immunity attaching to white persons as a social relation; prerogative.
- display of white privilege, a social expression of a white person or persons demanding to be treated as a member or members of the socially privileged class.
- To invest white persons with a privilege or privileges; to grant to white persons a particular right or immunity; to benefit or favor specially white persons; to invest white persons with special honorable distinctions.
- To avail oneself of a privilege owing to one as a white person.
- To authorize or license of white person or persons what is forbidden or wrong for non-whites; to justify, excuse.
- To give to white persons special freedom or immunity from some liability or burden to which non-white persons are subject; to exempt.
If you have read Hijas Americanas or followed this blog for long, you know that I am a Latina of Puerto Rican descent who moved to the United States, specifically South Carolina, when I was 2 years old. While I was ever aware of the concept, I first learned the term white privilege when I was in college (I read this piece called Unpacking the Invisible Backpack by Peggy McIntosh) and have worked as an educator and every day citizen to be very conscious of white privilege and of equalizing the systems and programs that I am a part of in my daily life. As a Latina, I never suspected that I was the benefactor of white privilege– that has not been my birthright, but I had a funny thing happen in Ethiopia that made me conscious of white privilege (and jumping to conclusions) all over again.
On the day we left Ethiopia, we arrived at the airport several hours before the check-in counters were open. Baby A, BF, and I waited at a little cafe in the airport for the gates to open at the airport and when we made our way over to the counter, there were about 20-25 women in line ahead of us at the airlines counter. We had only been in the line for about 30 seconds when an airline representative approached us and pointed us towards the front of the business class line.
“Oh, no sir,” I said. “We don’t have business class tickets.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “Come along.” He ushered us into the business class line just as my stomach was getting coated with the acid of anxiety.
“Why is he moving us to this line?” I asked BF (who is white).
“I don’t know. Do you think it’s because we’re standing there with an Ethiopian baby and we’re not Ethiopian?” BF asked me.
“Do you think it’s because we’re white?” I asked, the acid growing thicker. A quick note: Latinidad is not a race— simply an ethnicity so although I don’t identify as culturally white, I am racially white.
“I hope not,” BF said, “but I really don’t know.”
We worked our way through check-in, customs, and then into the gate area of the airport. A few times over the 10 hours we waited to board our plane, we talked again about whether or not we had been the benefactors of white privilege.
“I’ve never had white privilege in my life,” I told BF, “I certainly don’t want it now.”
“I don’t either,” BF concurred.
Finally, it was time to board the plane. About 30 women got in line before us. And then, wouldn’t you know, an airlines employee came over to us to move us to the front of the line. This time, I was prepared, and I wasn’t having it. We weren’t first in line and didn’t deserve to cut based on our skin color.
“We’re fine,” I said. “This is where we got in line.”
The airline employee looked at me, confused.
“But you have a baby. Babies always go first.”
My eyes got huge with surprise. Just four days into parenting, I had not yet experienced baby perks like special parking spaces at the grocery store or boarding airplances first and I had completely forgotten that they existed.
“Don’t you need additional time to board,” the man asked.
“That would be great,” I nodded and then hauled our baby and all the gear that babies demand onto the waiting airplane.
I will always be cognizant of white privilege and of deliberately not allowing myself to benefit from it, and because privilege makes me so uncomfortable, I imagine I will have a difficult time with baby privilege– people giving up seats on a bus or public transportation for you, helping you through doors, etc. But I’ve also witnessed how babies have a soothing, loving effect on all of us, and I don’t want to deny someone the opportunity to revel in that– sometimes what we most need is a baby reminding us of our humanity and connectedness- by being ever vigilant of privilege and not gracefully accepting an extended hand. Navigating baby privilege will be an interesting challenge for me, but I hope to no more take advantage of it than I have of anything else in my life. And I hope that when I do accept the perk, I am offering the person extending it to me a bit of the grace that comes with being in a baby’s presence.