Sometimes life hands you a stark illustration of something you know to be true in the abstract. This week I experienced how white privilege can turn everyday life hassles into two vastly different situations.
On Tuesday I had a new refrigerator delivered and the old one removed from our second floor kitchen. Two strong and experienced African American men labored three hours trying their best not to damage my house despite an impossibly tight turn onto and around the bottom landing of the staircase. Fortunately no one died from the incredible exertion of maneuvering a 250 pound refrigerator. Unfortunately there is some damage that will need repairing and how that is accomplished will add more hassle to this experience.
But I heard far more gracious “yes ma’am’s” than muttered curse words despite this being one of the most confounding deliveries they had seen in some time. They wrote up and reported the damage; respectfully apologized and told me what the company would do next. I did get that follow-up call, and while it won’t be as easy a solution as they promised, the company will pay for the repairs.
I volunteer with VOICE, a community social justice organization fighting to secure decent and affordable housing in fast-gentrifying Alexandria. On Wednesday I made phone calls to set up visits to inspect the condition of the homes of nearby public housing residents. These women, some mothers with young children, told me they call repeatedly to the public housing agency for maintenance. When repairs are made, the quality is poor. I witnessed this damage Thursday and have pictures and notes to document their hassles.
As I walked home Thursday night after these inspections, I was struck by how very different my experience this week had been. I got respect. They did not, even those who are paying a surprising amount of rent based on their income. I got people trying to do their best work. They got people doing repairs I would never accept in my home.
No one told me I was being a nuisance because I expect to live in a nice home. They were made to feel like they should accept what should never be acceptable: doors that don’t lock right; plaster peeling and molding from water damage; and mice and bugs getting free rein in their home.
This is what white privilege feels like in everyday hassles.
This is also the privilege money buys. The have nots should be a lot angrier than they are. In my years as a volunteer community organizer, the hardest thing for me to understand is why so many people in this situation put up with it. I believe their life experiences have convinced them they don’t matter to the rest of us.
I fear my efforts to seek social justice in my own backyard are inadequate in the face of public indifference and rich real estate markets. What little I can do would be more than enough--if we all lived up to our vision for our community and country rather than settling for what many people believe they can’t change.
This is not the way it has to be.