I has taken me a very long time to write this article. My goals for writing this was twofold. First to explain as clearly as I could the concept of white privilege without raising the immediate and understandable reaction from the Caucasian community “Oh here we go again, I’m certainly NOT one of those.” and to place on paper my feelings from long ago which still extend into today. It has always been on my mind, but was highlighted when I recently house sat for my cousin in Oahu. I grew up in Southern California both in Crenshaw and Orange County. After my grandfather, uncles and aunts got out of the WWII internment camps grandpa managed to save enough money to purchase an apartment complex in Crenshaw so he and all of his adult children could live safely as neighbors. This was after all of his property was taken from the family during the Japanese American internment.
It was not in a nice area, as Crenshaw has always been considered to be ‘the hood’ but it was all he could afford. There were always helicopters and gun shots that could be heard, even back in the late 1950s and 60s. So once my parents could afford to move they opted to move to Orange County, which at the time was truly ‘the sticks’ compared to LA. Lots of orange groves which ended up being my playground. All of my relatives ended up staying in LA because the Japanese American community was strong there. Gardena was a haven for JA’s as was Little Tokyo in downtown. Going from a predominately African American community to an all White area was quite a shock for me, even as a young man. I went from being “The Chinaman” in Crenshaw to “The Oriental” in Anaheim.
The neighborhood where we moved was predominately white and there were very few homes in our area, maybe 10-15 with the rest being groves upon groves of orange trees. A number of the white neighbors started a petition to keep my family out of the area, sighting “reducing property values” if we were allowed to move in. Several of the white neighbors aggressively opposed the petition and we were ‘allowed’ to move there. Yet banks were very reluctant to extend credit to my parents, even with their stellar credit history. Great Western ended up extending my parents a loan because they placed a 70% down payment on the property. Imagine first time home buyers placing a 70% down payment on their first home! Sure prices were very different than they are today, but so were wages which matched the low prices of property.
Throughout my lifetime I have been the recipient of prejudice both overt and subtle. I won’t go into all of them simply because that’s not the point of this musing, but will highlight a few to lay the groundwork for the intent of this article. In the early 1980s I was working for a large retailer and was in Texas for multiple store openings. I was pulled over by Dallas PD and when I asked why, the officer said “Drunk driving, step out of the vehicle boy.” I did the field sobriety test and he then said “You’re going to jail boy, wait here.” as he handcuffed me. (keep in mind I don’t drink, nor do I take any sort of drugs…unless donuts are now considered a controlled substance) I got to Dallas County jail, blew into the Breathalyzer and guess what? I blew a zero. The examiner said to the officer, “Uh we have a problem with this one, he doesn’t even register on the chart.” The arresting officer said calmly, “That’s OK, put him in the cell with the rest of the niggers.” So after being searched I was placed in the cell with the other folks. One of the fellas had smuggled a pint of Jack Daniels into the cell (how the hell did he do that?!) and immediately offered me a swig. After we talked for five minutes he said “You’re OK for a Chinaman.” Ah I was back in Crenshaw! I had to hire a Dallas based attorney and he told me that DPD was under investigation for prejudice, but if I wanted to fight them it would be very expensive. He did get the case thrown out, but I opted to save my money and not sue the city.
On another occasion a real estate agent who was very unfriendly at a new housing complex simply said to me “Can I be candid with you son? Federal Law says we have to let your kind live here, but that don’t mean we have to like it!“
Now before you dismiss these two examples as ‘over 35 years ago’ or ‘oh that was in Texas’ these are two of the MANY more overt examples I have experienced around this great country, not to mention the many times I witnessed my father fighting over being called a Jap. (I must admit I was proud seeing him slam men twice his size onto their heads…)
Let’s move onto the more subtle examples…
In high school while attending a party with ‘my friends’ I overheard the hostess’ mom make this statement, “Oh Mark is kinda good looking for an Oriental boy.” Of all the things I have ever heard, this was perhaps the most hurtful. For me it was how she honestly felt, an openly candid statement about my race, my appearance and my ‘place’ in Orange County. Plus it was during my teen years when we all wonder about our place and identity.
I cannot even begin to say how many times people approached me to say “OMG you speak such beautiful English, where did you learn to speak so well?” I always replied “I’m an American.” Not always, but very often it would be followed up with “Yes I understand that, but where did you learn to speak English?” My answer was the same until I turned 28. Then it changed to “I’m a fucking American you fucking idiot, where did you learn to speak at all?” Please keep in mind that I was 28, loved to fight physically and had had it with all of that shit. As one can imagine that sort of response is seldom expected from a nice quiet Oriental….
