Whitewashing White Privilege

SegregationBy Sarah Shaver

I grew up in a white-only world. As a child I didn’t realize that segregation had this purpose: It’s easier to deny people justice when you don’t know them.

As a kid growing up in Ohio in the 1960s I lived in a white neighborhood and most of my friends were white. So were my teachers, my doctor, my dentist and anyone else of seeming importance. That world seemed natural and normal to me.

When an Asian family moved into our neighborhood someone painted “COMMIE” on their trash cans. They only lasted a month. When a black family moved to the very edge of our neighborhood my family moved out. I was told that blacks would ruin the place. Later I went back and was surprised that the whole neighborhood had become black. And clean and well-kept and beautiful. 

When I was a teen I got pregnant and went to live at a home for pregnant girls. I was put on the white girl’s floor. We were counseled to give up our babies and go back to school and make something of ourselves. But black girls were encouraged to keep their babies and go on welfare. I am not kidding. That was in 1980.

Later, I lived at the YWCA and I was put on the top floor — the white girls’ floor. We even used different elevators so that black and white would never meet even while we lived in the same building. One day I decided to visit the second floor and was shocked to see that black women and their families were crowded into small rooms. I had a room of my own.

When I moved to California and took the city bus, I was surrounded by people of many cultures. That frightened me.

My upbringing as a white middle-class child was tailor-made to help me see the world only through white eyes.

The only people of color that I came into contact with were on T.V. There, black people lived on welfare in ghettos and committed crimes. I was told that black people were lazy and good for nothing. That made it easy to blame them for their poverty.

It’s hard to see injustice when you don’t know anyone who’s been hurt by it. When you don’t see their pain and misery. And when they have only themselves to blame, after all. Because you never learn about the history of educational discrimination and job discrimination, or the inability to pass on wealth when you’ve never been able to gain any, yourself, because of discrimination or slavery.  You don’t know about the poor schools kids attend today, the uneducated or overworked parents who can’t help with homework, the hunger and toothaches and lack of glasses that make learning impossible. You just don’t think about it.

I grew up privileged by comparison.

In elementary school, surrounded only by white children I said The Pledge of Allegiance and supported “justice for all.” But then, white America was the real America. That was all I knew.

I’m glad to see things changing. And I’m glad that I have changed to appreciate diversity and gain greater empathy and understanding.

February is Black History Month

Sarah was one of my students. She gave permission to post this on my blog.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 21, 2014, in feminism, psychology, race/ethnicity and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. I had a reader comment: “I like how you’ve drawn parallels to being a white, first-world resident and making an effort to “keep the 80%” in mind to the mindset of the magicians. I never thought of it like that (being part of the 80%, I suppose), which was shortsighted of me, I suppose.” Yes, I review books. This comment has had me thinking many times – what being part of the 80% must be like. Granted, it is not a color privilege this reader is talking about but a distribution privilege. It struck me then and strikes me again in reading your article just how privileged I am.

    I have some disadvantages. I have a handicap that can be very visible, I am one of those Aspergers and I am a woman. But I live in Norway where our economy is great, my husband earns a decent salary, we have a roof over our heads and food for our bellys. And I am light-skinned. Which is why I have learned that I need to keep reminding myself of the need to share some of my luck around and not think that I have in any way earned my privileges.

    • In my “intro to women’s studies” class I ask my students to think about what privileges they have, based on their demographics: sex, color, social class, sexual orientation. People who lack privilege are very aware of their lack because they’re always running into barriers. The privilege people just see the world is natural and normal. So it’s good to get a sense of our privilege and think about how we can create more equal opportunity.

  2. My upbringing was somewhat similar, as a child I grew up in both Iowa and Florida. In Iowa it was mainly only Caucasians, while in Florida there were Caucasians and African Americans. Growing up in Florida people stuck strong to their beliefs and didn’t know much about the rest of the world, probably because it was easier to understand that way. When I was in middle school I moved to California, and boy was that a shock. Growing up in smaller cities I had never seen so many different races and cultures all living together. At first it was almost too much for me to deal with, just because i wasn’t used to it. But after living in California for about 2 years I have learned to accept every culture around me, and I feel like it is necessary for every person if they want to grow as a person.

