The Modern Concept Of White Privilege

When I was an 8-year old child in 1968, I took part in a voluntary school-bussing program to promote desegregation in Syracuse, New York. In the spring of 1968, soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, letters were sent to some families in the suburbs of Syracuse asking if they’d be interested in having their child attend a school in the inner city of Syracuse. At the time, I remember my father and mother debating why a young white boy like me should be allowed to go to a predominantly black school. Many relatives and family friends were concerned it may not be a good idea to send me far from my neighborhood. My father, who was an editor at a large newspaper in Syracuse, was supportive of me being bussed. In time, my mother became supportive of the idea too.

To my parent’s credit, they didn’t make the decision for me to attend the school and didn’t pressure me. Before a decision was made my parents asked me what I thought of the idea. At first I didn’t know what to think. However… I soon came to support the idea and agreed to change schools in the fall. The adventure had begun. To this day I still am glad I had the experience of going to Martin Luther King Elementary. 

My memories of the school have many positive aspects. However, the transition to my new surroundings took a while. Although it was difficult to get used to sitting on a bus for over an hour a day, I eventually got used to the ride. In addition, many features of the school were radically different than what I was used to. For one, I felt alone as a young white boy in a sea of black faces. In addition, since we had very few blacks in my suburban school, I now knew what it was like to be a minority. Understandably, my appearance at the black school caused reactions in my black classmates. For more times than I can remember I was called “Honky” as I was jokingly asked by my classmates whether I was lost or why I was far from home.

Interestingly and contrary to the concerns of many, I was never beat-up or in any fights in my new school. Although there were a few times when I was nudged by assertive boys or glared at, I never had concerns for my well-being and made friends in my new school. In particular, I became close friends with two young black boys in my 4th grade who looked out for me. We made an interesting trio on the campus of school. In addition to my close friends looking out for me, what helped me cope was the fact I realized at a young age that who I was as an individual actually mattered more than the fact I was white. Soon after I got to my new surroundings I learned to defuse tensions caused by my whiteness. What I quickly learned was that if I was defensive or reacted angry to the joking caused by my appearance, that things could escalate.

When I look back on my experience with the integration of blacks and whites, I realize that the experience definitely helped me understand that it is who we are as human beings, regardless of race, that truly matters. As many of us remember, many appeals were made by leaders such as Martin Luther King to not only seek equality of opportunity for blacks, but to also have people focus on the content of the character of each person as opposed to just their skin color.

When we fast-forward to the issues of today, lets try to understand that the modern concept of white privilege can be used to judge a person solely on the color of their skin. To truly heal racial tensions in America it may be best if we try not to look at outward appearance and race as a predominant factor in our lives. Obviously, racial differences are there and cannot be ignored. And yes…there is such a thing as the fact that certain whites go through life in ways that may be easier than some blacks. However, if we focus on race predominantly in judging individuals we’re basically reinforcing a stereotypical approach.

In today’s America it is valid to seek equality of opportunity for minorities. However, to make race such an intense focus in our day to day lives creates high levels of tension throughout all of society. Ultimately, and in the final analysis, it is the content of our character as individuals that matters most in life. When all Americans of all races put the quality of an individual’s character above their outward appearance, we may finally get to the place that Martin Luther King dreamt about. 







40 thoughts on “The Modern Concept Of White Privilege

  1. Hi Perry,

    Well spoken and truly inspirational as I read this essay on the Festival of Michaelmas, celebrating Archangel Michael’s harnessing the Dragon of Materialism and bestowing on us the gifts of strength, courage, willpower, and love.

    1. Thx PJ + nice to hear from you again!

      As you say, the gifts of strength, courage, willpower, + love are so very important in these intense times. I’m so glad that my words were an inspiration to you + that you found a correlation with the Festival of Michaelmas. 🙂

    1. Thx so much Ozlem!

      I truly appreciate you stopping by + am enjoying your interesting blog about life in Turkey also.