While speaking to the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE) in Puerto Rico on the topic of “Using Technology to Prevent AIDS in Adolescents” I was sponsored by a university professor who is Caucasian. It was a worldwide conference so one of the attendees from Japan came up to ask questions after my presentation. He spoke through his translator. He made it a point to NOT address me even though I had given the entire presentation, but instead address my sponsor. I finally said “So what’s the problem, why are you not addressing me?” He turned to me and through his translator said “It’s obvious that your family were farmers and if they had done well in Japan, they would not have had to move to America.” For anyone who knows the culture of Japan, direct confrontation is a huge no-no, so for him to express that was epic! I’m a very dark skinned Japanese man (Dad said my real dad was our milkman in Crenshaw!) so his insinuation about my skin tone was very clear. I won’t repeat my response to him, but I’ll simply say his eyes got larger than nature intended….
So let’s get back to my 2015 experience on Oahu. I was able to stay in a neighborhood for 12 full days and nights. It’s very different than staying at a hotel or resort because I was around the locals, not tourists. From the moment I arrived at the airport to the time I left I was simply ‘a brah’ (Brother) to the locals. I looked like everyone else. I laughed when some people would say “Hey Brah, who’s the Haole girl?” when referring to Tracy. “She’s my girl brah” was always my response. As I went places, watched TV commercials I began to say to myself “AH this is what it’s like to be White!” My look was the norm, not the minority. The subtle way I was treated was different. I felt like I was the majority, a feeling I’d never experienced before…I liked it and after a time I began to take it for granted. At least for 10 days.
So just what is Privilege, or in some circles, White Privilege, or Fair Skin Privilege? It’s subtle, it’s given, it’s almost considered a right. It makes sense really. Most of the media, advertising, etc the majority of what is shown as positive is white or light skinned. I view privilege not only as in white privilege, but in pretty/handsome privilege, thin/attractive privilege, youth privilege, clear skin privilege, etc. It’s something one is born with, has benefitted all of their lives from, yet can’t/won’t doesn’t want to acknowledge as an advantage. It was not earned, is too hard to face, easily denied. And that’s the whole issue really; the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge its very existence. Ever know a teacher’s pet in school? The kid who obviously had the favor of the teacher? Everyone who was NOT the teacher’s pet could see it as clearly as the sky, but that kid would deny or justify their favoritism. “I turn in my homework all the time. I always raise my hand. I study instead of….” All valid reasons, but still not a good enough reason to be ‘the pet.’ Or is it? Or were YOU the teacher’s pet?
We all like to be around people like ourselves, the same economic, religious, education, interest, etc. levels. It’s just human nature. We trust those who are like us on many levels, we feel comfortable and safe. Sure there are those who are the exceptions, those who actively seek out that which is different. But if you consider yourself as different really think about the last time you actively gave thought to changing, really changing your normal patterns of thought, behavior, social circles and views. It’s easy to justify ‘why’ ‘others’ should stay in the categories in which they’ve been assigned by society. One huge reason is because it’s easy and comfortable until we are directly faced with evidence opposed to what we’ve held so comfortable. That’s Privilege.
My best example is the plight of women. I have lived my entire life with the privilege of being male. Better pay, the ability to gain promotions that until recently were closed to many women. Sure it’s getting ‘better’ but until I acknowledged my very own ‘privilege’ it was very tough for me to recognize I held those ‘rights.’ I can certainly empathize with women, but since I have not lived, day in and day out for so many years AS A WOMAN it’s literally impossible for me to truly KNOW what it’s like. And that’s the crux of the problem. No I may never know what it’s like to be a woman, but if I acknowledge their plight and act in ways to minimize them I believe I’m contributing to a truly better world.
And for me that’s the whole point of privilege, to openly acknowledge its existence. I often chuckle to myself when people speak of the 1% and hear how vehemently the 1% protests about being the 1%. Does economic wealth give one privilege? In my view it certainly does and for those who argue their wealth has been earned I can agree to some extent. Is it old family money? If so what did you do to earn that wealth other than having been born into your family. Privilege is an insidious disease, one that is often not recognized by its host, but influences their behavior without their conscious knowledge, yet is as socially damaging as a drunk driver, yet more so.
I had a young woman friend bristle quite a bit when I mentioned my concept of pretty privilege or what I call The Pretty Girl Problem. She obviously wanted to feel that all of her successes were due to her abilities and have little to nothing to do with her appearance. In no way would I ever minimize anyone’s abilities from being a large factor in their success, but to relegate appearance to a non factor is in my mind naive.
Privilege of any type is something that needs to be openly discussed and acknowledged. Will it ever go away completely…nope. Can we make it better by talking…yup. It all starts within.