As a pseudo social worker, I have the privilege of assisting families who don’t speak English as their first language connect to necessary services. However, after years of this work I learned that I am able to lend them more than language. Sometimes, I am also able to lend them my privilege.
White Privilege in Action
A young woman asked me to accompany her to the gas company to work out an issue with her bill.
As we waited our turn, I watched the attendant rudely dismiss the woman in front of us (both Black women). Although I couldn’t hear every word, I could tell from their body language that this customer left without their needs being met or so much as a “have a nice day” as she walked away.
The same attendant called our number and this young Latina mother and I (a White woman), walked up to her desk. The attendant kindly greeted us with a smile. She not only helped us with what we needed but offered to check for discounts for my clients bill. She very sweetly told us goodbye, after going above and beyond what we’d needed. I returned the smile, all the while choking down the tornado of questions swirling in my mind.
Why had her personality magically transformed? Why had she treated us so kindly when the woman in front of us barely even got a hello or goodbye? Was it because she appreciated the family bringing their own translator…or was it because I am White?
The Saga Continues…
A few weeks later, one of my team members, also a Latina woman, shared a similar experience at the same gas company. She told us she went in to pay her bill, kindly greeted the attendant and handed her the money. The attendant did not say a word and threw her change at her. My normally mild mannered team member said she couldn’t contain herself. She responded, “I don’t know what is going on in your day but you don’t have to treat people this way. No one deserves to have their money thrown at them.”
I gulped, being able to imagine all too well her interaction because I’d seen a similar one with my very eyes. I couldn’t decide which bothered me more, this attendant’s interactions with her clients or her miraculous transformation at (presumably) the sight of white skin.
Granted, I don’t know the details of either of these interactions or if this was even the same person. However, I do know that there was a stark difference between my interactions and others I’d witnessed.
I’m also not implying that this gas company employee is a bad person. We all have bad days, and we all have implicit biases. It is part of being human. She may not even have realized that her mannerisms changed in the interactions. She may have just been doing her job “normally”.
Are you sure White Privilege is real?
You may still be sitting there thinking of all the reasons I am wrong and why race had nothing to do with this interaction. I hear you. I started there too. Unfortunately, the invisibility of it is all part of the game. That is why White Privilege still exists.
If you are White, you don’t see it unless you are looking for it because it has always been there for you. It is your normal. You’ve always had your needs met, been greeted with a smile, and been granted the help you are eligible for. I’m not saying your life is easy, but it is not made harder by the color of your skin.
This makes it makes it hard for you to even fathom that other people’s experiences may not be the same.
That is exactly why we are sharing these stories, to help you open your eyes to a parallel reality, to help you learn to see. If you’d like to read more stories from the “Learning to See” series, click here. If you are interested in submitting your own “Learning to See” Story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.