      Yes, my childhood experience with integration taught me so much about the commonality that unites us. I truly hope that Martin Luther King’s wisdom can begin to truly echo more.

  2. You’re a brave and intrepid soul Perry. I agree with you about how your perceptions influence your reactions and create a feedback loop that is self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing. Sounds like you went into the situation, if not eager, at least with an open mind and that earned you the respect of your new peers. And as you pointed out, a closed minded outlook could’ve produced an abrasive situation. I’ve had somewhat similar experiences in high school, being a little brown boy with Hispanic surname. Growing up with a grandfather from Spain who came to America to become an American and living in a predominately German neighborhood. I was about as far from identifying with Latino culture as you can imagine. After the first incident involving guns, my father encouraged me to fight fire with fire and encouraged me to carry a gun. A nice stereo typically Irish cop, convinced me that a gun was a decidedly bad idea as the level of violence was certain to escalate. I’m still alive, so I think the cop gave me good advice.
    As to Martin Luther King and the content of our character, I love his book, The Strength to Love, where King expounds upon Jesus sending out of the 12 disciples. Jesus admonished his disciples to be a shrewd as serpents and yet as tame as doves. King interprets this as the need for a gentle and open heart and a sharp and incisive mind. King devotes the rest of the book examining ways in which our modern hard-heartedness is the result of a soft and gullible mind. Because we are not listening to new ideas, we are not examining things for what they are. We are not able to see people or situations for the qualities that they have, the content of their character. King also warns about being overwhelmed with information and paralyzed with indecisiveness, lost in a sea of emotions and not able to grasp the dryland of the truth supported by facts. King goes on to say that a strong man has his anti-thesis clearly marked. A man who is kind and open minded wiho also possesses consistent well defined boundaries. This is very rare indeed; think of Jesus. This is like threading a camel through a needle but I think that’s what we are expected to do, or at least to aspire to. We are expected to have the courage to admit our mistakes and the strength to carry-on. In return, people will see us for who we are; a human, vulnerable to human frailty and redeemed for our humanity.

    1. Excellent points Tom! Wow…thx for adding to the dialogue. Yeah, just like you talk of with your experience, I learned at a young age to adapt to my environment.

      As you say, a lot of these issues come down to a sense of balance. And indeed, trying to navigate through the intense emotions that politics creates is extremely difficult when so many around us are swept up in the flavor of the moment. On the other hand, as we seek balance to the shouting + name-calling that occur politically, we have to be careful of being over-analytical. Although rationality is the key to civilized society, we need to be honest that perceptions + emotions form a basis to thought.

      As you allude to Tom, what’s lost in the sheer repetition of party politics is the fact that Martin Luther King’s actual words, much like the words of Jesus, echo strongly 50 yrs after he said them. And as you say, how ironic that so many of us forget what King actually said. Thx for talking of King’s book-“The Strength To Love.” I appreciate how you bring up the fact that a soft + gullible mind can be easily fooled. And yes, we will have the strength to love + care for each only when our mind is sharp + shrewd. Too often…love is thought of as coming from a place of total emotion.

      As for your upbringing + early experiences Tom, I’m so glad that you listened to the Irish cop! It’s amazing how certain people early in our lives can give us advice that works.

  3. Perry – I was bussed only once, and somehow, my favorite cousin and I ended up at the same school in the same class (we went to different schools prior) so I had not really given the surroundings much thought. But after reading your thoughtful post with great interest, I discovered that there was actually quite a bit of turmoil, that accompanied the decision to bus students. So i give all the credit to the parents and teachers and even the culture of the Mile High City, since I cannot recall any racial indignities at the time. But I must say, you had much insight for an 8 year old. I imagine, it came from your parents, as well. (big smile). Thanks for sharing your story and this story. With no doubt, it leads to a much larger discussion about race and perception, which I believe is the opposite of the moral to your story.

