While I was working my way through college, I cleaned a doctor’s mansion that needed this floor cleaned with vinegar and that one cleaned with mopping solution and the other one wiped dry, and well, yes.
I hated cleaning (and still do), but I did it for the money, considering it a comfort issue rather than a class distinction. Then one day, I overheard the doctor telling her friend that she didn’t really need a cleaning lady but, “They need work.”
I’ve carried that with me for years as a reminder of the lines that people draw between “us” and “them.” The lines that I draw.
“I think I finally saw a little bit of what you see every day,” I told a Latino co-worker later that weekend. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember he acted embarrassed that I, a white middle-class American, even wanted to discuss discrimination.
How can I really understand white privilege when I’m living it? When I stepped out of my white world and moved to North Africa, I began to have an inkling of the disparity between white and other colors. North Africans love foreigners… Well, they loved me and I was white. Now, in a Spanish province chock-full of immigrants, I’m not blind to how immigration officials relax when they see my blue passport.
“Are you looking for an apartment for you?” one realtor asked during my apartment hunt. “Because if it’s for an Arab, I have nothing.”
“It’s for me,” I assured him, startled by the blatant discrimination. What would it be like to taste rejection on account of my skin color or my nationality? I honestly had no idea.
The occasional Spaniard lumps me in with the North African crowd, and not in a good way. In those times, my blazing internal response runs along the lines of, “How dare they?! They don’t know me well enough to judge me!”
True. They don’t. But my subconscious assumption is, “If they only knew who I was, they would treat me better than this.” If they only knew I was white because white deserves special treatment.
How I hate that I subconsciously believe this! Yet, it’s not hard when it’s all I’ve ever known.
I’ve been watching other immigrants and I wonder. While I am busy taking offense at any implication of discrimination, I see most Arabs and sub-Saharans accepting it as a matter of course. They’re used to being used and unwanted.
I’m not. Has the special treatment of whites the world around made me more fragile, more threatened by opposition? I say this because I am weak, I am white, and I wonder.