May 23, 2006

How white (and other kinds of) privilege saved my day

Sorry this is long. It is about only 50 minutes of my day the other day (I’m posting it late because I didn’t have internet access before). If anyone knows how to cut part of this off of the front page, please tell me.

This morning, I had a flight out of town at 715 am. Last night, I checked to make sure that the T did, in fact open at 530 am. It did. It was 220 am – I had just turned in a paper by email. I set an alarm for 5:10. I am not sure how I thought that would get me to the T by 530, but I had slept only 4-6 hours per night for the past three nights and I don’t think I was thinking clearly. From my house, it takes about 15 minutes to walk to the T, and from there 40-60 minutes to get to the airport. Oh, and I hadn’t packed yet. I planned to do that in the morning (okay, maybe technically it already was morning, but you know what I mean).

Next thing I know, I roll over and it seems lighter than it should be outside. I check the clock on my phone and it’s 626. SHIT. I jump out of bed. I can’t decide whether I need to be calling my airline to reschedule or giving this a shot. I think about the fact that I am taking a connecting flight that connects to a different airline – and that I bought the two tickets separately. It was much cheaper that way, but it was going to be hard to convince both airlines to change me for free, and even harder to be sure that the times they moved me to still allowed for my connection. SHIT. I knew I had to at least try to make a run for it.

If I was going to make it, I couldn’t take the T. Even if I were ALREADY AT the T stop, I couldn’t have made my flight. I thought about whether to try to catch a cab on the street or to call, and realized that since I still needed to pack, I should call a cab, so that I could pack while it was coming. I called an independent cab company that is basically just this dude who drives a minivan around and has his cell phone number listed as the cab company number. But I didn’t know that at the time, it was just the first cab company whose number I came across. I asked if it would take long for a cab to come – he told me he could leave right away. I didn’t know exactly how long that meant, but I was desperate and he sounded confident. He seemed eager for my business and responded well to my request and was on his way. (white privilege, class privilege because of my neighborhood). In the meantime, I packed my bags and freaked out because I hadn’t taken money out in a week because I had just been writing papers non-stop. Was I going to have to ask the cab to stop at an ATM? But then I might have to pay a fee, and what if the cab wouldn’t take me if I had no cash? And that stopping time might be the difference between making and missing my flight.

Then, I remembered that in my sock drawer, I had a recently received engagement card from my grandmother that had just enough cash in it (class privilege, heterosexual privilege). I ran and got it, and went outside to the main street where I waited for the cab. I got in at 740, and we headed for the airport.

I have no idea how we made it to the airport but we somehow made it there at 705. after paying for the cab (class privilege), I went into the terminal. I swiped my card to pick up my boarding pass from one of those machines (class privilege, American citizenship privilege, matching legal name/gender on all my legal stuff privilege). It said it required my confirmation code. This sucked because I didn’t know that information or have it with me. I signaled for help from the two people behind the desk. I told them I didn’t know my confirmation number. They laughed and said it was okay, and that I must have had a bad morning. They didn’t assume that I was lying, committing fraud, or stupid (race privilege).

At first they couldn’t check me in. one of the two of them was clearly a trainee and the other was watching her work. “The flight is closed,” she said. “Then open it, he said.” “But it takes off in ten minutes.” “She looks like she can make it. We’ll just tell her to run.” (privilege of not having a visible disability, appearing young). He taught her how to open the flight back up just for me and they politely thanked me, told me to have a great day and thanked me for choosing their airline. They said they hoped I chose their airline again and remained a valued customer. (race, class privilege). I ran to security. There was no line, and there were two people working. The reason that there was no line is that the only flight going out of the terminal that early in the morning was taking of at 7:15 am and it was already 7:07. I handed my ID over to the person who checks ID and went to the conveyor belt. As I took my laptop out of my bag, I could hear the two people at security arguing about who would have to pat me down if I set off the detector – the male one or the female one? I took off my belt and shoes and even removed all of the change from my pockets, hoping that I didn’t forget something and set off the metal detector. I didn’t want them to actually have to decide. “it’s a man.” “no, it’s a woman.” “no, it’s a boy.” “I wonder how old it is.” I was careful not to make eye contact or speak – that would have given them more things to clock me with. I let them argue, felt great relief when the metal detector remained silent, and then walked away as quickly as possible. I felt a little bad for causing them to begin their day with a fight.

When I got to the gate, a flight attendant was waiting for me – she said she was amazed how late they had let me through, and how quickly I had arrived. She asked me if I had a bad morning and I told her that I had had a horrible week finishing up my school work. She did not assume I was late or irresponsible because of my race or upbringing – she assumed this was a one-time thing related to some sort of a bad day.

Nearly everyone who helped me make this particular day work out appeared to be from a racial or ethnic group that is oppressed in the US. All were likely to be less financially privileged than I am, based on their professions. This was just fifty minutes – less than an hour – of one day for one person in a sea of days that white upper-middle class people like me obtain “good luck” and “speed” directly from the people less privileged than myself who helped me.

