My friend knew we’d made a mistake based on how long it was taking to get to the next stop. He had forgotten that the 2/3 veered East after 96th Street, rather than continuing north up Broadway. I was a high school senior, making a college visit. He was from New York but the suburbs, not a regular subway rider.
Only later did he tell me he had a feeling that we should have transferred at 96th.
We climbed the stairs, and we hadn’t even fully reached street level yet when I heard the voice.
I didn’t see the street signs, but I know now where we were: at the corner of 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and Lenox Avenue, also known as Malcolm X Boulevard. Right in the middle of Harlem.
“Why don’t you two white boys go back to where you came from?” is what we heard.
I never saw his face. I didn’t sense we were in any danger, but we weren’t there long enough to find out.
We turned around, and took the subway back to where we were trying to go.
But that question has haunted me ever since.
Where do I come from? Not just where did I grow up, but what is my heritage?
And how much of where I come from, how much of that heritage, comes from being white?
How much of who I am is rooted in my whiteness?
If ever there were a time to try to understand that better, it’s now.
I Inhabit a White Body
What strikes me so much about that moment in Harlem is that it’s the only time I can remember my whiteness being called out and recognized. When my physical being, because of my whiteness, was, if not threatened, than at least an issue.
And that, as much as anything I’ll explore below, drives the entitlement I’ve benefitted from being white. It’s allowed me to inhabit my white body in the world and feel comfortable, knowing I fit in and belong, anywhere I go, and that, save for that day in Harlem, my whiteness would not only not be an issue, but a pass to let me navigate in and through this world as I please.
In the wake of #MeToo, I wrote pieces considering the lived experiences of women, how they perceive and relate to the physical world around them, with all the potential and real threats therein.
I recall the learning experience I had walking a woman friend to the garage where her car was parked — and then being asked to walk her all the way to the car. I lacked the sensibility of what it meant to experience fear and threat from an empty parking garage.
I suppose in some ways it was understandable that I did not understand what it means to experience the world as a woman. What it means being in a woman’s body, and the implications that poses not just to the physical self and well-being (and being consistently exposed to threats and harassment) but all of the other things, such as the wage gap, the male gaze, the disproportionate allocation of emotional labor and more. So I started thinking and writing about it.
It’s with shame and embarrassment I admit I’ve never given the same treatment to those with a different skin color.
How much do I take for granted walking around downtown streets, in grocery stores and airports, simply by being white?
What is easy for me that is not easy for others?
The sad truth is I can’t fully answer that question. All I know is that what I gain in not having to worry about people reacting negatively to my skin color saves me significant time, emotional energy and psychological energy that people of color have to expend.
Not once have I felt threatened because of my skin color. I haven’t paid a cost because of my skin color — and in fact, just the opposite.
I’ve gained because of my whiteness, in more ways I can appreciate or even recognize.
I get to not care about where I am
One of my first jobs out of college was located in the South of Market district in San Francisco. I drank a lot of water at work, partly to stay hydrated, but mostly to produce an excuse to get up from my desk. When the day was done, I’d walk several long city blocks to Market Street, where I would board public transportation for my last leg home.
But before I got on a train, I’d step into a hotel at the corner of Third and Market to use the restroom.
I didn’t raise any suspicion. No one looked at me, no one cared.
And I wonder, would I have been able to do that if I weren’t white? It’s a relatively small thing, just to be able to use a hotel restroom at will. I certainly could have made do without it. But it’s really not about using a restroom that I shouldn’t have been using.
It’s about existing in the world care-free. That, I realize now, is not just a privilege. It’s a life-saving luxury.
My White Upbringing
It is because of my whiteness that I derive a sense that wherever I am, I belong there, that I deserve to be there. I rarely need to question or even observe the physical space I occupy. My presence is rarely questioned or noticed by others.
This conveys a tremendous sense of entitlement, but how could I feel otherwise? Everywhere I go, I am welcomed and accepted: school, synagogue, the office, the community swimming pool, the shopping mall. I was conditioned to feel that I did not pose a threat. That I belong.
Of course, the primary reason I go so unnoticed is because most places I go, the majority of people look like me.
