A White Girl on White Privilege

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I was in the middle of a workout a few weeks ago – sweat pooling, weights in hand – when someone rapped the secret knock on my door.

Da da dadaaa da, da da.

I never answer my door. Ever. For any reason.

But I was curious. Who could it be? Maybe my little brother was making a surprise visit. He would definitely use the secret knock.

I went down the stairs wearing pajamas, a robe, and my sneakers, and opened the door.

Before me stood an African American woman, arms outstretched, with a huge smile on her face.

I can’t remember exactly what she said to me. Memory’s a fickle thing. But, I do remember how I felt, and I do recall parts of that day exactly.

We’ll say her name was Emily, but she told me to call her Emy, and she said that she was knocking on my door because she was trying to make a better life for herself, and asked if I might help her to do that.

I listened to her spiel a bit warily. I didn’t want to buy anything, and my heart rate from the cardio I’d done was losing its momentum. I really wanted to get back to my workout.

Except there was something about this girl. She had a light about her, and I instantly liked her. When she began telling me some of her story, I kinda fell in love with her.

She explained that she was from back east. She’d lost her mother to drugs, her brother to the streets, and had two babies by a white man who had raped her. She told me she was going door-to-door to learn life skills, speaking, and leadership by selling magazines.

She said she wanted to live in a neighborhood like mine one day – to raise her kids there, and she asked me if I had any advice for her.

I told her to own her story, and to allow herself to tell it fully to one or two compassionate witnesses – folks who would really hold that story sacred with her – and then to start to change it.

Emy asked me what I meant.

I said something along the lines of, “Well, you’ve got some aspects of a horror story in your life. Like stories worthy of a Stephen King novel. And you can’t change those bits. They happened. But you’re on a heroine’s journey, and you’ve made it through the trials and tribulations part. Start telling stories that empower you. This and this and this happened, but look how strong I’ve become; look how far I’ve come; look at how those experiences made me who I am today: a survivor making a better life for myself. We’re all doing the best we can with the stories we’ve got. And our stories aren’t all that different.”

I asked Emy inside, and she followed me up the stairs where I pointed toward an old typewriter I have that holds one of my favorite pieces of writing. I asked her to read it:

But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small, things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant. In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held – so much like the jumble in the bags could they be emptied that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly. A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter. Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place – who knows? ~ Zora Neale Hurston, How it Feels to be Colored Me

When she finished, I pointed to a painting above the typewriter. The artist is Kelly Vivanco, and I had purchased it a few years ago because it reminded me of Hurston’s essay. It’s called Bag of Colors.

bag-of-colors

I told her we’re all brown bags of miscellany and the only thing I’d add to Hurston’s essay is that our bags are also full of our stories. We heft them around. Sometimes they’re heavy, and sometimes they’re as light and joyful as a robin’s feather. Sometimes we carry them for years and years without ever setting the bag down, even for a second. And my story and her story aren’t all that far apart.

Emy seemed inspired and delved deeper into her tale. I shared a bit of mine, too – of addiction and the tough times. My boyfriend, who had been napping upstairs, came down and began to share some of his stories, as well. I hoped that somehow my words, and my story, would make a difference in her life. She was certainly making a difference in mine.

I ended up buying three magazines. When she gave us the price of $152.00, I flinched for a moment and debated ordering just two, but decided I didn’t care. I wanted to help, and Emy was very upfront that 50% of the cost went to her.

Emy left and we assumed that would be the last time we’d see her before she headed back east. That is, until my boyfriend went to the store. On his way back, as he pulled on to the street next to ours, he saw two cop cars, and Emy was standing there with a couple of police officers.

He stopped.