    1. Hi Kendall + thx so much for stopping by! I truly appreciate it…

      I’m so glad to run into someone else who actually went thru the school bussing experience. I haven’t run into many who have gone through it. And yes, you were very lucky to have your favorite cousin go to the same school you went to.

      As opposed to some areas in the east, it sounds like Denver had a pretty good approach to the situation. Maybe the fact that the eastern part of America was more established with older neighborhoods + cultural traditions is why they had a high level of turmoil in regards to bussing in the 70’s.

      Kendall, I’m totally fine with having my blog piece lead to a larger discussion about race. 🙂 The main thing I’d like to pursue in discussing race is that we remember the poetically wise words of Martin Luther King when we have those discussions. MLK’s Dream speech was almost magical in how it led the way, by emphasizing an individual’s character as primary, for people to look at race as not a divider, but as a potential unifier within the human fabric.

      1. Hey Kendall…I agree. Lets collaborate on a way to talk about race using Dr King’s wisdom as the focus. Such an approach can surely be done. 🙂

  4. I never knew much of this about you Perry. You make some very good points about how to survive as a minority in a public majority. Most of us, being white, have never been put in that situation. I had a friend in 4th grade who was black and had about 9 brothers and sisters. I remember spending the night once at his house. I was terrified. For that one night, I realized what minorities must go through just by being a minority in a majority world.

    Also, I had an experience as a teen-ager where I was in a hospital for about three months. One of the new patients was a black kid in Kansas City who had always lived around black people. I remember now how they had to send him somewhere else where there were more blacks than whites because being a single black kid in an all white world was traumatizing to him. At the same time, we had another black kid who had a white father, and he was the most outgoing and social guy there.

    1. Thx so much for stopping by luv4all1959! Great to hear from you again. 🙂

      Excellent point about empathizing with minorities. Your recollections about your experience in spending the night in unfamiliar surroundings, as well as the experience of the black kids you met are so powerful! It’s fascinating to see just how powerful a concept the idea of race + similarity is + how it impacts us. After all, since humans are social creatures it only makes sense that there’s a certain power in numbers. Therefore, once we recognize this, it should help us get beyond race somewhat.

      Ultimately, if we all try to look more to Dr King’s advice to look more to the character of an individual, as opposed to just outward appearance, we may be able to help minorities, as well as ourselves, cope better since we’ll be able to see the commonality uniting us all.

    1. Thx so much for stopping by + sharing America On Coffee! The YouTube video was fascinating…

      Yeah, its amazing how the repetition of perceptions that one accumulates over time creates lasting thoughts. We can see that in the answers of the children in the video. That’s why Dr King’s advice to ultimately look to someone’s soul + character, as opposed to just outward appearance, is so very important for us to try to remember.

      1. The film recently shared with you (I believe it was entitled) “A Class Divided”, is so amazing. The children are all grownup and they are speaking out about what they learned from the experiment. You might want to check it out. Thanks for the follows and likes Perry!❤😊☕

    2. Thx for the link + feedback America On Coffee!

      Likewise, I truly enjoy your blog too. In addition to fascinating insights into many of the deeper issues of the day, you illuminate well the fascinating worldwide coffee culture. 🙂

      I did check out the PBS special on this + what the children said years after. And yes indeed…its amazing that racism is a somewhat learned experience on both ends of the spectrum. As I experienced when many black kids were dismayed at my appearance at their school, it wasn’t impossible to defuse racial tensions at a young age.

      I truly appreciate so much you bringing this info to my blog.

  5. Divided? Not really…..

    This study is impressive – it really destroys the common perceptions that we are so divided – no conclusion why such a widely wrong misconception, but I imagine it’s the thought that “conflict” sells…..very sad.

    The Resentful vs The Woke –
    Resentful are old, white males and Woke are young, ethnic females…..but only 25% are committed conservatives and 8% are progressive activists, so the 2/3rds not belonging to either make up an Exhausted Majority, with 80%, across all ages and ethnicities, who dislike “Political Correctness”.