With the exception of one very close friend who is Indian, my upbringing was almost entirely white.
The most significant foundation of my white privilege comes from my family’s ability, mostly in economic terms, to choose where I went to school.
By the time my older brother started elementary school, my community had started a controversial forced integration of its public schools. That policy remains, and has long been studied and now even appreciated as a model for a community adopting and valuing diversity.
Sadly, schools there remain as segregated as ever. Meanwhile, the city grapples with the horrific killing of Breanna Taylor and the abysmal response to it by elected leaders and law enforcement.
Why did my parents choose to send me and my brother to private school? The answer has always been the state of public education.
They simply thought that me and my brother would receive a better education at the schools they chose for us than the local public schools.
When I’ve thought as myself as privileged, this is what usually came to mind.
My family had the financial resources to send me and my brother to private school all the way through graduate school.
I know full-well that to be able to attend the schools I did, and to graduate from them debt-free, is a huge privilege and luxury.
Without question, that educational choice and opportunity was one of the two most significant foundations of my upbringing (beyond what I received directly from my family), and one that created a through-line from my childhood to my college education, my career and my value system.
The other was summer camp, specifically, a Jewish summer camp, which I attended for five summers as a camper and where I worked for four summers as a counselor.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of my summer camp experience on my life: most of my closest friends today originate from there, and it led directly to where I chose to go to college, which in turn had a huge influence on my career.
All of that in addition to providing me an informal religious education that still influences me, with social experiences that brought me joy, connection and the room to grow, understand and develop my identity.
Camp is another perfect embodiment of the kind of place where I was able to be totally comfortable in a physical and social environment that welcomed and fostered me. We never took for granted how special it was, and how fortunate we were, to gather as Jews in the middle of the North Woods of Wisconsin, and to create a community free of any outside threat or worry.
But they did keep the camp sign small and kind of tucked away just to be safe, just as the camp director had contacts with the local sheriff. Because directly outside camp property, we knew we couldn’t ignore the existence of a hatred that has existed for centuries and could impact us at any moment.
White Supremacy: A Threat, A Scourge, A Benefit
Directly across the street from the Jewish Community Center, where I learned to swim and play basketball and went to Sunday School and day camp before I was old enough to attend sleep-away camp, was a golf and country club named Bigot Springs.
Well, that’s what we called it. (It’s real name was Big Springs). They didn’t allow Jews as members. I think the locale of the Jewish Community Center across the street was just a coincidence.
It was at that JCC, during Sunday school, when I had a year-long class about the Holocaust, and when I was first introduced to the concepts of white supremacy.
And for most of my life, I perceived and understood white supremacy through the lens of my Jewishness. I equated white supremacy with Nazism, white supremacists with Nazis.
Digging deeper, while I knew that it was not only Jews that white supremacists detested, there was a blind spot (that existed far into my adulthood) in how I related to the concept of white supremacy.
It wasn’t so much as I saw myself as a victim, or potential victim, although that was true. The marchers in Charlottesville and the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh (where I once attended religious services) proved that.
No, the blind spot was that because I saw myself as a potential victim of white supremacy, at the opposite spectrum of their entire world view, I assumed that wouldn’t be possible for me to benefit from their philosophy.
It wasn’t that I was wrong, per se. There is an anti-Semitic component to white supremacy that will always threaten me.
But I didn’t understand this country and its history quite well enough. I didn’t appreciate that there is a white supremacy that doesn’t involve anti-Semitism.
Because I am white, I am and have always been positioned to reap the benefits of a system this country was built on and cultivated for four centuries.
One of the greatest privileges of all is the luxury to ignore your own privilege
Only recently have I begun to connect the dots of my privileged station in life to my whiteness.
That is a key element of privilege, though.
To reap the benefits of something without even knowing it or being forced to recognize it and own up to it.
Without having to feel guilty about it.
Without having to come to terms that the joys and comforts of my life, and even my accomplishments, were attained through a system built to position and benefit me over others.
Handling the Truth
I’ve read two books recently that shed some light on this for me.
