White privilege and me


I am of the belief the majority of white people in this country — who care, that is — believe they understand what white privilege is. The majority of us do not.

There are many teachable moments in life, and some will clobber you over the head trying to make you see. They appear every day to everyone, but if you are blinded by your biases and preconceived beliefs, you’ll never learn, never fully grow.

I was born and raised in Alabama. My parents and their parents were some of the least racist people I have ever known. I can also say without a doubt every kid in my crowd was the same, parents included. I have fiercely defended this for 50 years.

When our school was integrated in the 1960s, we were thrilled. Arguably, though, it was for the wrong reasons — we could finally learn to dance to that very cool Motown music, we’d have competitive sports teams, and most of all, we would finally be able to get to know these fellow Americans we had been denied knowing.

This was of course my own small enclave of Alabamians; I was a kid and this was my world. And if we welcomed these strangers into our lives for the wrong reason, I say, whatever it takes to make change. I’ll stop here and make an important point — it was us allowing them in. This is white privilege thinking.

When I was barely 14, I made a trip by bus from Huntsville, Ala., to New Orleans — my aunt needed help caring for her kids. Along the way I bought a book in the bus station. It was written by Martin Luther King Jr., and his headshot dominated the cover. Throughout the entire trip, on the bus and inside every bus station, I had that book out pretending to read, in hopes someone would make a remark. I was eagerly looking to piss off some redneck, and I felt safe in doing so. This is white privilege — feeling safe and free from repercussions when being politically and socially provocative. Try putting a Black person in my place in that situation in the South in the 1960s. Not pretty.

Two years ago I was clobbered over the head with a white privilege moment by an African American friend and longtime customer. She told me of her plans to visit a beautiful town in Mexico, one I also had plans to visit for a possible place to retire (OK, the cat is out of the bag). I asked her to send me photos while down there, and to promise when she returned to the States she would tell me all about it.

After I pestered her a bit — I know now why she avoided me — she finally called. I said, “So tell me everything, what was the town like, what were the residents like?” I knew what it looked like, but more important, I wanted to know what it felt like. She stopped my inquisition after a few minutes, and said, “Lorraine, you don’t understand, I’m Black and you’re white, our experiences are never going to be the same.”

I was gobsmacked by my ignorance. Why would I, how could I think any differently? How have I missed this glaring fact all of my life? This is white privilege, everybody, and it was served up to me on a silver platter. I shared this story with another African American customer. She said, “This is what we live with every day.” This was a transformative moment for me, one I will never forget.

I am a live and let live, stay in my lane, I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me kind of person. But if you get in my lane, try to bully me; well, I’ll leave it at that. I am telling you this for a reason. A major cobbered-on-the-head moment happened to me this past Labor Day weekend on the Vineyard.

My car seriously needed air in one of its front tires. So I drove down to the back of the Shell station for the free air they offer. It’s a large, very wide graveled area. There was a big truck with two men negotiating a Bobcat onto the back of its trailer. A black SUV with beach chairs tied to the back next to the truck was blocking the entire area in front of the air machine. For no good reason, mind you, none.

I called out, “Could you please move up? I need air in my tire.” The response I got was pretty ugly, so I politely (honest) asked again, the same response. Giving them the benefit of the doubt (I thought they must not understand what I’m saying), I got out of my car, walked a good seven feet away from their window, and asked again.

Vitriol spewed out the window. I was shocked, but what was more shocking — the couple was Black. Maybe anywhere else it would not seem so shocking, especially in these tinderbox times, but here on Martha’s Vineyard? Here where we consider ourselves racially homogenous, where whites, Blacks, Brazilian, Croatians, and more live peacefully together? So I thought, maybe I have been wrong.

This couple continued hurling their insults and name calling, like “Karen,” and other things this paper would never print. The man then said if I got any closer to his car he’d get out and take care of me. OK, he has clearly crossed into my lane; all bets were off. I said, “Come on, get out of your car and let’s have at it.” One, I knew he would not do it, two, there were two big guys 30 feet away, and three, white privilege subconsciously kicked in without me realizing it — I won’t be in trouble, he will, right or wrong. Those words never actually consciously ran through my mind, but I realize now it was built-in white privilege at work.

I looked at their license plate to see what state they were from. I could not fathom these two people being from the Vineyard. Seeing me do this and thinking now I had their license plate number, they quickly left. I was shocked. 