    1. Excellent points PJ!

      In a sense, you hit the nail on the head regarding conflict + division. Over the past 20 years or so, many have tried to sell us on the notion that “conflict of an almost unbearable level is what life actually is.”

      This article link to The Atlantic is one of best articles in the media I’ve seen that actually breaks down statistically the situation + shows that the societal division is not as high as thought. In addition, just like you, I meet many that yearn to move away from PC culture.

      PJ, as both you + I often have found out in our day to day travels, there really is a sense with many ordinary people that the conflict points that are driven home by many in the media are almost caricatures of real life. In reality…many of us are tired of the high levels of drama + would love to return to the concept of spirited debate that’s anchored in a common ground for America. 🙂

  6. The point of politics is to change people’s minds, not to demonize your rivals as unfit to walk among decent folk, not to defeat but to persuade.

    Sadly, today the art of politics is depicted as winning the space for your way of life is not enough and only the destruction of the other and its ways is.

    This happens when real people become mere abstractions, their humanity lost in a fog of ideology.

    While the pressures of the modern world appear to be de-humanizing as in its every aspect, it is our task to defeat this direction and make concerted effort to meet people face to face and celebrate our common humanity.

    1. Excellent points again PJ!

      I truly appreciate how you bring these important issues to the blog. Although the defeat at all costs style of politics appears to be the current style, you’re so right to recognize the cost to society as a whole.

      To change people’s minds thru debate, persuasion, + example is one of the most powerful aspects of politics + is a hallmark of democratic republics. This approach gives people an out + allows for the evolution of civil society.

      And yes…our common ideology is getting lost in an absolutist fog. Unfortunately, many are buying into the concept that demonizing is important to wipe the slate totally clean so to create a totally one-dimensional society. Sadly, this notion goes against the concept of a melting-pot democracy.

      Historically, democracies have worked well since they have allowed different cultures to exist side by side without forcing others to think all the same. Subsequently, this exposure to different cultures creates a cross pollination of ideas. The glue that has held this together in democracies has been the respect for the rule of law.

      Hopefully PJ…we can help remind people of these features!

  7. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Perry. Truly interesting and I’m sure character forming.

    I think though that some people misunderstand what the term “white privilege” means. It does *not* mean all white people are racist, or that all white people are better or worse than others. It is not a moral designation at all.

    It is simply a factual observation about the society of the US based on lots of evidence: there are many privileges that white people enjoy—whether they are racist, or the nicest, most unprejudiced people in the world—that non-whites in this society do not have.

    It’s simply a statement of what is, like the sky is blue or the grass is green. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. Were a Martian to come down to the US tomorrow, s/he might say, “Oh, that’s interesting–the ones with white skin seem to get better treatment, all other things being equal.”

    What we decide to do with that information is a whole other story. Some might think that we should somehow work to counterbalance that privilege. But that is a whole different subject. For now, I just wanted to point out what “white privilege” really means.

    1. Nice to hear from you again Jack! Your thoughtful comments always add a new element that’s well worth considering.

      Yes…as you said, on the whole its somewhat apparent that whites probably do, even with all of the advancements of the past 50 yrs, enjoy an easier lot in life than minorities do in America. However, having said that, there are instances, due to the after-effects of affirmative action + what’s perceived by some as reverse racism, where some whites now feel that they’re not so privileged after all. Since we’re all humans first, its understandable when someone feels that their heritage, either as race, ethnicity, or gender, denies them equal opportunity in life.

      Jack, I’m glad you brought out the point the way you did. You have a talent for furthering a discussion. 🙂

      All in all, I wrote the blog piece since my memories as an 8 yr old confirmed in me that as an ideal, all of us need to try to heed Dr King’s advice to try to look first at the content of someone’s character, as opposed to their outward appearance. As simple as King’s advice sounds, it really is the glue that can hold disparate aspects of society together.