How have you experienced privilege of some kind today? I think it would be great if people started posting and commenting more about privilege. We post a lot about awkward things or about the way that oppression affects our lives. Let’s write about privilege, too.


emily0 said...

Also you are really hot. That also helps.

(Non-facetious comment.)

prince eric said...

i got paid $10 for a half-hour psych study that i probably wouldn't have been able to take if i hadn't clicked either "male" or "female" on the first screen. hooray conventional gender identity priviledge.

Leyan said...

I had to persuade a secretary or paralegal at another law office (whom I didn't know, never met) to do me a big favor -- over the phone. While she didn't ever see me, she did hear my voice speaking a native, unaccented, standard, and educated English. My national origin, class, and race all worked in my favor there.

comme elle faut said...

First thing's first: keep up the great work, folks! This is an amazing site and a wonderful 'zine!

So to answer the question: if I use my country accent instead of my New England college kid voice while in the midwest, everyone is infinitely nicer to me.

Anonymous said...

thank you soooo much WTTO for posting this -- i personally benefit from every kind of privilege that you mentioned and only started to realize through assignments and readings this year (which is ironic, considering that it has been mostly harvard courses that have caused me to realize the intersecting privileged identities i occupy.) earlier this year i wrote a paper about a specific incident where my whiteness and visible femaleness saved my ass big time, and due to stupid finals, i'm going to cut and paste some of it below (rather than recounting it again):

**Getting Off: My Non-Consequential Life as a White Woman**

We should have been arrested. At the very least, we should have been taken to the police station, received a stern lecture, and been picked up by our parents.

But we are middle class educated white girls – things like that don’t happen to us.

It was nearly midnight on a beautiful summer evening. There were four of us, home from our first year of college, overlooking the spectacular San Francisco Bay at our favorite high school hangout. All of a sudden, a police officer appeared, telling us to leave because the park was closing. He then started to harass two of the young men, who were not with us and were trying to leave quietly.

They were black.

We smelled of marijuana.

I watched the police officer interrogate them as we drove away, the four of us pretty white girls wearing North Face and DKNY.


This incident illustrates a phenomenon I have experienced my entire life: white women tend to be privileged by systems of justice in vastly different ways than any other group. Clearly, behavior enforcement personnel (police officers, school security guards) exhibit prejudices for and against many groups of people. However, I maintain that my racial and gender identities, being white and female, intersect in a particular way that often protects me from punishment that another person, without such an advantaged intersecting identity, would be subject to.

the spinster said...

WTTO, what a beautiful, thoughtful post. While the cost of living in Mauritius is relatively low (for an American), certain things like cabs are just as expensive as they would be in the States.

Last weekend, I took a cab to and from a club a few towns away; the cabbie actually got out of bed at 5am to pick me up. I paid roughly $30 USD for this; an expensive night out, but I could justify it as a special occasion. $30 is roughly a week's wages for one of the women who works in the Mauritian textile sector.

bat dor said...

I was in the Tel Aviv airport early Saturday morning and had unwittingly left my Leatherman Micra (class privilege) in my carry-on bag. Of course security caught it. I laughed as I explained to them (several trim Jewish Israeli women in their mid-twenties) that I'd thought I'd lost it a week earlier, and was grateful that they found it, though -- I grinned -- it was a shame that I wouldn't be able to keep it.
They grinned right back, and one of them handed it back to me. "My favor of the morning," she said. My mom and I breezed through the rest of the airport.

As we walked away, I glanced back to see a middle-aged dark-skinned man being screened and poked and prodded six ways from sundown.

(P.S. In London they immediately confiscated my pocketknife and screened me an extra time to boot, so it wasn't that much of a favor in the long run, but still.)

operation_mayhem said...

As a white woman, I experience many of the same privileges you've mentioned. Now I am living in the West Bank, and am experiencing privilege like never before . . .

Yesterday I had to go into Jerusalem for the day- doing requires passage through the Bethlehem checkpoint. I was running late and was afraid I would miss my 7 a.m. bus. Upon arrival at the checkpoint I was shocked to see a line of people around the block. I stepped out of the cab, pink-faced from being in such a hurry, with my jaw dropped. There were over 400 Palestinians in the line. Knowing full and well that I would miss my bus, I politely made my way to the end of the line. The guys in front of me quickly motioned for me to jump in front of them. I shook my hand and told them that if they had to wait in line, that I should too. But then they all started truning my direction, looking at me like I was crazy for not cutting in line. The women started pushing me up towards the front. Each and every Palestinian was searched and harassed. I cut in front of 400 Palestinians that day. Palestinians who were simply trying to get to work in Jerusalem. I beeped as I went through the metal detector and wasn't stopped. I wasn't searched or harassed or even questioned who I was or what I was doing there. Privilege is all around us. Here it is my pink face and little blue passport.