Sunday, March 8, 2009

Does White Skin Give You Privilege?

More than a few years ago, I relocated to Baltimore MD and went out looking for a job. I found one in a small factory on the west side of the city. They made pretend fireplaces out of concrete. The plant was filthy; there was concrete dust everywhere, but I was going to be making $2.00/hr. Beside the plant manager, I was the only white face there.

I went to introduce myself to my new co-workers. This is a hard working group of guys, I thought, as I watched them labor. The first guy I introduced myself to grunted and asked how much money I was making.

“Two bucks an hour,” I replied.

“Boys, we got a problem. This white boy is making two dollars an hour.” All I heard was angry laughter. The men gathered themselves together and walked in the direction I was coming from, the manager’s office. They opened the door and entered.

“How could you pay this kid 20 cents more than you are paying us. You cannot do that. He doesn’t have the faintest idea of what we do or how we do it… and you’re paying him more than you’re paying us!”

“OK, I’ll cut his pay. He will make what you are making.”

“WAIT A MINUTE,” I protested as my own self-interest was on the line. My co-workers joined me in protesting.

“You’re not gonna to cut his pay--you are gonna raise ours!” the workers insisted.

The manager disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with the news that every worker would now receive $2.00/hr.

After my first day’s work, my coworkers took me out for all the diet sodas I wanted, “on the house.”

The question is, why did the manager offer me an extra twenty cents an hour? Some of my coworkers had worked there for a year or more without a pay raise. They knew what they were doing. I was off the street. The management saw me as becoming the crew chief or supervisor. They did not think that any of their current employees would be able to do that job. Based on my white skin, they saw that I was “executive talent.” Apparently, white guys cannot judge talent.

The same thing happened to me when I went to work at a plating factory. Plating is filthy, corrosive, poisonous, dangerous, unhealthy, and as unpleasant a work environment can be.

The plant manager warmly received me. He expressed concern about being able to hold on to “talented workers.” He immediately told me I had a future if I stayed. He offered me considerably more an hour than what he was paying the 100% black workforce. He assured me that in no time he would move me into management.

When I was an organizer for the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, they sent me to be part of a team organizing the workers at a luxury resort in the mountains of Virginia, the Homestead. Opened in the 1800s, it represents the epitome of southern hospitality. Guests are still expected to “dress” for dinner.

The Homestead featured an all black wait staff and annual events, such as, the watermelon carrying races, etc. Since there had not been black people living in the county since the 1960s. The hotel imported Jamaicans every year to pretend to be “ole black Joe.” The wait staff lived on the grounds in an old run-down dormitory with three toilets and three showers for about 150 people.

Old postcard of rich white folk being entertained by tray races at the Homestead where black waiters carry trays on their heads and run.

Poverty is pervasive in this part of the mountains. Imagine houses with roofs caved in, but still inhabited.

It was a very difficult place to organize. More than one organizer had been chased out of town by a local shooting buckshot. Besides the coalmines, the hotel provided most of the employment in the area. People were glad to have any job.

My teenage daughter came to visit me in the middle of the campaign. She joined me on my rounds as I talked to people about the union. As my daughter saw the poor conditions the workers lived in, she said, “These people are certainly going to vote for a union. They have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”

We lost the election for union representation 5 to 1. Why? In the words of more than one worker, “At least we have it better than the blacks.” And, they were right. They did not have much, but at least they were regarded by the local power structure as being “better than Black.” In an area where white people had very little, that meant a lot.

Our new Attorney General, Eric Holder, called us a nation of “cowards” for not having honest discussions about race in America. He is right. Stories like mine happen far more often than can be imagined. Black people know it; white people do not want to admit it, but white skin privilege exists.

Try renting an apartment. Statistics show that white people on a waiting list get housing before Black people. If you are white, you can go into a jewelry or clothing store worrying about security following you around.

Part of having an honest dialogue is to accept the reality that white people enjoy privilege based on their color and nothing else.


Tracy said...

Bravo Michael!!!! Send this to the White House. Love you guys Tracy

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Anonymous said...

I feel better now I know there are people in Springfield who has brain to think.
Please you should imagine what I should feel; I was once a super model in Paris and now educated a professional woman who has been denied to rent an apartment in Monroe Garden because of my beautiful brown color. I never experienced such ignorance in my life but now I know Springfield has people too. Therefore, I am not leaving now , I here to stay , I am here to fight !

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