      On another note, since you live near Woodstock, I have an interesting Woodstock story. On the way home from New York City in August of 1969 we went by the famous Woodstock music festival a day before it started + stopped off at Liberty, New York to check out all the goings on with the festival preparation. The throngs of people were something I’ll never forget. To a 9 yr old, it was quite a sight.

  8. Ultimately, and in the final analysis, it is the content of our character as individuals that matters most in life. I agree. You have again presented the issue from a perspective with which I can identify. Where I come from the issues are more complex than mere racial or cultural. However, there are always individuals who transcend the external differences/limitations through inner character and the acknowledgement of a real identity inside that is founded on our belief system and the resultant esteem and security that no externality can take away. Thanks again for a great and courageous post!

    1. Nice to hear from you again Crosslife Spaces + I truly appreciate the fact that this post resonated with you!

      Yes, as you aptly point out, inner character is ultimately the most important aspect of our lives. And it does bear noting that Dr. King made such great strides with the civil rights movement when he brought this concept to the fore.

      In our own way, people such as ourselves are working hard to keep this very important + timeless idea alive! 🙂

  9. You really never know about white privilege until you’re spent time with someone whose color and culture is different from your own. You can be sympathetic but its not the same. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Hello JT + thx for stopping by!

      Yes, I agree + in retrospect I’m so glad to have had the experience that I did. Interestingly, I recently listened to some music + watched some shows from the late 60’s + 70’s + was amazed at the optimism that people had then for casual integration between the races.

  10. Hi Perry, I just happened upon this. I didn’t know of this very meaningful aspect of your background! The protection your two young friends of color afforded you on the elementary school playground is analogous in a way to the protection I received from two very large black men who befriended me when I was homeless. The three of us camped out together, and got into many fine conversations in which the “content of our characters” was indeed more important than the colors of our respective skins.

    I may want to reference some portions of this post in a speech I’m making, if you don’t mind. I sent you an email last night, and I’m sure we’ll be in touch soon. Thanks so much for posting this – it is very well thought out, and thought-provoking as well.

    1. Hey A.P.! So glad to hear from you + I’ll get back to your e-mail soon. 🙂

      As far as referencing this for your speech, I’d be honored to have you do so. No worries.

      Regarding your situation with the two black men that you hung out with, it’s so fascinating to hear of how many of us at different times have intermingled with + became friends with people of a different race. And yes, the commonality that unites us needs to be emphasized more.

      Interestingly, when we accept the commonality that unites us as people, we sometimes open the door for us all to learn from each other + tap into the “melting-pot” concept.

  11. Hi Perry, similar experience where I went to a diverse school in San Diego and moved to Chiloquin when I was 12. Talk about culture shock and not well liked force few years because of my skin color. It does help with perspective on what minorities do experience.

  12. So well said, Perry. I do think there is such a thing as white privilege though that in my mind will only be rectified with the passing of a generation who were alive before MLK and before bussing. When those people (both black and white) with reflective memory of what is used to mean to be white are gone, we can start building a color blind world. My sister who is married to a wonderful man who happens to be black encounters white privilege often and no one can honestly believe she’s racist.

    1. Excellent thoughts Alison!

      Yeah…the concept of a color blind world, on a both a large scale, and on an individual level, is so important to move towards. Although differences in racial culture will always exist + should be celebrated, we may be able to learn from other cultures + races easier if we realize we’re individuals first. Your sister + her husband are such a good example of what I’m talking of.

      Thx for stopping by!

    1. Thx so much for stopping by!

      I clicked on your link + found that David Brooks’ thoughts made a lot of sense. The demographics of both major parties are changing so fast. As for 3rd party candidates – it makes sense. However…with America’s form of Democracy, 3rd parties – such as Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull-Moose,” or the ones that came after, often serve as transitory movements.

      Having said that though, I do believe that a 3rd party holds promise.

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