I was shaking; it was surreal. What had happened? About an hour later when I was back in my store, a car pulled in. An attractive Black lady with some very serious credentials on a cord around her neck came in.

I asked her what they were for, she said she was Secret Service, and understandably, I assumed she was part of the protection for the Obamas.

Here I was, still shell-shocked from the incident, and the most appropriate, perfect person who I could share this experience with walked through my door; she could not have been kinder. She soothed my nerves; she stroked my arm, ignoring the virus I could possibly have. Her words, besides “I am so sorry,” over and over, were, “Ignorance comes in all colors, Lorraine.”

Later that day the great clobber-her-on-the-head God struck again. I finally had put my feelings aside, had become more objective, and could now see the forest from the trees. This — this is exactly what African Americans deal with daily — vitriol, name calling, denigration, and threats of violence for doing NOTHING.

I do not care anymore who these people were, nor do I care what their motive was. This was an amazing, teachable moment. I was shown a powerful example of what ignorance and racism looks like when it comes at you, but more important, I was shown what it feels like.

It. Feels. Horrible. It. Hurts. It. Is. Wrong.


  1. Loraine, Thank you for this powerful and excellently written story! It peels back and exposes the true meaning of white privilege. The story brings to light the unfortunate truth that white privilege is ingrained in the subconscious of white people whether or not they are racists. Like the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song says, “Teach your children well.”

  2. I am selling my White Privilege card. I have had it for 76 years. It helped me escape communism, had me be without citizenship for 19 years, had me in refugee camps for three years, had me subjected to ethnocentric vitriol due to being Russian, and separated me from my singlemother for three years between ages 11 and 14. It never gave me free food or free education or vacations or freehousing and I had to work hard all my life and pay all manner of taxes. I dont know its value but I will accept cash from anyone or exchange it for a Race Card which seems to bestow all manner of benefits.

    • There are many teachable moments in life, and some will clobber you over the head trying to make you see. They appear every day to everyone, but if you are blinded by your biases and preconceived beliefs, you’ll never learn, never fully grow.

  3. Sir, get over yourself. You’ve told us your story before, and yes, it’s been hard going for you. Unlike many refugees with a similar story, you wound up, in your old age, living on a lovely island in the USA. It sounds as though your hardship had absolutely nothing to do with your skin color, and everything to do with your country of origin. Eliminate any possible accent you may have had, and you could have traveled safely through any “sundown” town in America, unmolested and perhaps even welcomed. In 2001 I hired a young (white) woman, here for the summer from a small town in Ohio. As she got to know me, she told me about her hometown, in which it was understood by all that, if you were black, you’d best be out of town before the sun set. Not uncommon 50-100 years ago, and still in evidence 20 years ago.
    Perhaps at your age it’s just not possible to change your ingrained thinking, or to try to walk in another person’s shoes but please try to understand this. “White privilege” doesn’t mean that you didn’t work hard for what you have, it means that you were more likely to get the job that gave you what you have than, say, my father, simply by virtue of the fact that whoever hired you shared your skin color and preferred the status quo. It means that you’re less likely to be stopped by a police officer simply because you’re walking in a “white” neighborhood, not to mention what the consequences of that stop might turn into. Your skin color allows you freedoms that you take for granted because you’ve never considered the other side. I’ve never had free food, housing or education, either; I’ve also worked hard and paid my taxes honestly because it’s the right thing to do. However, I’m still “less than” in the minds of many, such as yourself, who can’t see past their own anger to listen, converse, and learn.

  4. Thank you for sharing Lorraine. It was a start in a long range of our thinking in how we all deal with racism and how we can begin to make a difference. It is necessary we all take it down and start the process of re-education on how to make change.

