Further Thoughts On “White Privilege”

For the last three years, I’ve been hunkered down at home. My immune system was on the fritz, and we only recently discovered why. Now that the pandemic has mostly burned itself out and my immune system has re-calibrated, I’ve been visiting the library again. At my last visit, I noticed an intriguing book on the new releases display: The Invisible Kingdom: Reimaging Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rouke.

The Privileged Journey

A few chapters in, I find myself continually on the verge of tears. Is it too soon to be going back and picking at the sutures? Perhaps, but I can’t help it. The recognition of my own experience in hers is too powerful to put down.

Struck by her story and inspired by her courage, I pursued some reviews to see how others had benefited from her gift. And I immediately regretted it.

The first review I saw read, “The title of this book should be ‘The Privileged Journey through Chronic Illness.’” And it just got worse: “This is not a book about disability justice; it’s a story of how hard one upper-class White woman had to work to feel well, with an occasional ‘and imagine how hard it must be for poor/POC/trans people’ caveat.'”

A few years ago, I wrote about how white poverty is now a privilege. I get the same vibe from these reviewers. While they acknowledge that the author collected and wove in the experiences of various people from all different backgrounds, that wasn’t enough. As a New York Times bestselling author, she should have given up her platform and stamp of approval to someone without the same writing experience. Is that not absurd?

My heart hurts for the author. I understand the health challenges she went through and I can only fathom the courage it took to share her story.

I could have written this book. It could me under attack, simply for trying to help others… while being white.

A Hateful Slur

A few years ago, amidst a conversation about frugality, sewing, anime, and wedding-planning, a black coworker, J, told me that she considered “white privilege” to be a hateful slur. Her now-husband is white and was called all kinds of names for “tarnishing black culture.” I’ve thought about that ongoing conversation a fair amount, and I generally agree with J. The phrase incorrectly assumes the conditions of my life are the result of my skin color rather the choices and hard work that actually forged my life.

“White privilege” is a racial prejudice: a false belief that race is determinative of behavior and experience. It’s offensive to working-class white people who never had much advantage, especially when the condemnation comes from some millionaire celebrity, politician, or Ivy League professor.

“Privileged outcomes for whites,” conversely, is a statistical assessment; we can observe it in data and acknowledge that its distribution is unequal. That, I would be open to discussing. That, I believe, does exist.

What’s frustrating to me is the phrase is not rooted in a real effort to improve race relations. And it’s useless unless it’s coming from a person who also believes there is also black privilege, female privilege, male privilege, etc. Everyone has privilege in different circumstances. We don’t see complaints that there aren’t enough white folks paying football or basketball, right?

The Invisible Kingdom

The invisible kingdom is not just the land of mysterious illness, but that land of false benefit. I am a queen out working the fields. All the while, tomatoes are being hurled at my back as I’m called a terrible ruler. In reality, I’m no different than hecklers. I’m struggling to simply make it through the day. But my humanity is invisible.

Throughout most of my illness, our annual household income was under $50,000. It took me almost five years to receive my first diagnosis. In the time between symptom onset and diagnosis, I was told my illness was all in my head, borne of some mental instability, and of my own fault. Most friends quickly abandoned me. I was functionally disabled, but ineligible for disability benefits. We had to sell everything of value to pay for medical treatment. We haven’t taken vacations, we don’t eat out, and we don’t spend money on anything other than bare necessities.

What privilege did my whiteness offer me?

What privilege did being heterosexual offer me?

What privilege did being a women offer me?

I can’t think of any special advantage I reaped. Illness is illness, no matter whom it afflicts. I don’t understand why suffering needs to become some sick completion.

I don’t know why the color of the author’s skin should diminish her experience of struggling. I feel deeply hurt on her behalf. The woman is being villainized for trying to give voice to the silenced. She’s actively working to help the disadvantaged share the universal experience of unexplained illness. And she is been shunned and shamed for it.

The Origin Story

My Scottish ancestors were affluent land owners and my Irish ancestors were slaves. My English ancestors fled tyranny in England and my Slovenian ancestors fled violent wartime occupation. From the 13th through 18th centuries, a small subset of my heritage lived a good life. Generally speaking, my ancestors suffered similar brutalities to any other family. Their history is my origin story. But it’s just that: a story. It’s a tale told at bedtime about love, fortitude, bravery, and heritage.

