‘White privilege’ means my black skin disqualifies me from built-in advantage

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President Clinton holds a copy of his Race Advisory Board’s report, entitled “Changing America” during a ceremony in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington Friday, Sept. 18, 1998. The advisory board completing their yearlong mission, concluded that Americans must confront “this country’s history of white privilege” before its many races can begin to get along. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

“Dear John, Yes, John, I am so white privileged,” a reader writes in response to last week’s column. “Being a little older then you, I guess I am certainly very lucky to have felt it all my life.

“Yes, back in the sixties, when both my dad and mom had to work very hard to make ends meet to support their five children, all between a year or two of age, and keep food on the table and a roof over our heads.


“Yes, I felt very privileged seeing both my parents work so hard and never seem to make a dent or have enough. … When on every Thursday — the day before payday — we didn’t know what we had to eat, if anything at all.

“In a pinch, Milk Bone dog biscuits were quite tasty, if you could get over the crunchiness. Another excellent choice is a can of fried Spam, although one could barely feed the five kids. … Again, I felt that white privilege. I especially felt it at bedtime when all five of us slept in an unfinished attic on a queen-size mattress with no heat or cooling …

“I’ve always said you cannot judge or assume anything about anybody until you’ve walked in their shoes. Obviously you couldn’t have walked in mine, wrong size, I guess, so please John, stay black … ”

I write in response: Dear Sir, “White privilege” does not negate human suffering.

It does not insulate from the storms of life nor the inevitable misfortunes or circumstances that none of us control when we are born into this world. I was not born with a silver spoon and saw my grandfather — a laborer and letter carrier — and parents (blue-collar workers) struggle to make ends meet.

I know the agony of hunger, the pain of lack and the social shame that are the poor’s to bear. I had my own bed but didn’t have my own bedroom until I was good and grown. I know the shame of having holes in my pants and shoes and of not being able to afford a 5-cent cookie to go with my free lunch.

I could go on and on and on. … But I won’t. My point is: I do not think, nor do I ever mean to imply that “white privilege” insulates you or makes things altogether easier.

In a Fall 2018 article for Teaching Tolerance Magazine, senior writer Cory Collins explains it this way: “. .. White privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy the privileges that come with relative affluence, such as food security. Many do not experience the privileges that come with access …

“And white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned. … Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort … ”

Essentially, white privilege means that my black skin disqualifies me from ever having such “built in” advantage.

I apologize for the treatise. I do not diminish the hard work of any man. I myself have been, among other things, a janitor. What a man — black or white — does as good and honest work is his own business.

Bottom line: I am black. I have no choice but to stay black. And I will …

The reader writes back: “John, Thank you for your explanation and clarification. It makes much more sense to me and I appreciate your candor. … Maybe someday we can sit down together and bounce thoughts off one another, maybe even come up with some solutions to bring people together.”

I’d like that very much. Respectfully, John.

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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