I grew up poor, living with just my mother. My early childhood involved her working various teaching assistant jobs, before ending up on welfare, and eventually disability. The only reason we had an apartment in a duplex was because of the Section 8 housing program (government subsidy). Growing up, I knew that we didn’t have a lot of money, and I had to learn at a very early age how to be self-sufficient. I even remember helping to manage the family checkbook (starting around age 13), learning how to pay bills and balance a ledger.
We didn’t own a car until I was 15, and we were reliant on public transportation, and what rides we could get from friends. A friend took us to Duluth for a day trip once. I wasn’t able to go back until I was 17 and could drive myself. Our neighborhood was lower working class, with a few folks around who were trying to game the system, or getting hooked on the addition of the day. I still remember gunshots on a some occasions (some very close by), and all manner of poverty on display wherever I looked.
Yet, here I am today, a typical middle class professional with multiple college degrees. I own my own home and car, and have made a decent life for myself and my family. I had to start down this path when I was 18 and graduated high school. The Section 8 program wouldn’t allow us to keep the duplex once I was an adult, and my mom had to move into a small public assistance apartment in a high rise. I still remember the day I packed up my bedroom into the back of my used Plymouth Reliant and moved into a dorm room at college. Everything I owned in the trunk of the car.
I got through college, earning my B.A. in History, with plans to go on to Seminary. I worked part-time during the school years, and as close to full-time as I could during the summers. Because I had taken advantage of the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program in high school, I already had nearly two years of college credit under my belt. Thankfully, combined with various grants, I was able to get a degree at a private college, and come out of it with very little debt.
I spent some time in random jobs, and made my first attempt at Seminary, but eventually got married and took a full-time job working at the University of Minnesota as a copy cataloger. I was good with computers (because I had been given one when I was 8 years old) and managed to scrimp and save, and borrow money, for a second, better one, in high school. While I was at the UofM they needed a web programmer, and my life in the tech field began.
I’ve since bounced around to a few different jobs across the technology field, and made a career for myself. I was smart, had a good education, and a little luck helped along the way. But even more than luck, I had one advantage in my court that no one could take away from me.
I was white.
I hate the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. I especially hate it when people accuse poor people of being lazy or un-motivated. It is my firmly held belief that NO ONE pulls themselves out of poverty on their own. No one.
People look at my story and they say, “Wow, you’re really smart, it’s awesome you were able to do all of that yourself.” But the truth of the matter is? It wasn’t all me. Every single step along the way, I was helped. It might have been small things, like a family member buying me my first computer that got me started on this path. I might have been a friend from church who helped pay for that old Plymouth Reliant and made sure I had insurance on it. Or it was the friend who made sure that we could get to the grocery store every week so that we didn’t have to shop at the convince stores in our food desert neighborhood.
But here’s the even deeper key to it all. Every one of those people who helped me? They were white as well. They had good jobs, good educations, and had been given similar opportunities by those around them when they were younger. They built their lives on the legacy of wealth that was handed down to them through the generations. Wealth (even middle-class “wealth”) is built, and it takes time for people to be able to be comfortable enough to be able to help others. My story of being a self-made man, is a story of generations of a community coming together to make sure I was launched into the world right.
Because of this community I was
- Able to have a computer and learn a skill
- Eat decent food and not end up with childhood diabetes (though believe me I tried)
- Had a car when I was old enough to drive
- Never had to worry about getting arrested for doing stupid teenager stuff
- Got financial support from extended family through college
- Got my first jobs with references from friends and family
But it could have been different. Everyday, it IS different for people of color, especially if you’re black.
Take any one of those things on my list away, and my life would be different. Take away 2 or more, and who knows where I’d be. That’s what has been happening in black communities for generations. Imagine if when I was 12 years old they decided to bulldoze my neighborhood and put a freeway through. Because of Section 8 rules, it would have been very difficult to stay in that neighborhood, and we would have lost touch with that community. I might have ended up somewhere else, and having to completely rebuild our network.
Or what if the people who were helping me didn’t have 80-100 years of family support behind them, but were having to restart everything 20 years ago? How does someone like myself get support from my community when the community I’m in is still trying to set itself right, or rebuilding itself over and over again?
When we talk about white privilege this is what it means. It means that because of the color of my skin, our neighborhood was allowed to grow and thrive. It means that my family wasn’t forced to move around the country to escape persecution and racism. It means I had successful role models to pattern my life after. It means that we could actually exist in a community, and be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and no one was taking it away from us.
In our fast-paced world it’s hard to remember that racial injustices are not a thing of the distant past. Just because the TV footage isn’t in full color, or people are wearing bell bottoms, it’s not ancient history. These events happened in the history of our parents. In fact I still have some old 8mm footage that my mom took during the 1968 Chicago riots. We’re not even ONE generation removed from these events. Or the destruction of Rondo, which took place only 10 years before I was born. Even Black Wall Street and Rosewood were a part of my grandmother’s life.
If your parents or grandparents can tell you stories about being a part of these historical moments… it’s not ancient history. It’s just as relevant as yesterday was in your life.
This is my privilege. I was born white, into a country and society that has historically suppressed others who don’t look like me. I’m the benefactor of that destruction. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that privilege. It’s not fair that my black friends never had that, or if they did, they were one of the lucky ones. It’s time for change.
I know it may sound hard to be an ally, or fight for the rights of others. Not everyone is good at activism. But here is the absolute, drop-dead, simplest thing that you can do. Say that Black Lives Matter, and then shut up. No more “Ya, but…”, no more “But what about…” Just tell people you support folks trying to make a change, and then get out of the way of the people trying to make those changes. If you can do more than by all means, DO it. But at least put your privilege aside, and don’t be an armchair-roadblocker.