White privilege is an invisible thing


My father, born in Fort Lee, NJ, raised in Queens, NY. Of Irish descent.

I have been wondering how to think about white privilege — how to acknowledge it, understand its parameters, and to notice the profound consequences of it in my life. It seems like the least I can do to honor Trayvon Martin. It strikes me as a more fitting tribute than wearing a hoodie to a rally.

Of course, wearing a hoodie to a rally is another way to express one’s grief at this shameful episode in American life and I’m glad that white people all over the country are doing as much. But one of the very first things to occur to me this week about racial privilege is that, in terms of the perception of menace, it doesn’t MATTER what I wear, or more to the point, what my 17 or 19 year old sons wear.

by-the-charlesHad my 17 year old been wearing a hoodie and acted in all the same ways as young Trayvon, either:  A) he’d still be alive, or B) Zimmerman would be in jail.  Further, if he HAD been shot and killed, the Stand Your Ground Rule would be dismantled in short order.

I was away during the trial and on a media fast, so I missed most of it, but I gather that the prosecution bungled the case pretty badly (perhaps the most obvious blunder being — AN ALL WHITE JURY, REALLY?!!)  A friend who is a criminal trial junkie (her term, not mine) stated it this way: “It was like watching a beloved sports team blowing it, over and over.”

Putting aside the nuances and complexities that populate most criminal trials, it is absolutely the case that there is real cause for outrage. And grief. And alarm. The Esquire piece by Charlie Pierce expresses that outrage clearly and poetically.

neworleans postcard

2005 – from Katrina series – “I am an American citizen”

What I have come up with regarding white privilege is only a threshold insight. It is this — when a cultural understanding is so assumed, so ingrained, and so supported by institutions, left and right, it becomes invisible. Part of the privilege of being a white American, then, is that my status requires no tending, examining, defending, or justifying.

2005 - Katrina series, close up

2005 – Katrina series, close up from another quilt

Put simply, one of the primary benefits of white privilege is not HAVING to think about race. What African American in this country has spent a single day of their lives similarly situated?

flower-of-youthWith all of this in mind, I started another White House quilt this week.

As some of you know, the White House quilt made earlier in the summer was, perhaps, about overcoming personal history — with white standing in for a state of peace or the absence of struggle.  And when I added a red thread, it became about protecting personal space.

The white in the White House quilt I’m making this week signifies a house in a protected, privileged, and not-necessarily Southern neighborhood. And the red signifies blood.

I placed red African fabric and a piece of a red floral handkerchief at the base of the white house — to represent the felling of a young African American in the flower of his youth — precisely because of his relationship to whiteness.  I built up the surrounding mantle with sections previously pieced (last summer) for one of the Middle Passage quilts.


White House, Blood, and Middle Passage

This really broke my heart. And here’s why.

Last summer, pairing up fabrics that represented African life in its sunny, beautiful, integrity with those that represented slave ships, ocean passage, and fragmentation of life, identity and culture, I thought of the Middle Passage, and even slavery, as history.

But the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman and the willingness to leave the Stand Your Ground Rule on the books, prove that slavery resides on a spectrum in this great land of ours, and that it’s not over yet. It is not over yet.

Any black person could have told me this.*

* As if to illustrate this point, reader Wendy sent this link in a comment below… It is a tour of Sanford, FL (where Zimmerman killed Trayvon) with a local African American and a visiting Canadian journalist. The tour guide tells of the long history of racism specific to and still-in-living memory of his town — including the lynching of his uncle for whistling at a white woman.  It is well worth the eight minutes viewing time.

24 thoughts on “White privilege is an invisible thing

  1. Mo Crow

    we live in a post colonial world a time of change our planet is in need of great care & the more each of us shines light into the dark places the more we will live in a world of equality, liberty and justice for all. This old song still sustains hope in my soul that this can happen in our lifetimes…
    Imagine there’s no heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today…
    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace…
    You may say I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope some day you will join us
    And the world will be as one
    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing all the world…
    You may say I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope some day you will join us
    And the world will live as one
    -John Lennon

    1. deedeemallon

      Oh thank you Mo. Your connections to music are deep and abiding and reading every word of that Lennon classic was a balm.

