Since it's Martin Luther King's birthday, I thought this might be a good time for reflection and this is where my mind went.
To be human is to think in stories. Everyone, without exception, has a story, a narrative they tell themselves about how they came to be who they are. Twenty years ago, my story went something like this:
"My family didn't have much money because my dad was a preacher. When I was 10 my parents got divorced and my mom, sister and I lived for three years in one room with a kitchenette. Because we didn't have the money to send my sister and I to college, we moved to California, where I attended UC Irvine. When I didn't get into graduate school (reverse racism, I assumed) got a job in a computer company and started a successful career."
In short, I thought of myself a living avatar of meritocracy. And from that pinnacle of self-achievement, I looked down on people struggling in poverty and asked "why can't they pull themselves up by their bootstraps, just like I did?"
Today, it's embarrassing that I ever thought that way and painful to admit it, but since it's MLK day, I'm thinking that maybe by exposing my own BS, there will be a few "self-made" individuals who will rethink their own life stories by looking at the important stuff they've left out.
Let's start with my background. My father went to college because his parents had money, in part because they both had college degrees. My father also served in WW2, so he had the GI bill to pay for the rest of his education. In both my parent's and grandparent's generation, African Americans were not allowed in the majority of college, even if they had the money to pay for tuition. And African American soldiers were not offered the benefits of the GI bill.
So my father's degree and career (he later returned to college and became an optometrist, using family money) was built upon white privilege. I could tell a similar story about my mother; her family was poor but they were the poor branch of a rich family. Throughout her life, she had resources to draw upon that very few African Americans would have had.
One of those resources was the "one room" where we lived after my parent's divorce. This wasn't some shack in the woods or the bad part of town. It was the guest house of the country retreat her parents were building in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of northern Virginia.
In that area at that time, the public schools were fully segregated and even the "whites-only" system was truly awful, so I can barely imagine what the "blacks-only" system must have been like. As for me, my mother pulled some strings and got me into one of the top private schools in the country.
My parent's divorce had been a financial setback for both my parents but within a few years, they were both homeowners again and building more equity. This was the late 60s and early 70s, when public policy set by elected officials enforced redlining that specifically kept African Americans from investing similarly.
And onto college, specifically the UC system, and the then-ultra-modern Irvine campus which (surprise!) was built smack in the middle of the whitest part of Southern California.
And then the graduate school thing and my belief in "reverse racism?" Here's the truth: I didn't get into graduate school because I was too lazy to apply to more than one college. So, rather than persist until I got in, I hung around with the dead-beats in my garage band.
But, you see, I had the luxury of being a bum for a year because I knew my family both had the resources to support and would do so. Then, when they;d finally said "enough!" it took me a few months to get a professional job, in part because I had the right name and came from the right background.
During my subsequent career, never once did somebody hint the only reason I was hired was to fulfill a quota. Never once did somebody get off an elevator or clutch her purse tighter because I got on it. Never once was I forced to be "twice as good" to get "half as far." Quite the contrary; I "failed upwards"... more than once.
Now that I can see more clearly, the story about my life I tell myself reads something like this:
"I was born lucky because my family was white and had money. I cruised through life working at jobs that I enjoyed because I had a parachute and a trampoline and thus little risk to failure. Now that I'm successful by most standards, I have a responsibility to make things better for those who haven't been so fortunate."
Which brings me to Martin Luther King Jr. I know hundreds of white people (some in my own family) who think MLK's "I have a dream" speech fixed America and that racism no longer exists and that now we have a perfect meritocracy. And that's total bullsh*t.
We can and must do better.
Note: It need hardly be said that I could write a similar article about the advantages of being male. Maybe I will, but that's for another time, I think.