I think the first time I truly noticed white privilege was around 19 when I was working at a sports bar in the South Loop. I saw it in the way that my fellow SWF* coworkers got away with the same words, actions, and attitudes that once expressed by me became an angry black woman label.
I remember a fellow black waitress who was a little older than me taking me under her wing and telling me the “rules”. She was from Chicago and had worked in several places like that bar owned by a white male and staffed primarily with SWF.
She told me about the inevitable code-switching, about who I could joke with, about what was okay for me to do on certain shifts with different managers. I became angry the longer I worked there and I’m sad to say that I ultimately began to resent her for opening my eyes to the realities of that work place (and eventually many others).
How could there be so many worlds? How did she wake up every morning and remember all those rules?
I never tried to get away with anything outlandish. I am a pretty hard worker. And I respect most authority unless I am so inclined to question it.
But that was the whole point she tried to teach me then and I understand now more than ever. There were too many reasons to explain why the rules existed and yet there were so many reasons why they didn’t make any sense. What she really made clear in the end was that it was imperative I know them and try to operate within them because one day it could be a matter of life and death.
I recall reading recently about how Sandra Bland asked several times why she was being pulled over, a question which was entirely within her rights to ask, but ended up costing her life.
My parents impressed upon me the importance of speaking up if something didn’t seem right. I was encouraged to question authority, if only for clarification. But it wasn’t until much later when I left their suburban bubble that I would learn how that advice had some fine print attached because of the color of my skin.
A lot of folks think white privilege is limited to certain spheres of life but in actuality it bleeds into every inch of our world. I remember working in that bar and being confused about why I always had to close most shifts or why a certain manager actually looked through me when we spoke. Or why I had to think twice before I moved past certain people or why I had to take care to be extra pleasant in case someone misread my tone.
My coworker who shared the rules with me was looking out for me long before I even knew I needed it and for that I will always be grateful. But Lord, sometimes I wish I could just stop all the placating and code-switching and second-guessing myself in primarily white spaces.
You know, the way I see it, white privilege has got to be like a lifetime vacation one doesn’t really earn and most never seem to question the legitimacy of. But I urge you to try and at least acknowledge while y’all are on that beach that some of us are putting in work just to exist. That we are constantly doing the calculations of how our words and actions might be misinterpreted by the wrong person at the wrong moment.
That white privilege comes at great cost to black freedom.
*SWF = Single White Female