    • When I was very young everyone was white except one Japanese boy. And then I moved to a poor neighborhood when my parents got divorced, A place where there was more ethnic diversity. It was really good for me. I was friends with all of the kids in my elementary school classes, and I learned to see everyone as people, Rather than as a color. I was lucky.

  3. Really appreciate this author’s sharing of her journey, including giving context for why she might have had the perspective she had growing up, and, of course, wonderful that despite all that she chooses to embrace a more diverse reality. Just shows that ultimately-regardless of conditioning or culture, we have power and choice in how we decide to live/see/be in the world.

  4. Pretty “white-bread” around here. I had to go to college to even meet any people of color, really. There’s still more people of color who are foreign college students here than there are African-Americans or whoever-Americans. What I find completely amazing about this story, though, is that in 1980 there were still homes for pregnant girls. I thought we got past that (sending pregnant teens away) in the early 1970s.

  5. Not only difference is made between rich and poor but also color! In India , people give a lot importance for colour. I mean how could you judge people by their colour! I have one friend whose skin tone is dark, and when he was young he was teased by his group of friends for his colour! Today also he feel inferior because of his colour. Once someone commented to him really bad in front of me and few of our colleagues and later even teased him alot followed by giggle and big laugh. He was silent but I did what I felt right and got up and slap the guy followed by big speech and later people realised, and genuinely felt bad , told him sorry for their behaviour. You know people will continue saying only till the time u allow! Being dark is not at all bad. Ask me sometimes I find a dark man more handsome and intelligent than white man 😛 . Too good Georgia, i loved reading this post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. (Here via Feministe) I grew up white in a little factory town that no longer has any factories. We had one black family in town at that time. They had a daughter my age and the mom ran my Daisy troop. They left town when I was seven because there was too much Klan activity in the area. This was in . . . (does the math) . . . 1994. Much as I wish it were otherwise, this isn’t a problem that went away with the sixties or even the eighties.

    • Wow! Thanks for updating us. Pretty sad that Klan activity was still going on so recently. Here’s hoping it’s not as bad now.

      Of course, you still see evidence of the problem with Trayvon Martin and the recent Dunne case.

  7. I have heard some stories slightly similar to this, but this one stunned me. To think that people would make it so that someone of a different race would be seen as being bad or good for nothing. I mean really, what did these people ever do to deserve that. Crowding the women into rooms while she had her own room, i mean really people? I think that would be comparing them to cows or animals in a barn. that in my opinion is dehumanization. It doesn’t matter what race you are, you should still be considered a person and be treated like a person, because you are. I get the concept of being raised that way and seeing society through “white” eyes. If you are never exposed to something when your growing up, of course it might be strange or uncomfortable for you when you have to deal with it when you get older. I think that people also use race to classify who is worth more. In reality, we are all equal, so why try to make a fake barrier that was never meant to be there in the first place? People need to become more accepting of different races. and stop treating those that are different like animals, because they are humans like us. I really enjoyed reading the article, thank you for sharing it!

  8. I did not grow up the same way and as I grow older, I learn to appreciate that more and more. Growing up in the Bay Area really gave me and look at how diverse the world is and I am grateful for that. I remember one time my family and I were driving through San Francisco and there was a gay pride thing going on. As we drove through, my parents told my siblings and I that this is a part of the world we live in and it is good to get exposed to all different types of people no matter their sexuality, skin color, or social status. I think it is good for kids to get exposed to as much as they can when they are young because that allows them to see the world through their own eyes and make their own judgements instead of living in a sheltered world. I grew up in a very stable household where my parents worked together to raise us and I was never exposed to drug or alcohol abuse, so I feel in that way I was sheltered, but I was not in terms of the different people there are in the world and I was never taught or told that one race was better then the other. I could not imagine being taught my whole life that whites are superior and then going out into the world and realizing that only is that not true, but realizing that they are just like you inside. Like the author, I am happy to see that things are changing.

