Last Saturday, I saw how privilege is taught to young white children. I don’t think the parent who carried out the offense even knew she was doing it, it was unconscious and entitled. She probably see herself as “a good [white] person.” These privileged offenses happen all the time in little things that whites don’t even think about and people of color don’t always call out.
How Privilege is Taught
My kids and I were waiting to catch the monorail. We were crowded around the platform towards the front of the train because my son wanted to ride in the very front next to the driver – it’s a great view. After a few minutes, we figured out the train we were waiting in front of wasn’t the one in use and switched platform sides. My son was excited and waiting patiently since he was now in the front. As people started moving over two older white kids were angling to get in the front too and their mother came and stood behind me and says in a tone of disapproval “Our kids are really excited and they’ve been waiting. They’d like the front seat.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, she was saying her kids deserved something even though they were set to lose because of chance. The same chance that gave my son a temporary advantage. I was appalled at the mother for asking, but because I was caught off-guard and fuming on the inside, I lost my resolve to stand up for my own son and told him to step aside – I wish I hadn’t.
In that moment, I crushed my son. I had to explain to him we stepped aside because the other kids were waiting longer and life isn’t always fair. I used the word privilege and made up some lie they were from out of town. I also said we rose above the situation, rather than starting a fight or making a public scene (as a Japanese American child I was conditioned to do this). We do what too many people of color are asked and acquiesce to doing which is putting our own needs and desires aside and give to white people because it is easier than making a scene or justifying why we aren’t giving in. He accepted my explanation and stopped moping a little but was still disappointed. The incident ruined part of the afternoon.
Someone reading this will say I’m making this about race when it isn’t. I can’t help but think it is about race. The situation taught those white kids they deserve something more than my Asian son. They were taught they are privileged and someone, another white person, will stand up for them and others will step back to give them an advantage. Their mother also taught them they don’t have to say please, just state what you want and it is given to you. This is how white privilege is passed down generation to generation. This is also why people of color continue to say we are literally held back and pushed back and some say oppressed. As I write this I think about Rosa Park and how African Americans were told/forced to ride in the back of the bus. We haven’t really progressed in attitudes and beliefs.
Someone is also saying I shouldn’t have stepped aside and we should have held on to being first in line. In some ways, I wish we had stood up to the white mother. I know why I didn’t stand up to her, if we had held onto to the front seat the other mother would have made the ride uncomfortable for my family. She would have labeled us as being rude, she would have said we cut in line even though it was chance and luck – the same chance and luck she was entitled to. In the end, she would have taught her kids Asians are rude or Asian kids are pushy instead of realizing the power play she used. I own I’m stereotyping her white privileged behavior, and I feel if I don’t label it and call it out I’m complicit in allowing privilege to continue unchecked.
I’ve seen this white privilege play out before, this isn’t the first time a white person has used their privilege to push their own needs and agendas. Once in Hawaii a white tourist told my aunt and me we were cutting in line when we weren’t. When confronted on his attitude he said “fine just go,” I said “no because then you’re going to think we’re cutting. We’ll just stay right here, where you want us.” He was all habuteru (Japanese for grouchy and annoyed) because we called him on his attitude of superiority. The lady behind us encouraged us to move forward but my aunt said politely but loud enough for him to hear “No can, the haole (white) said we’re cutting in front of him.” He really pouted on being called out again. It’s funny how white people like to be in the front of the line, but only on their terms.
Proving You’re Good, Doing Good, and Being Uncomfortable
If I had met the white mother in another setting with leveled power dynamics such as work, she probably would have tried to prove she’s a good white person. She would tell me how her kids are generous and donate to the food bank, or better yet use part of their allowance to buy toys for poor kids. I would nod and say “that is great.” She would want me to validate her as a good person and affirm her status as an ally. Giving in this manner is nice and makes white people feel good, but it teaches charity rather than personal empathy and connection. It allows white kids to dictate the terms of giving rather than realizing their white privilege: “oh we decided to give because those people are poor, and its not fair,” a.k.a. tokenism and savior syndrome. The mother also probably would have told me she didn’t realize my kid is Asian. Colorblindness is a form of racism, it says they only see people of color as people of color when it suits them. What all of this teaches white children is they are privileged and they don’t have to be uncomfortable to give. This isn’t a lesson children should learn. White children need to learn it is ok to feel discomfort, it is ok to give up something that didn’t belong to them to begin with — they will be ok.
What I want to tell that white mother is instead of proving how good you are, teach your kids how to be aware of their own privileges in everyday settings. Instead of telling me to step back and give up my spot in line, accept chance and luck are a part of life, and your kids will be ok without being at the front of a line – would sitting a few seats back diminish their chance of attending Harvard or Princeton, probably not. Instead of trying to prove you are a good white person, be a good white person and step back – you and your kids will be ok. Your white child doesn’t have to fight for every advantage especially when it is at the expense of people of color.
Posted by Erin Okuno
One thought on “How White Privilege is Taught”
I love this line – “Instead of trying to prove you are a good white person, be a good white person” ! I want to live long enough to see that.
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