Yesterday I went to the post office to mail something. I was going to have to get a container at the post office; I didn’t have one at home. In the US, you can get free boxes of certain sizes to use for Priority Mail, a category of expedited mail. But they didn’t have a free box that would fit what I was trying to mail.
I then looked at the boxes available for sale and there was one that would fit my parcel. I figured I would also need to buy some tape. This was close to Christmas and there was a line of people practically to the back door. I looked at these items and contemplated the long line. I didn’t want to go through it twice; first to buy the supplies, then to mail the package after having boxed it up.
I was a little nervous about it, but I decided to go ahead and box up my parcel using the post office’s box and tape before going through the line. In other words, I used the items before paying for them. The only place I could pack the box was on a little table that was right next to the back door. So I not only had these two items I had not yet purchased but I also looked as if I was going to leave with them.
I did this and nothing bad happened. I set up at the table and boxed up my parcel without incident. Then I got in line. It wasn’t as bad as I had thought; it took about 15 minutes to get to the front. I told the post office worker immediately that I needed to pay for the box and the tape as well as mailing the package. Again, there were no untoward consequences.
White Privilege, Here We Come
This is an example of white privilege and class privilege. Although I was a little nervous about doing it, I made the decision with confidence that it would be OK. These are the actions and attitude of a person who has never been in danger from an authority figure. Who has rarely been negatively profiled. Who has never been falsely arrested, shamed in public, or lost a relative to law enforcement violence.
Instead, I felt that I could explain my way out of any bad situation. That’s probably true, and it’s because I am white and look middle class. I rarely dress up; I was wearing cheap jeans and a T-shirt. But some marks of class privilege were there. My teeth have been straightened. I was wearing high-end cross training shoes. The most important class aspect was probably that I have the confidence about speaking in public that can come from higher education. Frankly, with the exception of gender-related prejudice, I’m used to being treated well. (That’s a big exception, but let’s leave it for another day.)
Where I live, people of color and people of any race who appear working class or impoverished have to be careful in places of business. They are profiled as potential shoplifters. They are often followed or made to feel unwelcome by staff. Most would not feel comfortable and wouldn’t risk using something that they had not paid for the way I did.
I’m not sure if what I did was legal or not. (Another sign of privilege, by the way. I tried it without even knowing.) I’ve read that no one can arrest a shoplifter until they actually exit the store with an item not paid for. But even if true, that doesn’t necessarily protect one from being hassled or shamed in public. That happens to some more than others, though.
Legal or not, my actions weren’t victimless. I should have gone through the line twice. I cheated the system. In so doing, I got ahead of some people who would have been ahead of me if I had played by the rules. Plenty of the people in line were people of color, by the way. But even if there hadn’t been any, the thing that was helping me feel OK about what I was doing was white privilege.
I apologize. I can’t make it right with those people but I won’t be doing that again. And I regret the sense of entitlement that helped me feel like that was an OK thing to do.
I’m not looking to be absolved or praised for my realization. I published this in hopes of encouraging others to notice their privileges and to help myself do better in that regard. Embarrassingly, it was only through the process of writing it that I realized that I had wronged others through my actions.
To head off a few protests: I know this was a small incident with fairly low stakes. But how many times a day does that happen to me and I don’t even realize it? What difference does it make to my psyche that there is a whole set of things I don’t have to worry about that people of color do?
Also, there are probably some people of color and working class white people who would have done what I did. And there are some well-off whites who wouldn’t have risked it. When dealing with human behavior we rarely get 100%.
But my confidence came from my history of being treated well. And that is directly related to being white in a nation that has not yet left racism in the past.
Check out this thoughtful list of the ways white privilege affects white people (and by implication, how it affects people of color). Becoming conscious of these things is exactly my goal. The list is by Professor Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. It is posted on the website of Professor Julie Lewis, Department Chair for African American Studies at De Anza College, who incidentally turns out to be from my hometown.
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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016