Couple of thoughts on white privilege. Yes I have benefited… greatly… undeniably… but… for years I lamented the fact that I never went to a fine old prep school. Mother and I traveled to Maine and visited Hebron Academy around 1959 when I was 13. I remember that some student was playing Ravel’s “Bolero” at top volume out their dorm window while we were there. I was “blown away”, although that idiom would not become part of my vocabulary for another six years or so.
When I returned to public school the next fall as an 8th grader, mother bullied the school administrators into allowing me to take algebra, a 9th grade level class, so that I would be prepared to enter Hebron the following year. But sometime over that year, the decision was made to go with the public school and forego the Hebron experience for me. For years, even after I had (finally) graduated from the University of Vermont, eight years after I had entered Boston University in 1964 as a freshman, I dwelt on the notion that I had missed the headstart I might have gotten had I spent four years at a high powered prep school like Hebron instead of in a mediocre public school system. I will never know what I might have become. I can guess though that I might have been even more “white privileged” than I am.
I recently watched the rise and fall of Mitt Romney’s candidacy and noted, as I have before, the peculiar shortcomings of the all-white privileged education that he received. The self-righteous entitlement that was born in his family but enlarged and developed in the privileged setting in which he received his education. Mother did bring us kids up with a socially elite point of view, a sense of particular self worth and social elevation which we posessed simply because we “were Wyckoffs”, and for no other reason. But her superiority was very democratic. It cut across all class, racial and other lines. She simply held the belief that most people were idiots. I fully believe that to this day. What I have learned in the years since is that I myself am fully included under that heading.
You know, people reach a point in their lives in which, one day, they catch themselves and exclaim aloud, “Oh my God, I’ve become my mother [or father]!” This is usually while mother or father are still with us. You catch yourself saying something to your child, or doing some boringly adult thing like carrying an umbrella, and you realize in horror that you have become the very person you had spent so many years rebelling against and defying. But fast forward just a few years, even a decade. They are gone, and you suddenly find that the most powerful reminder of mother and father is now yourself, perhaps your own voice railing at the news, or your habit of stirring your coffee a certain way, a song perhaps that is really of their era but which reminds you so powerfully of them because you remember it from when you were toddling around the house way back when.
But I drift away from “white privilege”, though perhaps not as far as you might suppose. I missed the “white privilege” of a tony prep school education. But I did receive the “white privilege” from my grandfather’s will in 1951, who left to my mother, his only and youngest daughter, the equivalent of nearly $1,000,000 in today’s money. My grandfather was a son of Irish immigrants who refused to quit high school to go to work because, as Mother told me, he didn’t want to end up like his father, in the poorhouse. I was told he said that to his father’s face when ordered by him to quit high school and go to work in the shoe factory. He finished high school, worked his way through Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, and at the age of 37, newly married and with a child on the way, acquired a drugstore of his own. Mother says she and her older brothers used to play on the living room carpet with bags of gold coins from the store. He died when I was five years old. Mother had spent the inheritance by the time I graduated from high school. Today I think it was money well spent.
“White privilege” is real, but the details are always more complicated than the facile generalization. I would not change any of my own “white privileged” history. And the “white privilege” was certainly no guarantor of success, or even of any particular outcome. I think it is a mistake to think so.