Naming the Unpleasant

Lisa - Las Cruces, New Mexico
Entered on September 27, 2011
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Just after the turn of the 20th century, while working as a brakeman on the railroad, my great-grandfather William Arbogast survived a tragic accident severing both of his legs. According to family legend, the double-amputee was dissatisfied with his prosthesis so he began carving artificial limbs from local willow trees. In 1907 he founded the Ohio Willow Wood Company, manufacturer of prosthetics, which is still in existence today. For over a century it has helped thousands of handicapped people, including small children, disabled veterans, and the elderly, lead happy and productive lives. Today the company continues to be a forerunner in research and development for prosthetic devices.

It’s an uplifting story, and a true one: the American dream realized despite tremendous odds. What could be more inspirational? Through ingenuity and a strong work ethic, anything is possible, even for someone with no legs! But here’s the part of the story my mother doesn’t like me to tell. During the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, if my great-grandfather had been Black, or Brown, or if he spoke with an accent, he would not have been admitted to the local hospital. Instead, he most likely would have bled to death.

When I point out that factual tidbit, my mother thinks I’m minimizing her grandpa’s accomplishments – that I’m disrespecting his memory. That’s truly not my intention. What Great-Grandpa did was nothing short of courageous. What I AM doing, rather, is simply exposing an historical, albeit inequitable, legacy that continues to benefit some segments of society. The fact remains that my family has prospered, and continues to prosper, due to Great-Grandpa’s diligence AND his good luck: His good luck to have been born White.

I, too, have profited from my great-grandpa’s good fortune. I was afforded a mother who obtained a college education when few women did. She, in turn, could assist me with my schooling when I needed it. By contrast, most African-American women during the 1960’s were relegated to working as domestic help, the 100-year-old residue left over from slavery. While my mother was lending a hand with homework, they were scrubbing floors. Growing up, if I desired new clothes, my parents bought me designer labels from the relatively upscale Lazarus department store. We always looked forward to summer vacations: New England, Hilton Head, Maui. And I was able to attend college without financial worry. In fact, just as I never questioned if the sun would rise, I never questioned if I would attend college. I always knew I would. We weren’t wealthy, but we lived comfortably. Life was good, and relatively speaking, I had not a care in the world. I was born lucky. Not better, just lucky.

I was born into (unearned) White Privilege.

Today I teach in the Southwest, about 45 miles north of Juarez, Mexico. Approximately 70% of my city’s residents are Mexican-American and, due to no fault of their own, nearly that number subsist below the poverty line. Many of my students are poor, even though their parents may work multiple jobs. Likewise, the majority of my students’ parents are not college graduates, as mine were. Rather, many were forced to leave high school early in order to support their families. As such, college is not the norm, rather it is the exception. As a result, many of my students cannot envision themselves on a college campus.

The irony is some residents in our city ARE working multiple jobs while attending college, something that I never had to do. Nevertheless, too many students are not assured of higher education due to lack of finances. And unlike me growing up, many do not lead a carefree existence. Rather, the plague of poverty strains familial relationships, destroys marriages. Quite frankly, if my students ONLY work as hard as I did when I was in school, I fear it won’t be enough. I fear they won’t realize their dreams. Instead, they will have to work SEVERAL times harder than I to achieve success. The reality is most of them already do. But one would never know that from listening to the mainstream media.

Now in 2011 many complain about public assistance programs aimed at helping the poor. Many argue these programs are merely “hand-outs” and that recipients are unfairly “milking the system.” Through Internet e-mails they promote faulty, racist stereotypes of lazy minorities, welfare mothers, and illegal immigrants. Yet these same individuals who spout this vitriol fail to acknowledge how THEY have benefited from White Privilege – how THEY have received countless, (often unseen) “hand-outs” due to their skin color. In my case, I did work to receive my college education. Nevertheless, my tuition was handed to me, as was my heritage, all because I had a great-grandfather who wasn’t turned away at the hospital because of the color of his skin.

I believe in providing financial and governmental assistance to those who weren’t born lucky. I believe in acknowledging White Privilege, not as a good thing, but just the mere fact that it exists – that it unfairly helps some while hinders others. I believe in naming White Privilege even though it may be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unpopular to do so. I believe in telling my students they had better be prepared to work their tails off if they want to catch up to the kids who already got it made.

Many years ago as a child, I would become angry when my parents told me that life was unfair. Life IS unfair, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. That doesn’t mean we can’t work hard to make it better. But in order to do so, we have to talk about it first.