I’ve been thinking a lot about white privilege these days. For years, I attributed my ability to overcome life challenges to inner strength and a modicum of intelligence mixed with some plain, old-fashioned luck. But recently, I’ve come to understand that while all of those contribute, they don’t completely account for the relative success and stability I’ve achieved despite steep odds. I’m the mother of two caring and compassionate young men. I have close friends. I am a respected professional in a field I’m passionate about.
My success, I now recognize, hinges less on me as an individual with certain strengths and aptitudes and more on the fact that I was born in 1961 to two white parents. For every challenge I’ve encountered, the simple fact of my birth meant that certain options were open to me. These options gave me the bricks I needed to build a foundation for the future rather than removing them when faced with adversity.
In 1966, my father committed suicide. He had life insurance, so my mother was able to set aside money for a college fund for my siblings and me. Because my mother had a college education, earned in the 1940s, and a career history, she was able to re-enter the workforce, obtain a well-paying job with the federal government and buy a house in a solidly middle-class suburb. Would that have been possible if my mother had been black?
In 1975, when I was a teenager coping with undiagnosed mental illness, I took to alcohol. During three months that summer, I was picked up by police officers no less than four times for underage consumption and public intoxication. Each time, I was returned to an empty house in my white, middle-class suburban neighborhood and let off with a warning about the consequences of continued “bad” behavior. Would that have happened if my family had been black and lived in an urban neighborhood?
I spent my high school years in an alcohol-induced haze. I don’t recall much. But I do remember that I got my first job in 1978 as a cashier in a grocery store. The store was in my white, middle-class suburban neighborhood and all of the people I worked with, and virtually all of our customers, were white. I worked hard and was treated with respect for the first time in my life. That job saved my life. It gave me some hope for a future and a path to sobriety. Would I have gotten that job in that store if I had been black?
I hit my nadir with alcoholism when I was in my freshman year at college. I returned home to that same job and enrolled in a nearby public university. I bought a car. I turned my attention to my studies and excelled, graduating on time with honors. I entered one of the top graduate schools in the country and earned two master’s degrees. I got sober. Would that have been possible if I had been black?
I’ve maintained my sobriety and spent much of the last 30 years healing from post-traumatic stress disorder. I have been hospitalized for weeks in psychiatric units, and have spent months in short- and long-term therapy groups and years in individual therapy. I have received treatment from a veritable army of doctors, nurses, psychiatric social workers and psychologists who were, to a person, white. I worked harder than I ever thought possible to gain mental health and stability as I raised my sons, worked for the same employer for more than 20 years and made significant strides in my career. Would any of this have been possible if I had been black?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about all of the black people who faced the same or greater challenges than I faced, who shared or had even greater strengths than me, yet have not achieved long-term sobriety or stable employment or mental health. Would that have been possible if they were white?
For years, I believed that if I was able to get where I am, anyone could, as long as they worked hard enough and long enough. I was wrong. The decks have been stacked in my favor all along. From my father’s enlistment in the Army during World War II and his attending college on the GI bill to my medical care, I have benefited from white privilege.
That doesn’t make me a bad person or less deserving of what I’ve achieved. But it does make me angry for the black lives lost. Therapists have a saying that “mad never travels alone.” A deep sadness travels with my mad, and why I believe that even though all lives matter, today, black lives matter more.
Jennifer Nelson lives in Minneapolis.