Long Story Short: You may not think you're privileged, but ...
My white privilege
Texas Senator Ted Cruz is not happy with Oprah Winfrey.
On the debut of her new Apple TV+ show, The Oprah Conversation, Winfrey had this to say: “There are white people who are not as powerful as the system of white people—the caste system that’s been put in place—but they still, no matter where they are on the rung, or the ladder of success, they still have their whiteness. That’s what the term ‘white privilege’ is. It means that whiteness still gives you an advantage, no matter.”
Cruz responded in a tweet, “What utter, racist BS.” Irene Armendariz-Jackson, a Texas Congressional candidate, agreed, tweeting in part, “And now why is Oprah, maybe the richest black woman in the world, trying to shame white people as privileged?” Typical twitter responses by white folks ran along the lines of, “I don't remember any silver spoon in my mouth???”
You can’t remember what you never knew
To illustrate Winfrey’s point, I’ll make it personal. Recognizing that I’m privileged doesn’t invalidate my personal accomplishments. I, too, was raised without a silver spoon advantage, but through effort and perseverance, I clawed a couple rungs further up the ladder of success than my elementary teachers would likely have predicted. Ted Cruz types will struggle to see where privilege played a role.
Born on Buffalo’s East Side, across from what is now City Honors school, I was the oldest of six kids in a working-class family. When I was five, we moved to a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Eggertsville on a street of tiny, post-war cinderblock houses. Fist fights were a popular form of recreation among neighborhood boys, in which I usually came out on the losing end.
As our family expanded, we moved down the street to a small three-bedroom, single-bath house, where, for a long time, my parents slept in the living room on a foldout couch bed. Growing up, I never had fashionable clothes; my cousin’s hand-me-downs were not what kids were wearing. My mother stretched our family grocery budget by relying on inexpensive foods. Luxuries like Bocce’s Pizza were a rare cause for excitement. When my mother began working part time, I assumed cooking duties.
At sixteen, I got a job washing dishes at a nearby greasy spoon and began paying part of my weekly check for board. Later, I worked at a supermarket, eventually achieving the coveted title of frozen food manager. I didn’t get a driver’s license until age nineteen, when I was able to buy a car to learn on and pay for my own insurance.
I was a C student in high school, and it took three tries before I was accepted into the college of my choice, Buffalo State. As an art major, I opted for a sensible Art Education degree: no starving artist life for me. I paid for tuition and supplies with student loans and graduated with honors. After college, while still a stock boy, I got married and bought a low-cost West Side house with my wife. Renée worked in the credit department of a local bank, and our combined incomes left little wiggle room in our budget. We invested a great deal of sweat equity in our home, even replacing a broken-down furnace by ourselves one winter (I have no idea how the two of us got it into the basement). I learned plumbing, electrical work, construction, whatever was needed.
After graduation, it took two years before I got a job teaching in a district just outside of Buffalo. I remained there for thirty years while also pursuing a career as an artist, and, later, as a writer, achieving recognition in all. With the equity from our house, we eventually bought a second income property, and, later, a small cottage. After retiring from public school teaching, I became an adjunct professor for ten years at my alma mater. Today, I’m fully retired from teaching, and Renée and I are financially secure. As I stated at the top, I worked hard all my life for what I have. Ted Cruz thinks the idea that I benefited from white privilege is racist BS.
My white privilege
The day my family moved into our home in the “poor” part of Amherst, five-year-old me began enjoying the privileges of being white. By buying a home rather than renting, my parents provided an imperceptible advantage. Parents who are stable homeowners—a time-honored way of building wealth—are more likely to have adult children who are homeowners. Black parents are less likely to own homes or remain homeowners, so their children are less likely to own homes.
As a resident of Eggertsville, I attended a well-funded suburban school. Many of my classmates came from prosperous families, models of white affluence. There are numerous inequities between urban and suburban schools, partly caused by a funding system based on property values. I benefited from those inequities. While we’re mentioning schools, research has shown that black students are treated differently than white students, negatively impacting their chances for success—more white privilege.
You may wonder why black families didn’t move into the same affordable suburb as my family did. The answer: they were prevented from doing so. Through various methods—some legal, some not—Buffalo’s African-American community was and is largely segregated in Buffalo’s East Side where black students are likely to attend underfunded, low performing schools. My high school had exactly one black student.
Later, when I started teaching, there was just one nonwhite student in that district. When I retired, the number was still less than a dozen. “Segregation imposes a wide range of costs on people of color, impairing their health, education, job access, and wealth,” says the Buffalo Partnership for the Public Good. The recent pandemic has spotlighted health disparities within segregated communities.
Amherst ranks at or near the top of the safest towns in the country. There was little crime—no rampant drug problems and no street violence (aside from those childhood fights). Residents didn’t even lock their doors. As a white person, I had the advantage of living in a safe, healthy environment and attending a high achieving school in a community rife with possibilities.
I didn’t find my first job as a dishwasher through a newspaper ad. A friend who already worked at the restaurant recommended me. Employees are most frequently hired through social connections. White employers tend to know white people through their social circles, who introduce them to other white people.
Later, when I became a grocery store stock boy, my mother already worked in another department of the same business. Her name on the application placed me ahead of other applicants. Failure to hire a racially diverse workforce is rarely the result of blatant discrimination. White people just have better social connections. “Getting an inside edge by using help from family and friends is a powerful, hidden force driving inequality…,” says Nancy DiTomaso, vice dean for faculty and research and a professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School. Jobs in black and Latino communities are in short supply, and public transportation to go elsewhere is limited and daunting. My first two jobs were within walking distance of my home, another advantage.
