The Day I Came To Understand the Pervasiveness of White Privilege

“The slick thing about whiteness is that you can reap all the benefits of a racist society without personally being racist.” John A. Powell

Like many white people in America, I’ve had the luxury of not needing to think much about race. My sense had been that racism was mainly about white racists whose deliberately mean or abusive acts punish Black people for being Black. My understanding changed profoundly when I made a personal discovery of white privilege, one of the underpinnings of racism. Here’s how it happened:

A few years ago, my friend Bernard told me his church was hoping to acquire the former YMCA in Poughkeepsie for a youth center. Five years earlier, the YMCA, after serving as a major community center for a century, abruptly declared bankruptcy and closed, defaulting on an $800,000 mortgage held by the Mahopac National Bank in Westchester County. The bank was stuck with a dilapidated property they had little prospect of selling. Bank officials presumably welcomed an inquiry they received about the property from Bernard’s church. If the bank could transfer this white elephant to the church, it might recover at least some of its losses. So it was in the self-interest of bank officials to establish positive relationships with the church representatives. The last thing the bank officers would have intended to do was to disrespect these representatives. But that’s exactly what they ended up doing.

Bernard had arranged to lead a delegation to the bank holding the mortgage, and he asked me if I’d be willing to join the delegation, saying that my Ph.D. in engineering would be helpful in renovating the building. Bernard’s request seemed absurd to me. I knew nothing about youth centers or renovation or negotiating with bank officers. I wasn’t even a member of his church. I simply had nothing to contribute, and I told Bernard as much. Bernard brushed aside my objections, saying, “Yes, but you’d give us credibility.”

“Why, because I’m white?”
“Yes.”

Bernard is Black. Bernard’s church is a Black church. Bernard was effectively telling me that white bankers would not automatically assume a group of Black church people to be a credible delegation, but that having a white member of the delegation may lend some legitimacy. I thought Bernard’s argument to be ridiculous, and I politely expressed my skepticism. It made no sense to me that the presence of a white guy could make a difference. At the same time, I was intrigued with Bernard’s surprising hypothesis, and I was also curious about what it would be like to meet with bank officers on this high-stakes negotiation. Finally, I trusted Bernard to keep me from putting his team in an embarrassing position. So I agreed to go.

On the morning of November 12, 2013, our delegation set off in a van for the hour’s drive from Poughkeepsie down to the Westchester bank. In addition to Bernard and me, our group comprised the pastor of Bernard’s church and another church official. All of us were dressed in formal business attire, the better to demonstrate our seriousness of purpose to the bank officials. Everyone except me was Black. On the way down, the group strategized about how we would proceed during this initial meeting. I expressed my concern about exactly what it was that I was supposed to do. Bernard assured me that my role was just to be there. This still made no sense to me, but I was already committed.

When we arrived at the bank, we were met by two of the bank’s vice presidents, middle-aged white men in formal business attire. Neither of the VPs had previously met any of us, and they didn’t know our roles. After introductions, the senior VP ushered us into a luxurious conference room with a long table. Our delegation sat on one side, with Bernard and me at the center, the pastor next to Bernard, and the other church member next to me. The VPs took positions on the opposite side of the table facing Bernard and me.

The senior VP who was sitting directly opposite Bernard spoke first. He was a seasoned negotiator. As the VP explained the bank’s interests, he made eye contact with each of us, but mostly, he made eye contact with me. When I say “mostly,” I mean that he looked at me more of the time than he looked at Bernard, the pastor, and the other church official combined. As the VP spoke, I just leaned back in my luxurious chair and smiled politely at him. I was amused that, as the least important person in the room, I was getting most of the attention.

After about ten minutes, the senior VP completed his opening statement. Next, it was the other VP’s turn to speak. This VP, also an accomplished negotiator, made eye contact with each of us, but also mostly spoke directly to me. I met his eyes and continued to just sit back and smile, still amused at all the gratuitous attention I was getting.

In another ten minutes, the second VP finished his opening statement. The senior VP then looked to our side to respond. Actually, he looked to me to respond. I was still smiling, but of course I had absolutely nothing to say. Fortunately, at that moment Bernard stepped in diplomatically and began explaining our interests in establishing a youth center. Bernard is a skilled negotiator, and the VPs quickly focused on his opening statement. From there, the meeting carried on productively for another hour or so, with the normal give and take between Bernard and the two VPs. The pastor and other church member occasionally contributed remarks. I said nothing. By this point, the VPs made eye contact with me only occasionally, having established who the real leader of our delegation was.

On the way home in the van, I was anxious to confirm my observations about the VPs. I asked Bernard and the others whether they’d noticed that the VPs had mostly focused on me during their opening statements. All of them had. Not only that, but none of them seemed surprised. The VPs initial assumption seemed to be that the white guy — me — must be the one in charge of the delegation.

The VPs initial focus on me basically said, “We pay attention to the important people. All things being equal, white people are more important than Black people.” The worst part is not that this disrespect of Bernard and the other members of our delegation was deliberate; the worst part is that this conduct was not deliberate. The VPs focus on the least important person in the room was not motivated by self-interest, but in spite of self-interest.

This event was an epiphany for me. I came to understand that Black people must encounter such unintentional slights like this every day from well-meaning — but unaware — white people. I saw that prejudice by whites against Blacks can emerge unconsciously even when such prejudice is least likely to be present — when the whites’ self-interest would favor impartiality. Whites’ presumed greater social status is a subtle but pervasive aspect of white privilege.

Postscript: In the end, Bernard’s church did not acquire the YMCA. It was acquired a year later by a different religious organization. I’ve often wondered whether Bernard really invited me in order to give his group “credibility”, or simply to teach me about white privilege.

Bill Rubin, March 7, 2018