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J. David Bethel: White Privilege

Think of the starting line of a 100-meter dash. All the participants are lined up together. Before the race begins, however, those of mixed race are asked to take a few steps behind the line. Brown people are asked to take two steps behind this group, and anyone darker is required to march four to five steps back — depending on the darkness of their skin.

The very blond and blue-eyed are allowed to take two steps in front of the line, and the very attractive in this group are given another step forward. The remainder of the runners are directed to remain on the starting line.

When the starting gun goes off, everyone has to run on the same track to the same finish line. There are no shortcuts, but some of the runners first have to catch up to those who began on the starting line, and then must catch the others who have four or five steps on them. By the time the entire group arrives at the finish, all are tired, all are sweating, all had to work hard to get there, but those who were backed up behind the line had to work harder.

I have been one of the fortunate runners. I have light hair and blue eyes. Frankly, I wasn’t even aware that I was granted an advantage until it was pointed out to me some years back. By my wife.

My wife is a mixed race Cuban-American. She came to this country when eight years old and spoke no English. At the time there were no English As A Second Language classes. Consequently, she began the race a few steps further behind that line than even did her peer group. As she raced down the track she made up her mind that complaining about where she started wouldn’t get her to that finish line. She put her head down and ran faster. For the sake of complete disclosure, she also refused to accept any assistance via affirmative action programs, or the like. She always maintained that she could make do just fine without well-meaning, but ultimately (in her mind), patronizing gestures. She succeeded and earned her way to the top of her profession in commercial real estate in one of the most demanding markets in the country. Washington, DC.

The concept of how White Privilege works became blindingly clear to me personally one afternoon when I walked my wife back to work following lunch together. We were standing in the reception area of her office saying goodbye when a man walked in and approached. With smooth confidence he introduced himself to me, his name identified him as from a family of land developers known throughout the Metro Washington region. Before I had the opportunity to give him my name, he handed my wife his coat and asked her to please tell Carol Lopez-Bethel that he had arrived for their meeting. I was nonplussed and must have looked stricken because Carol smiled at me and winked. She accepted the coat and pointed him to the conference room . She also asked if he would like something to drink. “Water, please,” he answered and was gone. I gave Carol a look and she said, “Boy is he going to be surprised.”

White Privilege is very real. It does give some of us a leg up in the race, but we all have to run hard and find our way to the finish line.


Copyright 2017 J. David Bethel

J. David Bethel is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He is the author of Evil Town and Blood Moon.


J. David Bethel and Carol Lopez-Bethel

8 comments on “J. David Bethel: White Privilege

  1. Halle Grossman
    November 10, 2017

    While anecdotal I think It captures the concept of white privilege with approachable simplicity. A case could be made that the story also demonstrates and captures the issue of gender inequality. Throughout time women have been made to feel that they need to take a step back from the starting line too. Good read – thank you!


  2. Diane
    November 7, 2017

    My impression of the last paragraph goes to the bigger picture. I found the gentleman’s behavior misogynistic and racist. If you are a woman you have faced this particular behavior too. Where are women on the starting line? Your wife ran harder not only as a Cuban-American but also as a woman. Kudos to her. We have a long way to go.


    • John Bethel
      November 7, 2017

      Thank you for your comment. In the instance I mentioned, however, my wife was one of a few women standing in the reception area, two of them actual receptionists, and both white, and the man chose her to engage with. In this instance, misogynistic behavior appears to have been less the case than something else. I disagree, however, that his behavior was necessarily racist. If that was true, the example I used would have been a bad one with which to illustrate my point. He was simply acting on reflex given the cultural norms built into our society. That’s what White Privilege is about…the unspoken expectation of a person who has been brought up in an environment where roles have been carved out for us. He was acting out his role and he expected my wife to act out hers. No malice intended. No particular thought given to what he was about in handing her his coat. And that is the insidious nature of White Privilege. It happens without thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cindy M Paz
    November 6, 2017

    As many of us ‘white privileged’ folks realize how we take for granted our opportunities, distant memories of learned racism flooded my thoughts while reading Mr Bethel’s well executed essay. As a white blue eyed woman, I will never be able to absorb the experiences of any individual with darker skin or different ethnicity. As Dr Angelou once quoted in an interview, “I would make everybody an African American. At least for a week and know what it’s like.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Holly Iglesias
    November 6, 2017

    Bethel gets right to the point and fleshes out what white privilege looks like in an individual case—his own. What seems so hard to comprehend as a concept (mostly by the privileged themselves) becomes quite clear when given individual human faces and a compelling story. Now, the challenge is to assure that everyone gets to begin at the same starting line and to acknowledge centuries of races run from far behind.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. John Bethel
    November 6, 2017

    I debated on whether to include the personal experience and in the end decided that it added a human face to the essay. That said, I do understand that for some this incident report narrows the perspective.

    Thank you for your interest and your comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Paulette Bethel
    November 6, 2017

    Great piece. Makes an important statement using a simple metaphor. I hope it resonates with the public. I think the last paragraph is vital to the article because it puts a personal experience to the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jfrobb
    November 6, 2017

    The first part of the piece is great. But for me, it would be stronger if you had stopped before the last paragraph. Which seems to shift and perhaps partly give a pass to what I thought you were saying and asking for in that strong image of the race.


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This entry was posted on November 6, 2017 by in Personal Essays, Social Justice and tagged , .

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