  9. It feels a little strange now that I think about how normal I felt that there were a good mix of races at my school, black still being the minority behind indian until high school. Maybe it was the other way around but that isn’t the point. What’s strange is that because early on we were told about all these oppressions in the past that happened, my generation seemed to only make fun of our own stereotypes as if we were one big group called “American.” It wasn’t really bad, I’m happy I was born where and when I was born.

  10. I know how she felt when she was surrounded by people of many cultures because sadly I felt the same way as she did when I came to America for the first time. But it is still surprising to me that in the past some parents would have taught their children that the Blacks are for good nothing or something like that. I’m kind of scared of falling into the same category as people who discriminate against people of color, because I still have a slight bias on race, basically the feeling of inferiority of asians. But I am glad the world is not as bad as what it used to be in terms of white privilege.

  11. I’d never heard that about the phenom of white teen mothers being encouraged to give up their babies while back women were told to keep them and go on welfare. Wow. Segregation makes me ill. Even the cemetery at our hospital was segregated. I don’t get it.

    • I remember being so shocked when I first heard about all of this segregation. It simply didn’t make sense to me. As I studied social psychology I understand how society gets internalized into our own heads. So you create a myth that one group of people is inferior just to justify enslaving them. Then, you raise kids in a society that believes that way, and it can take a really long time to overcome these kinds of internalized beliefs.

  12. Thanks for sharing Sarah!
    Your upbringing was definitely very different than mine. I was raised in a very diverse city and didn’t see people differently based on the color of their skin. It’s really unfortunate that people are taught at an early age to dislike others solely because of their skin color. I didn’t learn about the discrimination of different racial groups until I learned about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. I’m extremely thankful that I grew up free from prejudice and intolerance.

  13. As an African American its always eye opening for me to see how I can relate to those who see the world through “the eyes of whites”. I totally identified with how we judge from stereotypes first. I think we’ve all (or maybe its just me) locked the doors to a car when a thuggish looking Black man veered too close. And I can remember being a bit irritated by Blacks coming in droves to my mostly white neighborhood. I looked down at people of my own race because they came from Oakland which translated into meaning unsophisticated in my book. One reason why I’m grateful for stories like these is because I can understand how I’ve judged people solely on the color of their skin, and how that caused me to not only limit the way I see the world, but also made me miss a lot of opportunities to meet good people. I hope that every year the world becomes a little more fair, and more children can grow up making judgements on character not genetics.

    • Yes, I’ve seen studies that show that most of us, black and white like, unconsciously internalize these negative notions. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is criticizing our unconscious biases that helps us to move out of them.

  14. When one is privileged or powerful, the superiority becomes invisible so it is very hard to notice that they are privileged.
    But, once you are put into a situation, regardless to your age, race, and cultural background, it is very easy to feel the harm.It reminded me of the video, “A Class Divided,” which third grade kids in elementary school are purposely divided based on their colors of eyes, by their teacher Miss. Elliot. With this she epitomized the structure of the society and gave students how discrimination is ridiculous and not fair.

    In Japanese, there is a saying, “One eye-witness is worth hundreds words.” to truly understand what is happening, we really need to put ourselves in other’s shoes.

  15. Being a bi-racial woman, I can relate to some of the hardships of segregation. I was born and raised in California where people of all background and ethnicities were embraced and live together. When I moved to Chicago for a year I experienced a culture shock because there were not many different people, only black and white. In elementary school the topics about race always came up and it was still a touchy subject. Some kids are just taught all the wrong things by their parents. Although we have made a lot of progress there is still so much more to be done. Everyone deserves to be treated equally as a person and not according to their skin color.