  5. It always saddens me when trauma and suffering are used as a competition, as Mr Engelman “jokes” in trying to sell or trade his white privilege for a “race card”. While it’s mostly an old and tired excuse for a lack of compassion, it’s something more. Imagine if people compared whose cancer diagnosis was worse. “My husband had colon cancer.” “That’s nothing, my husband had lung cancer.” Or imagine if I dismissed this essay because my extended family was murdered in the Holocaust after being discriminated against and tortured for being Jewish. For those who suffer the effects of the rampant systemic racism in this country, awareness of what white people do and think to contribute to its continuation is what this essay is about. Mr Engelman has no awareness that his ironic joke is a perfect example of systemic racism. That doesn’t mean Mr Engelman is racist, but that he has no awareness of how he contributes to the system that allows for the minimizing and denigrating of the black struggle. For that matter, neither does my surviving family’s religious persecution and immgration to this country have a contest with other immigrants seeking a better life. (Someone in this country fed, clothed, educated, and housed Mr Engelman from ages 11-14, and he says it wasn’t his mother. Surely the American education began before he became a citizen after 19 years of not being one. That sounds like lots of what Mr Engelman calls “benefits” to me.) However, no one’s personal history diminishes another’s struggles. There’s no contest here. Compassion cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t, despite your own experience. In spite of your own experience. We finally are rid of a President who exemplified what happens to people when they cannot feel what another feels. Compassion is a good thing. I agree that white people should not necessarily be congratulated for putting themselves in non-white shoes. It should be a normal thing to do. But it isn’t. The come-back to hearing “Black lives matter” should be “Yes they do”, not “All lives matter”. Self-examination is a good thing as well. I appreciated reading this honest essay. It’s simple enough to imagine walking in another’s shoes. Imagine, entire religions are based on this concept.

    • Thank you Jackie.What’s the saying…an unexamined life is a life not worth living. After that incident happened over Labor day, I was crying, feeling bad for myself and felt so disrespected. Then a light bulb went off, actually it felt more like one my guides slapped me upside the head and said “you poor little white girl, don’t you see what your suppose to see, can I make it any plainer?”. Then I saw what I was suppose to see and snapped out of my little pity party!

  6. Ms Nunes you should have seen all the Italian and Yugoslavians and Greeks and other eastern Europeans trying to work in Australia in 1949 to mid 50’s trying to work. Couldnt get jobs no matter how hard one worked because of the ethnocentrism of the country–not color. Italians woring on railroads picking up waste paper on the railroad tracks for years before they could get jobs as conductors. Protestant and Catholic tensions and war and terror due to religion–not color. You are not ”less in my mind” as you suggest. You dont know me nor I you. Most prejudices come for class not color as African tribal warfare even today will attest.

    • What you are describing is OPPRESSION, what I am sharing is, my late in life but better late than never, awareness of what white privilege is in this country.

  7. Lorraine,
    I totally want to be friends with you and your darling poodles, not to mention that I think your car is super cool!

    It is such an awakening when the blinders are removed…may we all see our privilege and understand how we need to consider our thoughts, movements and considerations going forward…we all have experienced fear and a feeling not being considered…Spirit, may we take these feelings in and hold them in our memory to remember how we felt so that we help our fellow neighbors when they feel that same hurt.

    • Thank you for you kind words Tracy. The GOLDEN RULE is the simplest but most profound rule to live by and it will always hold true no matter who you are, where you live, what religion you practice, if any. But it sure ain’t easy some days!

  8. Again, it’s not a competition. To make up irrelevant historical experiences from around the world of who suffers equally, more, or why, further promotes the systemic racism that exists in our country now— and since the beginning. Black Lives Matter, Mr Engleman. Why don’t you say that instead of trying to dismiss this fact and discount what all white privilege, including yours and mine, does to promote systemic racism? You denigrate both the historic and the current black experience in this country every time you fail to face it, dismiss it as lesser, and want to talk over it by changing the subject. Class can have several meanings.

  9. Ms.Diez you know so little of me. No one is denigrating struggle. What I am denigrating is the notion that 87 percent of the people in the US who are not african american have white privilege. ”In the cult of social justice the oppressors are generally white male heterosexual and Christians. The oppressed are racial minorities,women, sexual minorities and religious minorities. The poor are relatively low on the hierarchy of oppression. A white pentecostal man living on disability in a trailer park is an oppressor but a black lesbian Ivy league professor is oppressed. Justice is not a matter of what is rightly due to a person but what is due to someone who is a bearer of a group identity’ For the record I did not live in this country between ages 11 and 14 and I was born as a displaced person. I lived in a suburb of Detroit for 15 years and supported black families and single mothers and know all about suffering. There is oppression every where, White on white and black on black and every other color due to mans nature of depravity.

    • That’s a lot of ‘who shot John’ to drive home the point that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

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