But my own story begins at my birth. I had great parents who gave me their time, attention, and love. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and a safe place to return. But we struggled desperately through the economic downturns and there were period where both my parents could not find work. The whiteness of my skin did not protect me from life’s struggles.

Knowing where we come from give us pause to reflect back on the values of our ancestors. My people came from a culture of family, work ethic, and courage. When faced with hard times, I think about that culture–the belief that steadfastness will get me through it. My skin color does not offer privileged; knowing what my ancestors faced and overcame, perhaps, does.

My Pale Skin Offered Me No Favors

I can tell countless tales of the abuses I endured at doctors appointments, in emergency rooms, and during torturous medical tests.

My pale skin offered me no favors.

Why am I so bothered by these reviews? They are not directed at me, and have no impact on me. Why are they breaking my heart so?

Similar to the author, I’m one of the rare few who somehow overcame. It’s my desire to share what I’ve learned through my illness, and to help people. It took me years to find someone who would listen, then years more to be diagnosed, and then additional time to be effectively treated. No one should have to go through what I endured.

While I have no intention of writing a book, the cruel treatment of people trying to help their fellow humans overcome hardship is just devastating to me. Even if I wanted to, I could never subject my story to that kind of criticism. It makes me hesitant to share my own experience, knowing that my good intentions may be misunderstood and misconstrued. It makes me sad to think that because I have some free time, internet access, access to organic produce, and the compulsion to help others, I could be labeled a racist, ableist, etc.

And because I’m not sure my point, nor how to wrap this up, I’ll leave you with this thought:

“No matter how old I get I will never understand two things:

1. Why we all just can’t get along

AND

2. Why we can’t be kind to one another”

Christina Casino

18 thoughts on “Further Thoughts On “White Privilege”

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  1. Kudos to you, Erin, for broaching a difficult topic. I think we, as a society, have gone backwards in terms of race and equality – ironically, because of attempts to do the opposite. And these are the kinds of things that need to be addressed. Honestly, openly, and with compassion all around. Thank you for being brave, and not being afraid to talk about the hard things. 🤍

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Kendra, from your kindness and understanding. 💕It’s such a tricky topic to broach. I’m a people-pleaser and fear being controversial, upsetting, or offending. This was scheduled/unscheduled several times. But there are perspectives that, perhaps, others haven’t considered. I agree that we’ve gone backward and my friends occupying those “marginalized minority” groups agree. It’s, generally speaking, young white women offended on behalf of certain minority groups who don’t, themselves, feel disadvantaged. It’s such a mess and I wish I had a solution.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Privilege, just like pain, loss, chronic illness & invisible disabilities are silent creepers, separating and polarizing people. For me, the only route to redemption and love is through dialogue and discussion – free from the hateful hurling of labels and condemnation. Ignorance and the baseless classifying of humans hurts my soul. I am more than I appear…more than I choose to share. Thank you for sharing, Erin. Mess is a good word. 💕

