It is said that the worst kind of politics is that of envy. Envy destroys the joy of life, because instead of you living your own life, you are always endeavoring to seize the life of another. Such is the ideology of white privilege.
The term “white privilege” is now frequently heard in the media, in our colleges, on our streets and in the corporate and government employee diversity training. I, being white, have particularly taken note because the advancement of this ideology seems to imply that everything I have is due to privilege. Hmm. If life were only so simple.
A History of Privilege
My reflection on privilege begins with this memory of standing in an ungodly hot cotton field with a hoe in hand, gazing down this long row, at the end of which is my chief goal at the moment – a gallon glass jar filled with sweet, iced tea. I can only hope there is ice in the jar when I get there as I begin the arduous process of chopping the weeds that are crowding around the plants. The rows have been plowed, leaving clumps of fescue and an odd assortment of robust weeds that must be cut back. I have to take care, not only to guard from wounding the plant, but from accidentally cutting my toe with the very sharp blade.
Later in life I would come to appreciate what was happening. That farm that my grandparents operated was the first piece of land owned by anyone in my grandmother’s family line – ever! They, along with several other families around Wardell, MO, took advantage of a swamp-recovery project to purchase land that was cheap because the land was almost non-arable. They would, over the next twenty years, transform a rag-tag collection of slews, stumps and trees into endless fields of cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans. They would also raise livestock and plant gardens.
And here I was, privileged to chop cotton.
I was too young to appreciate the timing, but the summer-time appearance of myself and my cousins to my grandparents’ farm was made possible because they had just installed indoor plumbing. We always thought it peculiar that grandpa preferred to go out to the outhouse. Couldn’t blame him because the indoor plumbing was directed to a septic tank that had to be cleaned out – frequently. I can still see my grandmother lifting a five gallon bucket out of the tank and distributing the contents in the field nearby.
This was real farm life – the kind where the milk came from the cows in the shanty-barn nearby, the chicken was freshly beheaded and plucked, the butter homemade.
All this, my friend, less than 60 years ago. Did I mention there was no air conditioning?
On the flip side was my father’s parents. My grandfather was privileged to fight under Hindenburg at the battles surrounding Koenigsberg. He was privileged to have been shot in the leg. He recovered from his wound where he was deployed on the western front to Verdun, France, where he was privileged to have been shot again, entering his shoulder and exiting through his back, leaving a massive scar. The bullet casing, which he stood up on a shelf, was beyond the length of my finger. He had the privilege of living through the shame and chaos of the Weimar Republic, escaping to America on the SS Bremen, where he had the privilege of traveling in steerage. On arriving to America, through Ellis Island, he had the privilege of having his name altered. He found extended family in St. Louis where he had the privilege of living in a garret.
Ever slept in an attic in 100 degrees or in freezing weather?
He worked hard and paid for his wife to come join him. They raised two boys in a home that he purchased in Kirkwood, a suburban village outside St. Louis. He even had a car. Times seemed good until he fell victim to the Great Depression. He had the privilege of suffering three years without regular work. He transformed his humble lot unto a cornucopia of sustainability, as the family survived on home grown vegetables, chickens, doves, rabbits and even goats. A trip to the grocery store was a major event, and one they could scarcely afford. Hunting and fishing were not sports, but an aspect of survival.
My father had the privilege of experiencing memories so traumatic during the Great Depression that he scarcely could mention them. He had the privilege of having his future determined by a pair of raving idiots running Germany and Japan. He had a dream of going to college and he had a love in his life. He would wave good bye to her in 1943 and they would part to live much different lives. He was indeed privileged as his mental aptitude steered him to the anti-submarine program of the US Navy. He would serve until late 1945, returning to Missouri to finish his college degree. There he had the privilege of living in barracks that were scarcely heated, standing in line outside twice a day to be fed in the small cafeteria. He was privileged to join a fraternity because he could at least be comfortable in winter. He was privileged to be in probably one of the most mature, academically focused classes in the history of the university because almost everyone was a veteran. No – they weren’t trying to find their careers. They all knew where they were heading. And they all knew from where they had been.
My father had the privilege of seeing 25% of his high school classmates die in war.
