We wrote this paper to explore how race has impacted our lives and experience at Westtown. I found it to be a great experience.
Racial Auto-ethnography – My Master Key
Privilege abounds before me like few other people. Cis, male, white, affluent, two-parent household, to mention a sampling of such unearned gifts. Life, to this point at least, has been about as much a cakewalk as possible. Through little to no fault of my own, my life will continue along this fluffy, advantaged life. To be honest I would be quite happy if it did. To break down the sum of experiences that led to me, here, right now is difficult. Separating race, from wealth, and the patriarchal advantages from which I benefit cannot be completely done. I am going to at least attempt to untangle my web. If the great privilege of being rich is not worrying about money, than the great privilege of being white is not worrying about race.
“Race is always in the room,” T. Keven. This is undoubtedly true and has been for the generations of my family who have lived in the United States. My father’s side of the family arrived in the United States during the influx of Eastern European immigration during the 1890s, although whiteness had not yet been fully extended to these foreign people. Jews and Eastern Europeans were marginalized groups in the broader United States. (Herbes-Sommers, 2003) Yet the whole family stayed in New York City, decidedly a more accepting place for them, and as more immigrants made the journey their foreign non-whiteness evaporated. Not before long, my great-grandfathers on my dad’s side both owned and operated companies as immigrants. There are no absolute prerequisites to the accepted definition of success in America. It seems there are exceptions to every instance of systemic white privilege, but still my grandfathers’ whiteness, I must assume, gave advantages not afforded to their black counterparts. Aspects of the New Deal, most notably the Social Security Act of 1935, unemployment insurance, and federally backed mortgages were indirectly, and in the case of federally backed mortgages, directly used by these two ancestors. (Herbes-Sommers, 2003) My predecessors, in large part due to their whiteness, benefited from systemic racism and in turn so do I through the inter-generational transmission of advantages.
As more black people fled from the south to New York City, my great-grandfathers moved their families from New York City to Long Island. They left, in part afraid of black people, and fled to the purposefully white suburbs of the city. (Massey) The very fact that they could buy a house in the neighborhoods that they did was because of their skin. This white environment carried with it good schools, safe streets, and proximity to almost only white people. This is in large part because of the new middle class who populated these suburbs. This middle class was created by the New Deal, and my family along with millions of other white families benefited from it. (Massey) This tax base in their white community afforded the luxuries of good schools, clean parks, and other benefits. This in turn raised the value of their homes and increased the human capital of my grandfather, grandmother, father, and finally me. I receive this inter-generational white advantage. I have been unjustly enriched by the institutional racism of America and its policies.
The two great matriarchs in my life have been my white mother, Charlotte, and my black nanny, whom I consider a mother, Heather. Both are immigrants who came to this country without high school diplomas. Yet, their circumstances are completely different. My mother lives very comfortably and doesn’t have to work. Heather lives far less comfortably and must work to support her family. The only real difference is that my mum is white and Heather is black. My mother was accepted to college right away and advanced to a high paying career right away. Heather was denied from college and had to start working. Every other person who worked for my mother was black. To my young mind this was really my only face to face exposure with different races. The line was clear. Black people worked for us and white people didn’t. With few exceptions, no white people worked for other families in the building we live in. There were no black owners in my building. As I grew up, I learned buyers had to be approved by the building’s co-op committee. This approval process included resumes, interviews and a written recommendation from a resident of the building. I cannot say that any black families applied, but I can say that outsiders were not welcome where we lived and still live. This fits with the national trend, “blacks and latinos experienced discrimination in approximately half of their efforts to rent or buy a house.” (Bonnilla-Silva) The idea of race was taught to me in this monetary way: whites were rich and blacks were not. Being white allowed me to feel comfortable and accepted as part of the establishment, the elite, the important. Whiteness was our unspoken power.
The first school I attended was the Caedmon School. A private Montessori pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school. Though the majority were white, it purposefully had students of many races. Our teachers were almost all white and even as young children we clearly saw the otherness of the kids of color. When I and the other white kids left school, we walked home with our nannies. Most other kids got into the car with their parents or on a yellow bus back home to one of the outer boroughs. Through this simple, clear distinction the money broke down once again along racial lines. My teachers were white and the principle was white. Every real authority figure in the school was white. Through this, I was at least connected with the power in the room at all times. I felt like I belonged.
