A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
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.