My boyfriend came home and told me his story. He said he got out of the car and asked the cops what was going on. They asked him if he knew Emy and he told them he did, that she’d just been at our house. One of the officers told him she didn’t have the proper permits to sell door-to-door. As he told me this, I chimed in and said, “What about Girl Scouts?” He told me that’s exactly what he said to the cops – that if the Girl Scouts come to our house should we call the cops to find out if they have the proper permits? He said the cops then asked him to step over to his vehicle until they were done with Emy. They let her off with a warning, walked over to my guy’s car and asked him if  he was finished. He told them he guessed he was, and they left.

He then talked a bit more with Emy. She told him that the policemen informed her that one of our neighbors called the cops.  She said, “I probably don’t look like I belong in this neighborhood.”

My boyfriend gave her a hug and told her that wasn’t true. They talked for a few more minutes and he offered her a ride, but she declined. Before she went over to wait for her boss at the park, she thanked him for having her back.

The second knock on my door that day was imaginary, as wispy as smoke. It was fear. Out of curiosity, I looked up the company that Emy worked for and the first thing I came upon was a story of a 70-something year old woman who answered a knock on her door, and was thrown down, raped, had alcohol poured on her chest, and was then lit on fire.

I then found the company on the BBB and found a boatload of complaints, folks who never got their magazines, another person saying something along the lines of how said company treats their employees like indentured servants, working them for long periods of time and paying them very little.

As my boyfriend and I consulted more and more with Google, I felt myself becoming so angry. I thought I would explode. At one point, I went off on my guy (yes, totally misplaced for me to take it out on him), about how this is exactly what the media has ALWAYS done. Instilled fear. You can’t turn on the fucking news, or any other media outlet, without a black man having done something – anything, somewhere. And it’s so pervasive, but we don’t even realize it. It’s that glimpse of upper thigh on a commercial that’s using sex to sell, and only your subconscious registers it. We’re so unaware it’s happening, but it is, and racism in this country is far from over. Far from healed. Far from better.

I started pacing the floor. Angry that I was buying into it by reading those stories because I did feel fear. I was angry at the media. I was angry at the cops who, by the way, I hadn’t seen in this neighborhood in the past three years. Not one single time. I was angry at myself for buying into the fear and even searching on Google. I was angry at the mixed feelings I was having. I was angry that this beautiful experience I’d had was totally sullied.

And… all at the same time, I didn’t want to support a company that treated their employees like indentured servants.

I’m heating up with shame as I type this, but we decided to cancel the check.

I felt like I had been on a rollercoaster of emotion all day. From joy to fear to anger to shame. I had a dinner with my dearest friend on the calendar and I went. I sat at the table waiting for her, so filled with anxiety I couldn’t focus. I was second-guessing my decision to cancel that check. Sure, I wasn’t supporting the company, but I wasn’t supporting Emy either. My friend showed up and I hijacked the first twenty minutes of our dinner telling her the story. As much as she held space for me and made me feel better, it stayed in the back of my mind all through dinner. It didn’t help that my boyfriend called five times while we were eating.

I got home and he was as big of a mess as I was. We decided that it didn’t matter if the company wasn’t stellar, we wanted Emy to get her half. We quickly stopped the stop payment, and I called the bank the next day to make sure that they hadn’t tried to put the check through. The bank assured me that no one had attempted to cash it and it would go through. And, a few days later, it did.

It’s been weeks now and I can’t stop thinking about Emy and this whole situation. Who am I with my-time-to-workout-and-my-original-Kelly-Vivanco-and-my-Hurston-essay-in-my-antique-typewriter, spouting off about story and telling a more empowering one? I have no idea what her life is like. But we made a connection. We shared story, which is the biggest thing of all. There was nothing but love in our conversation, and in our actions, until that fear came knocking.

Here’s what I know about white privilege. And it’s not enough. I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that there are black people who need to give themselves extra time to get somewhere because they might be pulled over for driving a nice car. I can’t understand what it’s like to be under surveillance when I walk into a store because the clerk thinks I might steal something based on the color of my skin. I have no clue what it’s like to walk around a neighborhood, knock on a few doors, and have the cops show up as I try to make a better life for myself and my kids. White privilege is just that. It’s white folks getting privileges that we can’t even fathom because they’ve always just been there.