The first is a one-volume history of the United States, “These Truths,” by Jill Lepore. The second is “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
While the latter focuses more directly on the history of Native Americans, both tell the story of the United States as driven by the guiding principles and motivations of white supremacy.
From slavery to colonialism, from the pioneering and westward expansion of Manifest Destiny to Jim Crow, we see how the founders of the United States believed themselves and their progeny — and that progeny includes the country they were birthing — to be superior because of their racial composition.
Blacks were seen as inferior and to be kept as slaves. Native Americans were seen as savages and wasting their land by not developing it, therefore forfeiting any right to it. Or, they were just in the way.
There was no stopping, legally, morally or logistically, the right bestowed on high for the white race to take over, manage and control not just this land, but the people of this land.
Whites like me are now confronting what deep down we always knew was true
Many of the concepts entering the mainstream today because of the Black Lives Matter protests, such as the history of policing in this country, or the lasting effects of institutional racism to be found in everything from our universities to corporations and even non-profit organizations, have previoulsy been hidden.
Or rather, ignored. Swept under the rug.
It’s too distasteful. It’s too shameful to acknowledge its existence, much less to come to terms with being a beneficiary of that history.
It’s difficult to connect those dots. It’s painful to admit you’re a winner in life because of white supremacy, something that is grotesque and immoral.
Not me, the instinct says. I am not that. I never did those things. That philosophy does not represent me. White supremacy and me are not related, the thinking goes.
But that can’t be. One need not be racist to nonetheless benefit from white supremacy in America. If you are white, you have gained. And that gain has come at the expense of others. That truth is what Lepore writes about.
That truth hurts. It hurts whites waking up to it. It has hurt people of color for four centuries in far worse ways.
So this is where we are. That shame I feel, that discomfort?
That’s the sense of finally understanding white privilege, of waking up and internalizing how through no actions of my own, simply by being born white, a system benefits me that subjugates others physically, economically and psychologically.
Is Where I Live Who I Am?
When I went to New York for college, I moved into a dorm on W. 120th Street. The clearest instructions we were given about living in the neighborhood was to never turn left. Doing so would have led directly into Morningside Park, and then on into Harlem.
Of course I turned left sometimes, and wandered along the edges of the park. But only during the day, never at night.
While it’s intertwined with my economic privilege, which has afforded me, literally, the opportunity to choose exactly where I want to live — one of the greatest luxuries one can have — my housing privilege warrants being called out on its own.
I thought where I grew up in Kentucky was segregated. And it was. I don’t recall any non-whites in that neighborhood, because there weren’t. According to this study, Louisville is the fourth-most segregated city in the country.
While I couldn’t choose the city, neighborhood or house in which I grew up, I can choose where I live as an adult.
And in this regard, I am guilty of furthering not just segregation but gentrification too.
When I moved to Austin in 2007, I lived for a year in an apartment one block east of I-35, the highway that stretches border to border from Laredo, Texas all the way north through Minneapolis. Although it wasn’t there at the time, I was literally steps away from what is now one of the most famous BBQ restaurants in the city, if not the country (Franklin Barbecue).
It was a vacant, empty shell of a former restaurant when I lived next to it, soon to be transformed into one of the hippest eateries in the country.
Austin is not just one of the most segregated cities in the country (tenth, according to this older calculation) but it was designed as such. I-35 served as a barrier, a dividing line, meant to separate Blacks and whites. I had no idea of any of this history when I chose that apartment, which was somewhat selected at random.
But once I started taking my dog for walks around the neighborhood, I knew I was among a community that was primarily Black. I could then see what most of the houses were like — and how they differed from the gigantic, brand new apartment complex I was living in.
When I saw some of my neighbors, I felt guilty. The Black community of Austin had already been shunted aside. Now I was part of moving into and changing the dynamic of that neighborhood, which would soon become one of the trendiest parts of town, with the rising of real estate prices in its wake.
Take nothing for granted as a benefit of white privilege — not even a grocery store
I moved when I bought a condo at the top of the market the following year, waited it out, then finally moved again a few years ago. The place I’m living now is a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment that I use as a home office (well, everyone does that now, but I chose this place with that intent.)