I was privileged to inherit many things from my parents. My mother’s greatest gift was dropping me off in Southeast Missouri at her parent’s farm. Nothing has shaped my life more profoundly than what I experienced during those hot summers. As for my father, his greatest contribution would be his stubborn insistence that we vacation in central Ontario. It would be there that I would experience the wilderness like few experience it, to be so isolated that not a single mechanical sound can be heard, to be exposed to the elements and the only escape is what you have with you. The other profound gift was a trip to Europe that would forever change my life.
My mom and dad were successful enough in life to give me the privilege of attending college without having to pay the tuition or housing. I did have to work to pay for my other expenses. And I had the privilege of not having a stereo system until after I graduated. I was privileged to have worked in the electronics section of a discount store. After the Christmas season had ended, I purchased the demonstrator components.
The Politics of Envy
It is said that the worst kind of politics is that of envy. Envy destroys the joy of life, because instead of you living your own life, you are always endeavoring to seize the life of another. So when someone tells me I am privileged, I have to consider what exactly do they mean.
My journey on this reflection began, ironically, from a book written by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. This African-American author provides a biographical collage of black Americans who migrated from the south to other parts of the U.S. They each had different stories to tell, but they all had as a common root the systemic racism of the South. And this was real systemic racism. Not something implied or “unconscious”. It was the American version of apartheid. The journeys Wilkerson describes occurred in the early part of the 20th century. One of those stories struck close to home – literally. In it she described the plight of a family of sharecroppers. One character in the narrative was the foreman. In this harsh environment of the Mississippian heat, the poverty, the discrimination and the one-sided economy of sharecropping, there was this enigmatic white man who periodically came by to collect the rent or to set the terms of the next planting. It was this man that got my attention because 30 miles away I had an ancestor who also served as a “foreman”, no doubt doing the same thing. It struck home because the author was gracious and fair in demonstrating that even he, this white man of “privilege,” was poor. Like my ancestor, he did not own land. Possibly, like my ancestor, his records will be hard to find because he held no land deed, and his grave was unmarked. By chance his name would appear in a census report, or in a school house roster.
And just think it was only 110 years ago! Only 110 years! In the scope of human history, just think of all that has changed in the past 100 years. And when I look back I see frozen in time two human beings. One black woman standing on a porch of an unpainted four room house, with chickens running about a grassy yard, uncut except for a periodic swath of the scythe. I smell the ambiance of humanity, old furniture, cheap wallpaper, vegetables warming in the kitchen, with possibly the waft of farm animals and the outhouse in the back yard. On the ground before her stands the foreman, looking up to her, in overalls. He is sweating in the heat, possibly with a straw hat to cool his head. He is a man of limited education, but who knows how to farm. And he is given a task he does not enjoy of telling people who are not much poorer than himself that the terms of the lease is changing. It is not because he or the owner is greedy. It is because it is necessary.
It would be this necessity that would drive the family in Wilkerson’s story to migrate north. It would be the same necessity that would drive my ancestors to migrate from Oxford, Mississippi to the village of Lenox, Tennessee. In two generations, a skinny white boy would find himself on his grandparent’s farm, chopping cotton, longingly aching for that jar of iced tea.
Counting My Blessings
When I account for my privileges, I have many. I have been privileged to have experienced three generations of families unbroken by divorce. Add to that my children’s marriages which are still unbroken, it is a remarkable run of four generations. While some of us are religious, much of it was simply faithfulness: imperfect people, living out difficult lives, as imperfect parents, raising imperfect kids. I have been privileged to have been raised in the first generation of humanity that conquered disease, eradicated polio and malaria, engineered clean water and sewer systems. While our possessions were modest, we had electricity and warm homes. Later in life, we had air conditioning. As Americans, we could grow up in a land free from war.
We live in a remarkable moment in the history of mankind. The question that remains is what do we do with this moment? A friend posted a Cherokee parable.1
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil — it is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.
The other is Good — it is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
When someone tells me that I am a beneficiary of “white privilege,” my response is “Which wolf is that person feeding?” Viewing privilege through the eyes of bitterness and envy is a dark road you do not want to travel.
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
Idles for Destruction, by Herbert Schlossberg. A section of the book focuses on the politics of envy.
1 It appears to be accepted universally as a true Native American parable.
© Copyright 2024 to Eric Niewoehner