Here’s the thing about being white that most middle class white people don’t appreciate: We don’t have to know. We don’t have to know what it’s like on the other side of the tracks or the river, we don’t have to know what it is like to live in a neighborhood nowhere near a grocery, we don’t have to explore every single area of the city in order to find a place to live where people will just leave us in peace. We pretty much don’t have to know about anything we don’t want to know about. And really, why should we want to know? The life of those without our privileges does not always paint a pleasing picture. Hearing about the minute day in and day out tiresomeness of economic disadvantage, racial disadvantage, ignorance, and outright hostility is simply not glamorous. For nice middle class and upper class white folks, liberal white folks at that, it is a lot easier to smile nicely at a passing person of color than it is to hear about the daily hurdles and tribulations of walking around in that body. It’s a hell of a lot more comfortable to speak in clichés such as “Things are really improving here” or “Things aren’t that bad, don’t believe the hype” or “We’re really working on diversity here at X place of employment” than it is to actually go out and see the racial divide, the economic divide, and the sheer tiresomeness of living in a society where the rules are made to benefit other people and trap you at every turn.
Harsh, you might say. Yeah, maybe, but I’m talking to myself here, too, so bear with me. I’m white. My husband’s black. That’s a story I’ve told before: the way people look at us, the stereotypes of us, etc. But frankly, the sort of treatment we’ve had during our past four years in Iowa is downright tame, downright pleasant, in fact, compared to what we just had to go through on a trip to a new city, a city in a different midwestern state closer to the south, a state pretty notorious for looking northern and acting southern.
Our task was a deceptively simple one. Visit for 5 days, find a place to live. That would have been easier if we’d both been white and middle class. This city is so segregated a river actually divides white from black, rich from poor. Unless we rent a houseboat and sleep out there in the river, we have yet to figure out how to find a place where we’d both fit in. We tried the neighborhood suggested by my new colleagues first. These were, of course, the whitest, richest neighborhoods. No go for two reasons: Too expensive and way too white. By way too white I mean all white, totally white. White as the driven snow. Stories abound of black folks getting pulled over for driving in those neighborhoods at night. Even a white philosophy professor from the university kept getting pulled over for walking there at night because he always wore a scraggly beard and shorts. This was not our kind of neighborhood, though every well meaning liberal colleague I met was absolutely sure we would LOVE it there. Possibly, I realized later, they’d never been anywhere else in the city. Possibly they never HAD to go anywhere else in the city. This neighborhood had the best schools and the best stores; why venture out needlessly? Well, the same privileged option did not exist for us, so we kept looking.
The next day we tried the other side of the river. That was depressing for an entirely different reason. Most of the areas we drove around in were downright scary: Boarded up storefronts and houses, graffiti, trash. Lots of seemingly unemployed people wandering around. We found a few beautiful neighborhoods tucked in there between the pockets of deteriorated houses and apartments. But there appeared to be no commerce, no places of employment, no grocery stores—certainly no coffee shops or chic bars. We would have had to be completely blind not to see the economic divide that happened halfway across the bridge. White people get malls and coffee shops, grocery stores and delis, and numerous possibilities for employment. Black people get nothing except a clear message to stay on their side of the river.
Don’t get the wrong impression. We ate out on the white side and people were perfectly civil. We looked at apartments on the white side and people were nice and polite, even friendly. We walked down the streets on the white side and no one screamed at us. No, the divide was much more insidious than that. White people, the message appeared to be, get the best jobs or, in bad economic times, the only jobs. Black people can spend their money wherever they like, assuming they can figure out a legal way to get money when no one is hiring them. Assuming they don’t get raped and killed in their run down neighborhoods where lots of people are out of work. Assuming they can get to the white side of the river on the crappy city transit system if they don’t have their own car.
So there we were. Trying to find a place to live that would be safe and comfortable for us both (not to mention affordable). And trying to avoid the gnawing message that, should we go ahead and move to this city for my job (which is already a go), my husband may never get a job. Or if he does, he’ll be a damn sight luckier than most of the black folks we saw during our visit.
I have to say, the most tiresome aspect of our trip (aside from having to forcefully and abruptly see the obvious economic divide along racial lines) was having to listen to well meaning but completely clueless white liberals spouting off about how X area was the ONLY place worth living and how X area was so nice and safe and wonderful. And how this city is really great and doing so well. Tiresome, tiresome, tiresome. Because X area is not even a place my husband COULD live (a thought that apparently crossed no white liberal person’s mind the entire time we were there) and, in fact, would not be nice or safe or wonderful for him. And any fool willing to drive across the river could see that the city is not great and not doing well—or, at least, it’s not great for people of color, most of whom are clearly not doing well in it.
The beautiful privilege, however, of being white middle class liberals is that we never have to drive across the bridge. We don’t, in fact, even have to consider the bridge at all. In our corner of the world everything is coming up roses--and since we never have to leave our corner of the world, we have no need to wonder how things are for other people. If we do recognize that things are not so hot for other people, we have small speeches prepared for the occasion, to show how socially aware we are. We say things like, “The white flight of the 70s and 80s was truly abhorrent” to show we are totally up on current events. If, by some miracle, a person of color comes into our social circle, we include them in whatever we are doing. In fact, it’s even chic in some circles to do so.
But let’s face it, people. Unless we get up off our well meaning liberal asses and do some not so glamorous behind the scenes, grunt work to improve neighborhoods where we don’t live, to change economic policies that don’t benefit us, then we are no better than anybody else. Worse, in fact, because all our chatter just boils down to hypocrisy.
I bring it up now because for the first time in my life I am completely and utterly worn down and out by the loss of my white privilege. Despite all my well meaning liberal talk, despite my black husband, I have been really sheltered by my white privilege. For the first time I realize that not having white privilege means that every single damn mundane daily event can turn into a mountain of trouble--that even a minor event can turn into trauma. My head is killing me, my shoulders have knots the size of baseballs, my jaw feels like it’s dislocated. All simply from trying to find a place to live. And really, I’m a whiner to even complain about it. At any time I could gain every ounce of my privilege back by deciding to go it alone. At most times during the day I have most of my white privilege back because my husband’s at work and I look like any other middle class white woman. So this week of overwhelming, sickening stress about where a black man can living safely with his white wife in a segregated city is nothing compared to what people of color go through on a daily basis.
I see why we don’t want to know what it’s like without our privilege. I truly do. I am so tired and worn out I can hardly stand it and I’m sure, absolutely positive, that ignorance and privilege bring with them a serious amount of bliss. But there are two important things to remember: We did nothing, as white people, to deserve this privilege that people of color don’t have. And, as good liberals, as long as we keep flapping our mouths about awareness and justice, we have no right to ignore the lives and economic well being of people who don’t share the same privilege. It’s time for us to get educated about economics, it’s time to get educated about who white flight and regentrification and bussing hurt and help. It’s time to get on the city council and agitate for more humane policies. It’s time to talk to our coworkers about better hiring policies. It’s time to stop talking and walk across the bridge.
Elizabeth Wheatfield (pseudonym) and her husband now live in a working class white neighborhood of this segregated city. She teaches writing at a local university and is quite certain she’ll have a lot more to say about race, economics, and privilege over the next few months.