The Motley News

Privilege and Problems by Abby Pollard

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“But white people have problems too!”  
This plaintive cry has been dogging discussions of racial oppression for all my life and longer, from the mouths of those who perceive that their privilege is causing others to doubt their capacity for pain and suffering.  

You don’t have to click around the social justice blogosphere for long before you find a white person replying to a post about racism, helpfully explaining how (“Sorry, but”) the fact that we are white does not mean our lives are great either — the common implication (if not the outright proclamation) being that because white people too can have problems, even terrible problems, privilege is nonexistent or at most negligible.  

So I’m talking to you here, fellow white people, who are feeling a little put-out because you don’t think anyone is sympathetic to your plight.  Don’t be tempted to invade others’ discussions of their experiences with racial oppression and make it “about you,” as I too often see you do, because you feel your problems do not get as much attention — those conversations are almost never about you, but this one is.  Let’s talk about white privilege and our problems.

A few years ago, I watched my dad deteriorate and die from a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer.  That, in and of itself, is an agony to which people of any social group, regardless of class, race, gender, and most other social distinctions, are susceptible, and it is going to be a brutal experience for anyone who has a positive relationship with their father.

The richest, whitest, malest, straightest, cis-est, otherwise privileged-est guy in the world will weep until he vomits, will have thoughts and feelings he would not have believed possible, will never be who he was before, will be scarred and haunted for all his life, and any compassionate person who encounters him will offer him what comfort they can.

BUT.  However damaging that experience will be for people of any race, it cannot be said that, placed in social context, it is immune to being affected by privilege or lack of it.  The noted and well-documented disparities in health care between, for instance, white Americans and Americans of other races would surely have worked against us if we were not white, and made an already difficult experience all the more excruciating.  

What might have played out differently, if every time our doctors attempted to calculate what about my dad’s life was worth fighting for and what wasn’t, or what decisions we were capable of making and which ones were over our heads, or how faithful we were likely to be in following through with daily treatments, they had been reckoning with us as a black family?  A Latino family?  A multiracial family?  

Even if our entire medical staff happened to be comprised of perfect and fair-minded individuals (how common are such people?) it would still have been critical for us to weigh every grim declaration and tough ultimatum by whether their attitude and opinions might be, however unintentionally, slanted due to our race.  

My family and I made choices in that time period that were terrible to consider, choices I still wonder about — it’s beyond horrifying to imagine how much harder our already-painful decisions might have been if we’d been forced to second-guess the staff at every turn for fear they were (whether they realized it or not) reacting negatively to our race.  Fortunately for us, we did not have to weigh this, not because those decisions mightn’t have been influenced by their perception of our racial identities, but because if they were, it was almost certainly in a favorable way.  We as a white family were privileged not to have to take any of this into account.

As if that weren’t enough, I am reminded of a minor incident in the course of my father’s radiation treatments — since he was thought to be seizure-prone, I was obligated to drive him to the hospital daily, something I was just learning to do.  Inevitably, one hot summer’s day I crashed his van at low speed into a parked vehicle.  

Cops were called to document the incident, they were friendly and polite, insurance covered the damage to the other car: it was as painless as a little fender-bender can be, but of course, I was distraught.  I’d uglified his van, I’d embarrassed us both, I couldn’t stop crying.  But my dad told me he was glad that it had happened.  By this time, we knew he wouldn’t be around to see me graduate, or get married, or have my first child, or write my first novel.  So he was happy to have been there for my first car accident.  Looking back, I’m kind of glad too.  

But… the statistics on the appallingly lopsided treatment of people of various races by police officers in even casual, non-criminal situations are so staggering I scarcely need to say so (except I do.)  As my father’s medications led him to be a bit woozy and slur his speech, what might the wrong cop (and there’s far more than one wrong cop) have suspected about what really happened, given a slightly more negative prejudice?  

If my father was carrying a bit of pot, as he often was in those days to soothe his nausea, and the officer had (for some reason!) felt the need to investigate the situation more sharply… what might an extra twenty or thirty minutes sitting out in the sun in handcuffs have done to my dad’s shaven, just-radiated head, to say nothing of what would come after?  

How would my sickly, dazed, immune-compromised father, in considerable pain and struggling to retain the contents of his stomach, have taken to an overnighter in a cell, rather than safe at the home we were permitted to return to?  How might this brief chapter in his struggle, which I am fortunate to be able to regard positively now, have instead turned into a traumatic nightmare if we were not shielded from potential disaster by our white privilege?  None of these questions crossed my mind at the time, of course.

My point is, there are quite a few white people stung by the perception that those calling out our privilege are telling us we have no problems, and while this statement is certainly inaccurate in and of itself — everyone suffers and struggles to some degree in life — whites complaining about their problems should perhaps contemplate how much worse those problems might be with a few minor adjustments in their identity and social position — not for the purpose of making you feel worse, but for the purpose of opening your eyes to the injustices and abuses you could be facing but are not, and hopefully making you more sensitive to those who do face them — maybe even angry about them.  

In other words, white people, “Count your blessings,” with the caveat that many of those blessings are present as a direct result of your whiteness, and as such those blessings are, at this very moment, being denied to others who do not share in that whiteness.  

That, I think, is what most of the folks hurting your feelings when they scoff at our complaints as “white whine” are getting at — not that nothing bad ever happens to us, but that in nearly all cases, even the darkest, ugliest moments of our lives are mitigated by our position of privilege, and, because we are privileged not to even need to contemplate that troubling reality unless we so choose, most of us remain unaware just how oppressively, undeservingly lucky we are.

Abby Pollard is a fat white narcoleptic queer who crafts leather goods and talks to her cats.  She graduated from Grinnell College in 2009 with a BA in Sociology and lives in Louisville KY.


Author: Charish Halliburton

Writer and Editor for The Motley News

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