My dyslexia began to show itself in the second grade. Though I went un-diagnosed until my 4th grade year, I began tutoring and getting help outside of school then. I remember being taken around to every doctor my parents could find. They were trying to figure out what was going on with their son, who even at a young age was eloquent and at least presented as intelligent. Not once did anyone question my intelligence. Never was I written off by anyone, not my teachers, administrators, or family. My intelligence was never questioned, because of my race. Once I was diagnosed, it was essential to my parents that I be treated with no less respect than other kids. Just as the white heroin epidemic is treated differently from any drug in the black community, my white learning disabilities never counted against me. Being white allowed me to never have to worry if people would question my worth or ability to be educated. Without this advantage chances are, I would not have made it to Westtown and would not be going to Hamilton. My race acted like a crutch. This crutch, my white privilege, is not afforded to my black peers. A study in 1985 suggests this to be true, “(of) students who took the SAT, 65.1 percent of blacks compared with 81.2 percent of whites were enrolled in an academic track.” (Bonilla-Silva) After finding out about my new dyslexic distinction I was taught about other famous dyslexics: Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Tom Cruise, Beethoven, John Lennon, Churchill, Edison, Einstein, and others. Almost all of these people were white men. I saw myself in them and their success. I remember feeling comforted and more confident because of this. Middle school was much of the same, except I was part of the even greater majority of white people. A total of one black student was in my graduating class. The few students of color were subject to racist jokes, comments, and treatment unlike me and my white counterparts. All my teachers and administrators were white. I felt like I belonged and it wasn’t only do to my whiteness, but I certainly would not have felt the same way if I wasn’t white. Not worrying or thinking about my whiteness, my right to be there encouraged me to take full advantage of my situation with a clear conscious.
When I started looking for a new school I knew I could go anywhere and thrive anywhere. In every school I visited I found people who looked like me, sounded like me, and had similar backgrounds. On tours and in classes racial minorities stuck out like a sore thumb. These students had a noticeable otherness I didn’t have. It was plain to see. In information sessions these students were spoken about in percentages. Each admission officer bragged about how many students of color they had always right before they started speaking about financial aid.
Westtown was the first place I started speaking about race not in the historical sense, but in the right here in this room sense. It was the first time I lived with peers who were black. Race had been something my family spoke about around the dinner table or during trips to museums in Memphis, Detroit, and New York. I don’t ever remember calling myself white. I had no black friends up to that point and so race, though ever-present, wasn’t spoken about. The first friend I made at Westtown was Demani. I remember he seemed foreign to me. He clearly came from a different place. A large piece of his culture was being black. I remember him speaking about things being black or not. He used phrases like “black music.” Demani and I were similar in that we were both loud annoying freshman. I remember people talking about how annoying he was. We were both loud, braggadocios, rude, and proud. Yet it was he who received far more criticism. Jair, Demani, and most other students of color are and were constantly second guessed for their ability and right to be here. I have never felt under the gun in this ever present manner. I have gotten away with more regardless of my actions. I’ve never been questioned about being on scholarship or having bad grades. I remember one day a teacher told Jair and Dylan not to eat their dinner in a classroom after a game, because they were “going to make a mess.” I ate and still eat dinner in a classroom most Thursday nights and have never been told not to do so. Jair told me this telling off was fairly common for him. My whiteness allows me to walk this well worn path through Westtown. I am no sore thumb. Being white allows the other whites at Westtown to unconsciously trust me. As my father always says, “trust equals privileges.”
At Westtown, like every other school I’ve been to, I’m always the majority. I have always been expected to succeed. I have never been forced to confront race, talk about it or be questioned on it. Being white for me is like having the master key to Westtown. It opens almost every lock in the school and I only have to carry around this one key. My whiteness has been a master key to life.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. 4th ed., Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014.
- Feagin, Joe R. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. 3rd ed., New York [u.a.], Routledge, 2014.
- “The House We Live in.” Directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers. Race – The Power of an Illusion, season 1, episode 3, Public Brodcast Network.
- Massey, Douglas S. Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System. New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Just chapter three, Reworking the Color Line.