  16. As a biracial woman who has lived in Southern California my whole life, I have been exposed to many different races. This has taught me that everybody racially stereotypes, even within their own race and sometimes subconsciously. I try to recognize when I am doing it and stop, but that is easier said than done, especially if I feel threatened. Even within my own racial communities, I have experienced stereotyping. A lot of the white kids I grew up with were never poor, and didn’t understand what poverty was like, or why I was poor. Some of the Mexican kids I grew up with never really connected with me because I could barely understand them when they spoke Spanish. Of course, I found friends who didn’t care that I was not wealthy or bilingual, but I remember not feeling welcome anywhere for awhile. I’m glad things are changing, and more and more parents are raising tolerant children, I’d hate for my son to have the same struggles. I’d hate for any kid to not feel welcomed because of their race.

  17. I find your perspective interesting. My husband is African America, along with a large part of our friends, community, and family. Last year, I was at a party for my 60 year old African American friend in his kitchen, and his daughter who was 20-something leaned over to him and asked where all these white people came from. Your point of view has been experienced by many people in many cultures, and races.

    I am saddened by segregation. As your blog states, it keeps people separated so that we are unable to experience others struggles and successes which are what make us all human. One of the things I love is to traveling and experiencing other cultures food, traditions, and customs. As a child, I lived in a rural Northern Minnesota town near an Indian reservation, growing up around another race and culture; my mother’s best friend was Sioux Indian. Throughout my child, racial and gender issues especially in news and media were constantly being discused. While working with Nurses Without Boards, my mother brought us stories from around the world, and even though we were not well offer, I was very aware that food, shelter, clothing, and education were a privilege compared to the many children who went without these basic necessities.

  18. Growing up in california Im so thankful to have been surronded by diversity, I even have to younger sisters who are half black so Ive never been taught to discriminate, however I was taught to be polite and well mannered and have called “white-washed” my whole life. When I was younger I didnt understand but I now, like Sarah, how whites are held above other races. It bothers me that if you behave properly in our society you are linked to “whites” when manners and morals have nothing to do with skin pigmentation.

  19. This was interesting to read, it’s always informative for me to see from someone else’s perspective, especially reading about seeing things through “white eyes”. I grew up in a strong politically active Latino family, full of protesters and activists always fighting or speaking against racial inequalities and fighting the power, for that I am thankful. I have lived in California my whole life and being in the bay area’s diverse and for the most part accepting societal bubble has let me see the beauty of acceptance, but when I visit my family in Mississippi its always a culture shock because it shows me how people continue to be ignorant and racist because of a difference of skin color. People who educate themselves to be more aware of diversity and cultures like the student who wrote this have key role in doing away with inequalities and racism in our society through unification. Education is contagious and together we as a nation are capable of great things and we have shown what we can do with the civil rights movement, women’s liberation and other organized protests, but only after we unify and accept our differences and embrace ourselves as just people, then we might truly be the “land of the free”.

  20. In grew up in a small city, Menlo Park, CA in the 1980’s. When my family moved to east Menlo Park, the city had attracted families from different backgrounds. Prior to my family and the African American/Black families, Menlo Park was made up of White families. In the 1960’s, the White families started to move out as African American/Black families started to move into the area in search of work. I learned of about the city’s history from my neighbor who was the first African American/Black family in the neighborhood. Thus, I had the privilege of growing up and going to school with children whose families were from Mexico, El Salvador, Tonga, Samoa, and Vietnam. This diversity allowed for me to appreciate different cultures. I must however point out that my experience with White families was limited to that of authority figures, teachers and police officers. To make matters more interesting, my experience with these authority figures (along my family’s and those of my neighbors) was often negative one. Although I was hesitant as a young adult to form relationships with White people due to past experiences, I found it was possible through education and understanding the historical and institutional racism that caused much of this divide. I don’t think it gets easier as an adult. I constantly find myself having to be patient with individuals who fail to see their own privilege, have white guilt, or internal racism. I also recognized that my own guilt as a woman of color made me a racist against to my own race. Validating my own experiences allowed me to appreciate others experiences of discrimination and injustices whether they looked like me or not. In an ideal world, people would reflect on their racial background and how it gives them privilege and/or how it can be a disadvantage. I’d like for my future children to grow up in diverse community so that he/she can appreciate differences but moreover, live in a society that offers and treats one another with equality no matter how we look.

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