Commentary: ‘White privilege’ might not mean what you think

If you’ve been able to do routine things without harassment, it might be because you’re white.

By Beverly Hoback / For The Herald

My cousin recently shared a Facebook post stating “there is no such thing as white privilege,” because he had worked hard for everything he’d achieved. I can vouch for the fact that this cousin did not come from what we usually refer to as a privileged background, and that he has, indeed, worked hard for his accomplishments and possessions. I also know he is not a racist, attested to by his love for his non-white grandchildren. But I think he misunderstands what is meant by “white privilege.”

His post made me think of four recent news articles. One described an incident in Andover, Mass., in June of this year, when 19-year old Gabby Batista, a Black woman, videotaped a white off-duty Andover Fire lieutenant accusing her of stealing mail from someone’s mailbox. She was, in fact, retrieving the mail from her own mailbox right in front of her home, but the lieutenant refused to believe her when she told him she lived in the house, and continued accusing her of stealing until her parents came out of the home. Seeing that the people exiting the house were Black, it finally occurred to the lieutenant that Black people do live in houses, do have mailboxes, do take the mail out of their mailboxes, and that seeing a Black person getting mail out of a mailbox does not constitute witnessing a crime.

Then there was the case of 35-year-ld Philip Evans of Solon, Ohio. On Sept. 18, Evans was loading groceries into his new SUV in the parking lot of a grocery store when he noticed a white woman pointing her phone at him, apparently recording him. She then followed Evans as he left the parking lot. When he was pulled over by a police officer, he was informed that the woman had called police to report that Evans had clearly stolen the car because it had no license plate and he was “acting suspiciously, looking around and moving very slowly.” I had no idea that “moving slowly” while loading groceries is indicative of a crime being committed, and I’m sure if I noticed someone recording me with their phone as I was loading groceries I, too, would be “looking around.” As for there being no license plate on the SUV, the vehicle was new and had a temporary plate displayed in the rear window, which, of course, was not visible to the suspicious woman when the hatchback was up while Evans loaded groceries. The officer let Evans go.

These stories of harassment and racial profiling are disturbing enough, but unfortunately we know that in many cases the victims of racism suffer far more than stress and embarrassment.

One of the most chilling recent news articles detailed what happened to a black man in Minneapolis years before the George Floyd debacle. A woman had called 911 at 2 a.m. one morning to report hearing a loud argument between a man and woman that she feared was about to get violent. She wasn’t sure where the noise was coming from but stated that she thought it was from an apartment inside her building. Two white police officers responded to the call. Two blocks from the caller’s address the officers saw a light in the window of a home. A Black couple was inside watching TV. The officers knocked on the door and were assured by both the man and woman inside that there had been no argument or assault and that they had merely been watching TV. Nevertheless, the officers handcuffed the man and put him into their patrol car. They were joined by another patrol car with two more white officers. Rather than taking the man to jail, they drove him to a deserted area, beat him horribly, then drove him to his mother’s house on the other side of the city. Photos of his injuries were taken at the hospital. Although a large judgement was awarded to the victim in a lawsuit against the city, all four officers involved are still on the Minneapolis police force.

Even more appalling is the case of 51-year-old Joseph Pettaway, a Black man in Montgomery, Ala. In July of 2019 Pettaway was helping to care for his 87-year-old mother, who had moved out of her small home. Pettaway had a key to her house and permission to sleep there as he was doing repairs. A neighbor, seeing him enter the home, called 911 to report that the house was being burglarized. Officer Nicholas Barber responded with his police dog. He loosed the dog on Pettaway, and, according to a lawsuit filed by Pettaway’s family after viewing body-cam video of the incident, stood by while the dog chewed on Pettaway’s leg for 2 minutes before pulling him off. An artery in Pettaway’s leg was severed and he bled to death, while Barber and another officer, according to the family, stood by without providing any first aid. The family alleges that the body-cam video shows another officer standing over Pettaway as he bled to death, asking Barber if Pettaway had “got a bite.” Barber allegedly answered, “F***, yeah.”

These are just four incidents in a long and horrific tale of racism and injustice in our country. So, do I think there is such a thing as “white privilege?” Oh my, yes!

“White privilege” doesn’t mean all white Americans are born with silver spoons in their mouths, nor does it mean all white Americans are racists. But it does mean that most of us can get mail from our mailbox, put groceries into our car, watch TV late at night, or do repairs on our mother’s home without being racially profiled, accused of committing crimes, beaten or mauled to death by police dogs, with the perpetrators going free.

I’ve never been rich and wouldn’t use the word “privileged” to describe myself in most contexts. But, with a broken heart, I admit that white privilege is real and that racism in American society needs to be confronted and eliminated.

Beverly Hoback lives in Arlington.

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