Nobody asks me if I am looking for someone when I am in my own front yard
I live in a middle-class suburb of mostly white people. My neighbor a few houses up is black. He is an engineer. His mother is a professor. He grew up in not only more affluent but also more sophisticated surroundings than I did. You would probably say he has more privilege than I do, or that he had more privilege growing up than I did.
For instance. I did not know until I read the book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, by Anthony Abraham Jack, that I didn’t really know what office hours were.
I read that book this year.
I finished college in 1985.
Mr T, whose father was a college professor, was flabbergasted. “Why didn’t you just ask?” he asked.
Because I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
I thought office hours were the hours that the professor worked. Yeah, I had no idea what a professor did. I didn’t know that office hours were when professors were available for students to ask questions.
Why would I ask a professor for help? That wasn’t the professor’s job! It was my job to figure things out. The professor lectured. I took notes. I had the textbook. If I couldn’t figure it out, well, I guess I was too stupid to be there, then.
When I would see a professor in his or her office and it wasn’t office hours, I was always very confused. Why were they even there?
When I read The Privileged Poor, I discovered that not only were office hours time set aside for students but also that some students knew enough that they would use that time to just hang out with the professors.
Which is how you get to know your professors.
Which is how you get the good recommendations for grad school and internships.
Which – I had no idea.
- As I said, I didn’t even know what office hours were.
- I didn’t know I didn’t know.
- Even if I had known, I would never have just gone to hang out with a professor. NEVER. They were old. They were adults. How would I even dare impose on their time like that? What would I even have said? What would we have talked about?
This is something rich kids know how to do. This is something Anthony Abraham Jack talks about in his book: that kids raised in privilege know these things because their parents teach them. They know how to develop relationships with adults so they can gain the benefits that come from those relationships later.
I asked a professor for a recommendation a year after I was out of college. I had been very involved in my residential college (kind of like the Harry Potter house) and the professor who was in charge of our residential college knew me, I thought.
He refused to write me a recommendation, telling me he didn’t remember me.
My bad. I didn’t know how it worked. I thought that showing up and doing the job was enough. It’s not.
You find similar ideas in the book, Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, by Alfred Lubrano. Lubrano talks about how white collar kids are taught to shake hands and talk to adults and how to negotiate professional office norms.
These things are a mystery to people who don’t grow up in white collar backgrounds. We don’t even know we don’t know. We just know that something always feels wrong – like there’s a game being played and we don’t know what the rules are.
Lubrano also, in my favorite example, cites how professors’ kids work differently from blue-collar kids.
Mr T’s dad was a professor, mine was an aircraft mechanic. Both of our fathers went to college and were the first ones in their families to go, but my dad had more of a blue collar, practical view of life. His job was life or death, so he was focused and pragmatic. Mr T’s dad taught English, which, although worthy, doesn’t cause death if it’s not done properly.
Mr T and I each absorbed our respective father’s approach and I saw that in this example from the book.
Lubrano talks about an experiment where a group of professors’ kids and a group of blue-collar workers’ kids were each given a task.
The group of professors’ children argued about the best theoretical way to approach the task.
The group of blue-collar worker’ kids calmly defined the objective, chose a leader, figured out a plan, and completed the task. While the professors’ kids were still arguing.
This is how Mr T and I work. He wants to discuss in great detail the theory of everything and I just want to complete the task.
For example. We were on our way to the airport and traffic was backed up to get onto the highway.
He started complaining about the traffic and asking, “But how can there be traffic on a SATURDAY?”
I got onto my phone to find an alternative route. “Just go this way,” I told him.
He ignored me as he continued to question the presence of traffic ON A SATURDAY.
Back to the topic at hand, which is varying levels of privilege within whiteness
So those middle-class and rich kids learn how to negotiate this world. They know what office hours are. They are comfortable calling adults by their first names, something I had to be told to do in my first job out of college.
Yes. I was working for an insurance company and I was calling all the adults “Mister” and “Miz” whatever because THEY WERE OLD PEOPLE AND I KNEW THE RULES.
One day, a VP took me aside and said kindly, “We’re on a first-name basis here.” Even though he was my father’s age. Which meant he was old. At least 48.
Rich kids know this stuff. They know how to talk to people and they have the connections.
Here’s an interesting aside. Do you know what the key success factor is for entrepreneurs?
Rich parents. Rich parents and/or connections to other rich people. (From inc.com)
What really sets entrepreneurs apart from everyone else? It’s not their resourcefulness, imagination, ability to foresee trends, or their belief in their own ideas, according to a recent piece on Quartz. It’s the mouthful of silver spoon they were born with. “The most common trait among entrepreneurs is access to financial capital,” the piece notes, citing a wide range of research.
Are you wondering, “Why is she telling me all this? Isn’t this kind of like saying, ‘Did you know the sun rises in the east?’ Doesn’t everyone know that rich kids have it easier?”
I am saying all this because I do have a point.
And the point is that even though my neighbor was raised in a sophisticated home, with a mother who was a college professor (I don’t know what his dad does), even though my neighbor grew up in an affluent suburb, even though my neighbor undoubtedly knew what office hours were before he went to college, even though my neighbor knew how to talk to adults comfortably and didn’t have to be told in his first job out of college to call his co-workers by their first name, even though my neighbor is an engineer who works at a respected employer, even though my neighbor is married with two little kids, even though he is a stable citizen,
his black skin is all some people see:
Our house was egged soon after we moved in. Standing in my front yard, I’ve been asked by “Helpersons” if I was looking for something. My family is ignored by parents we see almost daily at our kids’ schools. And I recognize the difference between genuine and forced smiles.
My house has not been egged.
Nobody has ever asked me if I was looking for something when I have been standing in my own yard.
And I, too, know what a forced smile looks like. And the only person who has given me one in the recent past is Mr T’s mother.
The only difference between my neighbor and me to strangers is that his skin is black and mine is white.
That is what white privilege is.