The question that plagues me is what can I do about that privilege, aside from being vigilant that it exists, and sharing what I know with other privileged folks? It definitely doesn’t feel good to shame myself for that privilege. Shame isn’t good for anyone. It doesn’t feel good to wish I was in another’s place either. I love my life and feel blessed about forty times a day… and there’s some more privilege.

Last up… a bit of irony. I sat on this blog for two months, afraid that I might be misunderstood, or judged, or criticized if I published it. A couple nights ago, after I worked on it for the billionth time trying to make every word perfect (impossible), I watched Real Time with Bill Maher. It felt like a God nod when he said, “I know you’re trying to demonstrate to minorities that you’re a sympathetic ally by dumping on your own whiteness, but most minority folks could give a shit…I’m not saying that being a white male doesn’t have its privileges. Of course it does. I’m just saying that constantly crapping on yourself doesn’t fix anything. It’s a perverse sort of narcism.” Okay, I thought. Got it. It’s time to share the story of Emy, along with this white girl’s take on white privilege.

4 replies
  1. Ming says:

    I love your blog Melanie. Woke up this morning reading it. Even twice. What
    a story. Your compassion to even let this woman in. I had that happen to me
    when I first moved into my house in Venice, CA, I gave money and never got
    the magazines.

    I grew up in WA, I think I was the only asian kid in class. In high school
    there were 4 of us.
    but you know when I experienced racism it was in LA! Where there were tons
    of asians, and guess who I experienced with ? other asians. I was shocked.
    Im like hello we are both asian, but
    this japanese girl basically told me to choose between her and my new
    mexican american friend.
    LOL. I chose the mexican haha.

    Years gone by, I dont even see color anymore. Unless its pointed out to me
    . Like my niece said once, my auntie is asian?! She literally had to be
    shown that I was a different color. haha. It was cool because then I
    realized we really are taught that.

    anyways, I always enjoy reading your stuff

    I love that your BF is as compassionate as you as well. That is nice to
    read.

    Reply
    • Melanie Bates says:

      Thank you so much, Ming! I love your story, and I love that you don’t see color. The story of your niece is priceless! Love you to the moon!

      xo
      Melanie

      Reply
  2. Morgan Sontag says:

    Hi there! Great story, Mel! I have a 6 month relationship with a S. African high school boy, who found me on Facebook and was desperate for help. I coach and counsel and care for him. (He has no parents.) I catch myself at times squirming in what I judge to be my white privilege. It’s like a heightened discomfort I can hardly tolerate. I am inclined to rescue him, in those moments…get him out of there entirely. Let me just Hero him right on over to Seattle where life is NOT like what he manages and struggles with… Please allow me to white privilege you out of your culture, so I can be comfortable. Is it white privilege or disdain for abuse and poverty which leads to violence and crime, and those evangelical hazings and shamings in public?! I notice and feel through my pain and keep showing up and encouraging this little guy to rise through education while cheerleading and loving him…like watering a dead plant that has suddenly come alive. And when he talks to me about racism, I realize I know very little…but I do know a lot about pain, mistreatment, exclusion, loneliness, sexism and gender inequality…my white privileged self slips away for awhile? We connect, we bond, I learn a ton and so does he…it’s beyond race. And yes by being white and a west coastie, I am privileged. But it’s ok. I am not an asshole and won’t use it to do harm.
    Keep on with your good writing! Love, Morgan

    Reply
    • Melanie Bates says:

      Dearest Morgan,

      Wow, love. First, thanks for sharing this story with such vulnerability – the ups and downs of it, and the questioning and the work to feel through it. Second, what a beautiful thing to do! I already knew I loved you… you were like lemon cake with lemon frosting and sprinkles, this just added some lemon zest! (I really love lemon :))

      xoxo
      Melanie

      Reply

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