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Gosh, this is so powerful, Vicki–thank you. 💕 I think that’s what challenging for me is the constant polarization, despite is all sharing the same human experience. I’m very independent but when I became ill the few friends who stuck around were immigrants or children of immigrants from communal cultures (China, India, Korea). That experience has led me to appreciate even more the sameness of our humanity and the opportunities to look past the superficial and connect with others on a deeper level. The baseless classifying of humans hurts my soul, too. I don’t disagree that some people have been dealt a rough hand, but I don’t think the labels and finger-pointing are the solution. Sigh. Messy, indeed.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Your post inspired me to make a post of my own, since I’m Latina but dislike the openness with which people disparage who they consider white now (“consider” because they don’t know if they’re speaking of the French, Irish, light-skinned Hispanics like me, etc…). I just have to schedule it but thank you for the inspiration! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re welcome, and I so admire you ability and willingness to speak your mind. 😊 Unfortunately, I think the vocal folks who think they’re helping are actually causing more harm. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on the topic!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Erin, I’ve wanted to think on this before replying. While I cannot speak to the author and her reaction that you talk about, I have a huge amount of empathy for you in feeling like you are being singled out and attacked. It isn’t right to make assumptions, label or accuse anyone, especially someone you don’t know and especially based on a very human characteristic: skin color- no matter what that color is. Here’s a few things I think- It is way too easy for many to generalize and make broad statements about groups of people and the more we do that the more that stigma, bias, distrust and falsehood is created. I also think that some folks simply want to stir up trouble and they will do that in whatever way they can, rarely thinking about or caring about any impact. The reasons they do that aren’t necessarily clear, but they have caused a reaction which is what they probably wanted to happen. Ultimately many people are fulfilling a selfish desire to stir up controversy and perhaps also purposefully hurt others. Others simply don’t think before they speak or are mimicking what they have heard without understanding the content of their words. I understand your hurt and pain but I also hope that you will remember your voice needs to be heard and to believe that you have the right to speak with your own authentic voice no matter what others say or do.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for this, Deb. I have a tendency to be sensitive and overly-empathetic, so I think I have some responsibly to disengage before I upset myself too much. However, there is so much wisdom in what you say: “many people are fulfilling a selfish desire to stir up controversy and perhaps also purposefully hurt others.” It’s hard to think about, but I personally know people like that. I think it’s a useful re-frame for to just assume those types of cruel comments are coming from someone who needs to put others down to feel better about themselves. Thank you for your kindness and insight, Deb. I appreciate you. 💕

      Liked by 2 people

    2. The universality of Deb’s comment speaks to me. I agree.

      And we all get to (have to) tell our stories because we can’t tell them as anyone else. We can listen and learn to others from all over this globe, and I hope we do. But the only story we can tell is our own. Negating that story and gleaned wisdom for ANYONE serves no cause because we can all learn from each other, as long as we are authentic.

      Interesting post, Erin!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, Wynne! This: “Negating that story and gleaned wisdom for ANYONE serves no cause because we can all learn from each other, as long as we are authentic. ” I think that’s the key–we need to show up in the world and tell our own stories from the heart, as listen to and gain insight from others’ stories. It’s easy to forget that the opinions of others don’t really matter, unless they are coming from people we know, trust, and who have our best interest in mind. It reminds of Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, oft cited by Brene Brown: “It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” Thank you, Wynne! 💕

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this book and felt seen as well. Many of the challenges the author faced and that you’ve faced medically reflect many of my own. It saddens me that people are so self-centered and/or so self righteous that they are attacking the author. It’s just plain ridiculous. I appreciate all of what you’ve said in your post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, B. I’m glad to hear that the book spoke to you, as well. What you state really the crux of it for me–I’m deeply saddened. I’ve heard people talk about PTSD associated with chronic illness, and I suspect the only reason I don’t feel traumatized is because brain inflammation and atrophy have compromised my memory. This must have been a hard book to write. I wish that we could start recognizing and appreciating the *intention* rather than getting hung up on semantics. The author is trying to help. Period.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Every time I read a new post from you I just like you more & more!! Being white, I don’t see any privileges i’ve gotten by my skin tone. We’ve worked so hard for everything we have and to be honest, we’re still lower-income and are definitely not living high on the hog. What we do have, we’ve gotten by many, many years of hard work. Just like everyone else… I may get bashed for this, but it’s like when women say we don’t have the same rights as men.. which rights don’t we as women have that men do? I haven’t been able to figure that one out yet… 😬

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Carla, for your kindness! I was nervous to post this, but I felt strongly and needed to get it off my chest. Like you, I’ve worked hard for everything I have, and we’re still scraping by. But my goalpost has never money, but my willingness to put in the effort to gradually improve my lot in life. As for the women’s rights, I completely agree! I would even go as far as to say that women have more power in society than men nowadays–policy influence, child rearing, workplace diversity initiatives, social programs (welfare, social security, public schools)–and men don’t push back for fear of being called sexist. Our modern society is a tether ball on a wobbly axis of emotion… and if you look back at nearly collapsed civilization, giving too much power to emotion was their downfall.

      Like

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