The Many Threads of White Privilege in Our Society

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5 mins read

The conviction of Derek Chauvin for the tragic murder of George Floyd is just the beginning of arriving at justice for our Black citizens. Perhaps this outcome has finally awakened many of us to the realization that Black lives really do matter. For too long the white majority has ignored or denied the racism that is a defining part of our society. The events of the past year have made me — a member of that majority — reflect on white privilege, which is woven through our society with nearly invisible threads. Most white people are unaware of its existence. We take our successes in life, however small, as merely a product of our hard work or good fortune, not recognizing the impact our privileged status has had on our lives. Though invisible to most of us, it is ever present. Our views of ourselves and others in society are shaped by it. I now realize that where I am in life is due in great part to that privilege. 

I was raised in the ’40s and ’50s. My father had a midlevel, white-collar job. My grandparents on both sides were European immigrants. Until I was nine years old, we lived in a rented, two-bedroom flat in a New England industrial city that I now know was redlined. Mortgages were denied to people living in primarily Black neighborhoods who were trying to move into predominantly white neighborhoods. My parents were able to get a mortgage to build a house in the suburbs, a privilege not available to Black families. Consequently, we were able to move into a house on a modest-sized lot in the country. I never gave it a thought that all my neighbors were white. That was just the way it was. I went to well-funded schools thinking that what I was experiencing was the way it was for everyone. As I got older, I became aware that the schools in the city in which I had once lived were different. The classrooms were overcrowded, almost twice the size of my classes. The textbooks were outdated. There was no money for supplies in science labs or art and music classes. There were few extracurricular activities. Then, in high school, I fully realized the impact redlining had on children’s futures.

Our football team was playing a team from a high school in the city. All the players for our team were white. All of theirs were Black. As students, we were having different experiences in school, differences that could affect whether we went to college or got decent jobs. Also, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had not yet been passed. It was still legal to deny a person a job, housing, or admittance into college based on the color of their skin. I realized something was terribly wrong. Why couldn’t everyone have the opportunities that I had?

Thanks in large part to white privilege, my father had a good-paying job and my parents could afford to send me to college. They lived in a friendly, family-oriented neighborhood. They got along well with their neighbors. It was 1964, my junior year. The Civil Rights Act was now law. I came home for a visit. My parents were upset with their good, upstanding neighbors who were complaining that a house in the neighborhood had been sold to a Black family. “There goes the neighborhood,” the neighbors thought. It did not matter to them that the couple that bought the house were both professors in the nearby state college. Racism was still strong.

All these events did not happen 150 years ago. They happened in my lifetime. The problem still exists. I can never feel the impact that these experiences had on my brothers and sisters of color. All I can do is listen to them, be empathic, and do what I can to change our society into one that celebrates and supports everyone regardless of the color of their skin. Until we listen to the voices of minorities, nothing will change. One way to do this is to continue to vote for the party that embraces diversity. In the 117th Congress, 115 people of color are Democrats, only 19 are Republicans. The Republicans are not listening. It is obvious why Republicans don’t want Americans to have the freedom to vote.


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Dr. Hank Cetola is a Professor Emeritus at Adrian College, Adrian, MI, and the founder of Lenawee Indivisible. He can be reached at lenaweeindivisible3@gmail.com.

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