White Privilege

Of course I have it. I've always known I have it. I grew up in the South, after all, where you hear about it every day.

"You kids are so lucky," the grown-ups would say to my siblings and me. They said it when we lived in Albuquerque, where my sister and brother were born, the only blue-eyed babies in the hospital nursery. They said it when we moved to Louisville and the other girls in the neighborhood wanted to beat me up because I was the new girl, somewhat pudgy (they called me "Full Ton"), and reading all the time (the day of The Fight, I was reading in a tree). They said it when my father left my mother for another, much younger woman, leaving my mother to raise the three of us on her own (when my father left, I was 11, my sister 9, my brother 7; we saw him once a year or so after that--yes, you read that right--usually at Thanksgiving). They said it when my mother moved us to Amarillo to be near her parents and her mother died the year after next, leaving my mother to take care of her father until he died, almost twenty years later. They said it day after day after day, whenever we cried or had a bad day at school or failed to make friends or felt like we didn't fit in (my brother tells me now he had to fight almost every day when he was in high school). "You kids are so lucky."

To be sure, after we left Albuquerque, most of the other kids we knew were also white, despite Louisville's best efforts to mix the suburban kids with the inner-city kids by making the inner-city kids spend their entire childhood riding a bus (rather than, say, spending the money on improving their local schools), but we, the Fultons, always knew we were the lucky ones. Our mother was a doctor, after all, a radiologist, which meant that after Dad left and she went back to work, we became latch-key kids, since she didn't get home for hours after we did. Which meant we learned to do our homework without being told, warm up the chili or spaghetti sauce that she had made in batches and frozen, cry ourselves to sleep missing our father but knowing our mother was doing everything she could to make our childhood happy, get into fights with the other kids in the neighborhood without expecting help from any of the grown-ups to get us out, get into fights with each other without anyone to break us up, and more or less fend for ourselves under most circumstances. Because, you see, we were the lucky ones.

But the thing is--the thing is, as my father would insist, deep in his cups (yes, he drank after my step-mother left him for a man her own age)--the grown-ups were right: we were. "Your mother has done so much for you," they would say, as if daring us to disagree. (Conversations in the South are often somewhat confrontational.) We had a home, food, clothes, toys, free time in which to get into fights, pets, a yard to play in, good schools to attend (which is theoretically why, in Louisville, all the inner-city kids were bussed there). Somehow Mom also managed, between shifts at the hospital, to find time to drive us to things like gymnastics and church, although since there was a swimming pool in our subdivision, we were able to walk--barefoot, of course, because it was more romantic--to the pool during the summer. But, above all, and this is what made us truly lucky, we had status. Because, of course, we weren't just any kids. We were the Fultons. Practically nobility, in fact, or so the grown-ups would have us believe. "You kids are so lucky."

And, again, they were right. Grandfather Fulton was known to most of his friends as The General, at least he liked to style himself that way. Air Force, two stars, totally terrifying to his grandchildren, whom he scolded for turning the television off and on because we might wear out the button or some such. Grandmother Fulton was a schoolteacher, the smartest student in her college class, most likely the reason that I became a teacher myself; she taught English and Latin in Alton, Illinois, where my father and his sisters lived after their father stopped moving them around from Air Force base to Air Force base. Grandmother's family came from Alton, which meant Dad and his sisters were nobility there as the children of the Teacher and the General. Grandfather Snyder (we never called any of our grandparents anything less formal) was the town doctor in Canadian, Texas, where his father had been the doctor, too. My mother and her brothers, all valedictorians of their high school class, all became doctors in their turn (it's the reason my father became a doctor--he fell in love with my mother and followed her to medical school). Grandmother Snyder (my namesake, Rachel) was even more noble, even though her family came from Arkansas where, as his friends ribbed my grandfather when he started courting her, they don't wear shoes (I told you it was more romantic to go barefoot). When she married my grandfather and he took her back to his small town to live, she spent the rest of her life pining for the big city (Fort Smith), dressed always in heels with her hair in an immaculate bun, and doing all of the volunteer work that women of her class--the upper class of the small-town South--do, including starting the first day-care center in the town so that the women of the town would be able to work. It's called Rachel's Little House now, although she just called it The Little House. Like I said, lucky.