When I did my student teaching in college, my cooperating teacher explained why it’s “who you know” that matters when seeking employment. “If there are several good candidates for a position,” he said, “and you already know one of them who does a good job and you get along with, of course you take that into consideration.” In the district where I was eventually hired as an art teacher, many of the other teachers were graduates of the same high school. When I began there, we had one black staff member in the whole district. She left soon after due to illness, and forty years later there still hasn’t been another person of color on the staff, despite a recent influx of nonwhite refugee students into the community.
Once, when we had an opening for an elementary art teacher, I recommended an exceptional educator I knew through my social circle. She was white. She got the job. Thinking back, a person of color never had a chance. The educators I worked with at my school were good people. I never witnessed any overt racism. They might have described themselves as “color blind.” So why did we have an all-white staff? Access to job opportunities is another white privilege. Even if we tried to diversify the staff, there’s a shortage of black and Latino teachers. Part of the reason is a lack of role models. I had no shortage of white teachers, so being an educator was something I could imagine doing.
Home sweet home
My parents didn’t have money to send me to college, but they cosigned for student loans, enabling me to build credit by paying them back. It was remarkably easy getting a mortgage for a low-cost house in a predominantly white neighborhood. However, “Fifty years after the federal Fair Housing Act banned racial discrimination in lending,” says the investigative journalism organization Reveal, “African-Americans and Latinos continue to be routinely denied conventional mortgage loans at rates far higher than their white counterparts.”
When we needed a modest down payment for the house, Renée’s parents gave us the money. A study by the Urban Institute finds that “Parental wealth can have a direct impact on a young adult’s ability to afford a home, especially with respect to having a down payment.” Since home ownership is the most common way of building wealth, and blacks and Latinos are less likely to own homes, they are also less likely be in the position to help their children buy homes, a cyclical disadvantage.
We used the equity in our home to buy a second property, and, later, the cottage. Buying power may not be what people think of when they hear the word wealth, but it’s a means of achieving prosperity that black and Latino families often lack. When our oldest son was grown, we loaned him money to buy his first house, and later he bought another on his own. Our other son didn’t need help. He married a successful professional that he met through fencing club—among the whitest of recreational sports.
There are hundreds of microprivileges white people enjoy every day. We count on police protection, rather than police harassment. History books in our schools tell our stories. We are paid better—one dollar for every sixty cents that a person of color makes. It’s unimaginable to us that anyone asked by us to leash their dog in a park would call the police. We are less likely to suffer from a variety of illnesses or die from COVID-19.
Oprah Winfrey wasn’t shaming white Americans for being privileged; she was stating frankly that whiteness affords advantages. White privilege exists because of historic and lingering racial biases and social structures. It might be uncomfortable recognizing that simply being white bestows special status, potentially to the detriment of others. But come on, folks, it didn’t hurt me to reflect on the ways I benefited by being white. I don’t feel any less proud of my achievements. There’s no shame in being privileged at birth. It’s what you do with your privilege that’s important.
Acknowledging it is a good first step. The next is supporting government leaders that back policies advancing racial equality, such as universal health care, investment in minority communities, and affordable housing. Actively strive for diversity where you work or recreate. Reach out to become friends with someone from a different race.
Institutional racism is a pervasive problem, and, having the advantage of privilege, white people must become part of the solution. If you’re white, take a moment and reflect on your story.
Bitter news from a sweet organization
In the summer of 2009, American Style magazine proclaimed Buffalo the number one mid-sized city art destination in the country, partly due to a wealth of cultural activity by scrappy little galleries and arts organizations flying under the radar. In response, I spent a day visiting many of the city’s smaller and quirkier art spaces, and wrote about it for Buffalo Spree. One place I visited was a multimedia space on Wadsworth Street that had just opened a few months before, called Sugar City.
It wasn’t open when I showed up, but a young artist/musician named Lindsey Grate was in the process of assembling a multimedia installation, and she graciously let me in. “Sugar City is so welcoming,” Grate told me. “I got to experience this place as an artist and as a band, and they’re awesome.” I learned later that the art gallery’s programming included music, films, a zine library, meeting space, local craft corner, workshops, and workspaces.
Sugar City closed its Wadsworth location in April, 2012, but reopened in a handsome new space on Niagara Street in March, 2015. In the eleven years of its existence, the community organization has provided safe harbor for what founder Aimee Buyea has called, a “little alternative group of "plucky" punks and artists.” Buyea eventually moved from Buffalo to California, and a new generation of volunteer leaders carried on the Sugar City mission. For eleven years, they have acted as an entry level artistic incubator for a “wide array of diverse communities.”
In an email sent out to supporters last Friday, Sugar City announced that they would be closing their Niagara Street space, another victim of COVID-19. Despite receiving an emergency grant from Arts Services Initiative of Western New York, it became impossible to pay the rent. The statement from Sugar City says, “A majority of the operating budget at 1239 Niagara St. was funded by events requiring large, indoor gatherings of community members. As a space that strives to be a safe environment for all, we cannot safely hold such events at this time, and we honestly can’t predict when we will be able to do so in the future. Without this income, operating at 1239 Niagara St. is both impossible and a misuse of Sugar City’s limited resources.”
Sugar City leaders stress that the organization has been “unhoused before,” and the volunteer coordinators will likely continue to operate in some form, organizing curated shows or “popular tabling events like the Sugar City Zine Fair.” The art space managed to overcome economic challenges in the past, and enjoyed enthusiastic community support to the end, but the consequences of COVID-19 are far-reaching and lethal. “Who could have predicted,” they ask rhetorically, “that a deadly virus would be a strain on our alternative funding model?”
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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