One of my favorite things about my apartment is how close I am to a great grocery store. Turns out, that is a sign of white privilege too, an example of “supermarket redlining.”
This is the point of understanding white privilege. How all-encompassing it is. How it touches so much of my life.
From my job to my housing to my economic footing to the food I have access to, almost every element of my life is influenced by, and made better, by white privilege.
My World Must Get Bigger
It was halftime of a University of Louisville basketball game. My parents and grandparents had season tickets, so I went to all the games growing up. I was returning to my seat from the restroom when I saw my father, his usual halftime fare of a small popcorn and Diet Pepsi in his hands, in the concourse talking to two Black men, both of whom were older than my Dad.
I ate his popcorn and tried to listen, but it was too noisy for me to pick up their conversation.
Back in our seats, I asked him who those men were, and how he knew them. He explained they were volunteers and active within the Black community, that he had met one of them through his law practice, and they were talking about fundraising efforts since they were familiar with my Dad’s related work at our synagogue and within the Jewish community.
I was impressed by Dad at that moment. I let him finish the popcorn. But it made me realize how narrow my world was — and unfortunately, still is.
I did not grow up having any Black friends. I did not have any in high school, or college, and still can’t count any among my social base today.
The only time I can say that I regularly interacted with Black people (and not just randomly, such as riding the New York City subway) was in my previous job. I was a consultant at a company that licensed e-mail marketing and online fundraising software to nonprofit organizations. For the bulk of my time there, the organization with which I worked most closely was UNCF-United Negro College Fund.
The interactions were always professional: develop this communication plan, build that donation form, send out this e-mail, run those reports.
But over the years I wound up working with the same individuals more and more, and just by human nature you wind up getting to know each other. I read all the materials about college education, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, graduation rates. It taught me a lesson about who does and does not go to college in America, and the difficult path to get there — and the difficult path, especially now, to finish.
My going to college was always assumed. Not only had my parents planned for it, but my grandparents had. The only thing I had to worry about was getting good grades, getting in, then having the luxury of deciding where I wanted to go.
And I had not gone to the college I did, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today. It was through someone I went to college with that I got my first job at a dot-com. I then parlayed that job into a new one at a different dot-com when I moved back to New York. A person I met at that job was the contact I needed to get my the job after that, working at a non-profit, and on and on.
(Oh, and that first person I went to college who helped me get my first salaried position? I first met her at summer camp.)
I’ve worked hard, no doubt. And I’ve earned some of my successes.
But make no mistake: I was set up to succeed from the beginning. I just took advantage of it.
I was fortunate and am grateful to have had the chance to work with UNCF all those years. I still donate. It made me feel good knowing I was making a difference, however small it was.
But deep down I knew, and still do, even if I worked at UNCF the rest of my life, I could never make up for all the advantages I’ve had in life simply by being white.
Now Comes the Hard Part
So where to now, in this moment? Now that I’ve started to understand my white privilege more, what do I do with this recognition?
I’ll read the books and watch the documentaries and listen to the podcasts. I’ll make the donations and participate in the webinars and sign the petitions.
I’ll continue working at a non-profit organization that works on environmental justice issues — and sees the fight against racism as part and parcel of our mission.
I’ll speak out and up — like I hope I’m doing here.
And none of it feels like enough. All of it combined doesn’t make up for the advantages I’ve gained, what I owe in debt to a system that benefits me and hurts others.
This is the challenge now for people like me who have gained enormously from white privilege. I accept that challenge. I admit I don’t know what that will translate to, and I also acknowledge the pandemic probably will limit what I can do.
But not knowing is no longer my excuse, or any excuse, and I am glad for that.
I will continue to listen. To grow and to learn — and to take part in whatever way I can to making sure this moment stays a movement.
I think about that experience at the subway stop on 125th. The only times I ever returned to that spot was when I rode past it while riding in the back of a taxi on my way too and from the airport.
It’s time to get out of the cab and look around, and make an impact. It’s time to stop seeing our spaces, both literal and metaphorical, as so separate.
The fight for equality and justice is the fight of a lifetime.
All of our lifetimes.
Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @ gmail.com.