I live in a nice house in a middleclass suburban town. I drive a nice car. I have a white collar job. I’m married to a beautiful wife and I have two wonderful children. I am the poster child for white privilege.
I grew up in a small house in the small suburban town of Nutley New Jersey. Neither one of my parents went to college. My mother was abandoned in the hospital when she was born and grew up in orphanages and a cruel foster family. Her foster family made her quit school at 16 so she could go to work. My father grew up without a father and never had a strong family support system in his life.
My mother cleaned houses until she was 70 years old. The reason she stopped cleaning houses was because she had both her knees replaced and insisted on going back to work but my sister forced her to stop working. My father waxed floors and cleaned offices for a living; I don’t think he ever earned more than $15,000 dollars in a single year. I grew up driving in a 63’ Checker station wagon that had over 150,000 miles on it, holes in the floor and the back door was held shut by a chain (literally). We never owned a new or even moderately new car. After the age of 12 I never went on a family vacation because we couldn’t afford it. We were poor but I didn’t know it because everyone else in the neighborhood grew up under similar conditions. I don’t think my parent possessed a credit card when I was young; if you couldn’t afford it, you couldn’t have it (sounds crazy doesn’t it?).
I went to work with my father every Tuesday and Friday night for as long as I can remember. I cleaned more bathrooms, vacuumed more rugs and swept more floors than the average maid in a hotel. My wages for this child labor was the privilege of eating dinner and having electricity in my house. My first paying job was to deliver advertisement flyers to homes throughout my neighborhood. I was paid $5.00…every other week! At the age of 15 I worked at a bakery in town. I left my house at 4:30 in the morning to walk over a mile to the bakery every Saturday and Sunday. I worked in sweltering conditions for the staggering wage of…$2.00 per hour. I was still working for my father two nights a week.
I played organized sports as a child like most other kids in my neighborhood. When I had to go to practice I either rode my bike or walked. When I had to go to a game I either rode my bike or I walked. I don’t ever remember seeing my parents at one of my games; they were working. Amazingly I didn’t feel neglected nor did I need to see a therapist.
My father began to show signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease when I was about 12 years old. By the time I was 16 he was barely able to drive a car. When I was 19 I had to quit my pursuit of an engineering degree to go to work because my father was completely disabled and my mother needed help. Throughout my early twenties whenever my father needed to go see a doctor I would have to carry my 6’2” father through the entire length of my house, down two flights of steps and put him into a van. On the return trip it was only harder going up the stairs.
I was hassled by the police on more than one occasion simply for being guilty of the crime of being a teenager. My friends and I were pulled over in our car and our car was searched for a gun. Another time my friend and I were pulled into a police car for the crime of walking to work at 4:30 in the morning. In my town the police believed that any group of teenagers were up to no good; it didn’t matter the color. 99% of the time the police were right.
My first car cost me $500 and I proudly bought it myself. It had more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese but it was mine. My second car was only somewhat nicer but it was an upgrade and I also bought it myself. When it came to going to college there was never any question who was going to pay for the expense. I have worked hard since I was a child to earn everything that I have and I feel absolutely no remorse or sense of guilt for the blessings that I have.
So where does my “Privilege” come into play in my life? I was privileged that my parents moved our family from a declining city neighborhood into a safer environment that offered more opportunities for children. My parents moved from Newark to Nutley without a penny in their pockets and with zero support from the parents they never knew. I’m privileged that my parents chose to work like dogs doing demeaning jobs in order so support their children and offer them a better life and along the way they taught me the importance of a strong work ethic.
I’m privileged that my parents spanked me and disciplined me when I needed it. Without discipline in my life I fear to think where I would be right now. I’m privileged that my parents were a part of my life and the lives of my siblings while we were growing up. We ate dinner every night together (it was not optional). We went to church together (it was not optional). We were expected to behave and get good grades in school (it was not optional). I’m privileged that my parents loved me and there was never a single time in my life that I questioned that. I’m privileged that I came home to a clean house every day. I’m privileged that both my parents committed themselves to their marriage vows and the future of their children though they endured many hardships.
I never knew these things that I listed gave me a life of privilege until I was older and realized that millions of children grew up with none of these things. There is absolutely no doubt that these “Privileges” made me the person I am today. There is also absolutely no doubt that the color of my parents skin had anything to do with it.