I know what you're thinking: "Wow, they must have been full of themselves." Well. Did I say this was the South? Maybe in the North, white privilege feels like that, I wouldn't know. But in the South? "You kids are so lucky" doesn't mean what you think it means if you think it all it means is, "you're the top of the heap." You are the top of the heap--all three of us Fultons graduated first in our class from Amarillo High--but in the South with great luck, to coin a phrase, comes great responsibility. Yes, my grandparents and parents all had high status in their communities, they even made good incomes thanks to their work. But they never did it for the money--Dad kinda overdid it the other way, dying broker than broke despite being a surgeon and a professor of surgery. They did it because they knew they were lucky, that they had status as the smartest, best-educated people in the town, and that because of that education and that status, it was their job to take care of others. Did I mention that my Grandfather Snyder was the town doctor? He didn't want to be. He wanted to be an engineer. But this being the South and then being the Depression, he went to medical school instead at the ripe old age of thirty-something, and spent the rest of his life, until he retired at age 75, delivering all of the babies in the town, constantly on call (we never saw him for more than an hour or so before he had to go out on a call), home even less than my father when he was living with us. My Grandmother Snyder wanted to live anywhere other than Canadian (pop. around 3,000 at the time, although it seems to have dropped); she used to come up to Amarillo just to be able to shop for shoes, she loved shoes and had to have them special-ordered, her feet were so narrow. But she started the day-care center when she was in her early sixties, did all of the cooking--carried all of the food to the Little House, still wearing heels--designed the curriculum for the kindergarten, spent all of her energy (she died aged 69; her three sisters all lived into their late 80s) so that other women could work and their children could get a good start in life. I didn't know my father's parents as well as my mother's. Grandmother Fulton spent the last decade of her life dying of bone cancer, and all I remember of Grandfather Fulton was his temper. But I look like Grandmother Fulton and suspect that I carry more of her in me than I realize; my brother, in make-up for a movie that he was in when he was teaching in India, looks the spitting image of Grandfather Fulton in his sixties. We are they.

This week the priest at my church (which may soon not be my church, this has been going on for awhile) sent out a letter inviting my fellow parishioners to a vigil so that they could grieve over the results of the election. "Now, more than ever," he promised,
it is important for our parish to seek to mirror the radical hospitality practiced by Jesus. In January, we will begin hosting another refugee family. In February, we will read together Drew Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen, which seeks to dismantle racism in parishes. We will continue to invite LGBTQIA folk into full participation and leadership. We will continue to investigate how we have been malformed by the insidious white supremacy that pervades our society. We will redouble our efforts to make sure women are in visible leadership roles. We can do all of that with strength and with humility, really listening to the legitimate concerns of the many millions who voted for President-Elect Trump. As it says elsewhere in Isaiah, "Be not dismayed."
I wonder what my grandparents, with all their white privilege, would think of this letter. To my mind, it spits on their service, spits on everything that they did with their lives, spits on all of the concerns that I have heard "the many millions who voted for President-Elect Trump" trying to voice over this past year. "We will redouble our efforts to make sure women are in visible leadership roles"? Tell that to my grandmother, the classics scholar who spent her life teaching children to read and write elegant English in Alton, Illinois (look it up on a map, it is just across the river from Ferguson). Tell that to my grandmother, the day-care founder, who spent the last decade of her life creating an institution where the children of her small ranch town might thrive. "We will continue to investigate how we have been malformed by the insidious white supremacy that pervades our society." Tell that to my father, who spent the last decade of his life as a trauma surgeon, back in Louisville, working at the Veterans' Administration hospital taking care of the service men--I wanted to say "and women", but of course, most of them were men, many of them black--who gave their health and their youth in service to our country, while also taking shifts at the General Hospital downtown to sew up the young men who had been knifed or shot in local disputes. Tell that to my mother, who has spent the last decade of her life taking up the kind of service that her mother did, serving on the board of the local children's home, tutoring the inner-city kids in Amarillo, and working for her church, doing such charity work as taking meals to the home-bound and creating ties with the black churches in her own community. Tell that to every member of my privileged white family who has spent his or her life standing up to the bigotry of the North against the people of our region, even as we suffered the taunts and the bullying of our schoolmates for being the smart ones.

"You kids are so lucky." If you did not grow up in the South, you have no idea how lucky we were.

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