  2. Nancy

    There has been so much conversation in the media of this lately…it makes one think, a lot. NPR has had some interesting stories on my commute. And it sure makes one wonder. For the first time…this occurred to me…
    I was talking with the security guard, who had just interviewed for a full time spot. On the day of the interview, he felt great about how he had done…super confident. The next day when we spoke he said not only did he not get it, he did not even get called back for the next phase. “Not even in the running”, he said to me. He seemed so angry & disappointed & confused.
    And I wondered, so what does it feel like to be black in America? What does one wonder when they don’t get the job?
    I wonder what I did wrong or could have done better or who else interviewed…etc. when I don’t get the job, but it is Never a reflection of the color of my skin, of my very being.
    Thank you for this post Dee. You gave me a place to put these thoughts. It’s been bothering me for days.
    Your white house among the ethnic colors speaks volumes.

    1. deedeemallon

      I was hoping for comments like this, Nancy. Another aspect of privilege named — never having to wonder if a rejection springs from racism.

  3. karmadondruplhamo, (grace)

    Dee..first i oh so oh so oh so APPRECIATE, in the very deepest sense of
    the word, you making this post. i thought you might and have waited and
    you did. yes you did. there is something in you that is magnetized to
    these things..as there is in me. some fiber inside. so, ok.
    and to all the above and to the words Assumed Entitlement, or more, a
    blindandtotallyunaware Entitlement. yes.
    and during obama’s speech, i kept thinking, Really? Really? the president
    of the United States needs to provide Context? is feeling a need to
    Explain why this aquittal has stricken a segment of this populace so deeply…
    WHA????? a huge NEON DUH……..a child was shot through the heart
    because someone had an itch to make the hoodlums pay for daring to enter his gate??? maybe not even him, but others of Them. teach Them a lesson.
    i am still sick from this. sick at heart. oh. oh so sick at heart.

    but i read something this morning that has my attention. it wasn’t in a
    “piece” that was sympathetic, but rather in one that i couldn’t quite sus out…
    but the journalist wrote about
    how the country is made of tribes. i need to go back and find it, reread it.
    but it has stuck stickily in my mind as i stitch a lizards leg all day….
    Tribes. we ARE tribes. we ARE a country of Tribes.
    i moved to a place where really, i often am a minority. i live among hispanic
    Second People, Chicano second people, and primarily Navajo First People.
    and it has been enlightening. if you gave them a choice, they would NOT
    want to be White. they do not want to associate themselves with that
    Whiteness.. they want to be who they are. their Tribe. they might
    know they could benefit from more than they have, but they wouldn’t become
    White if you paid them. and i’ve been here long enough to see a lot of the
    reasons Why. BIG TOPIC. NOT HERE.
    Such basic understandings. Such basic laws. Don’t hurt people. Don’t get
    in their space. if you have opinions, keep them to yourself. Live and Let
    Live. a Law that says all are created equal under the Sun.
    oh…this is too much. but i keep thinking too of Rachael Jeantel who
    “embarassed” people, but black and white with her resistance to being anything but who she is. refusing to kiss ass. refusing to take the bait.
    i continue to be so proud of her. she is her own one young woman tribe.
    anyway…love to you and thank you for opening this space…..

  4. deedeemallon

    wow, Grace – you may go ON and ON any time you like here, but I appreciate the sense you express that the topic is too big to get a hold of… I will look up Rachael Jeantel…

    I’m interested to hear how it is to find yourself living in New Mexico… I’m so glad you mention the business about others in the American Tribes so decidedly not wanting to be white… (I hope I didn’t imply that)… again, I’m glad you mention this. Maybe an assumption that this could be the case is another form of white-race-blindness…

    I can imagine that the ‘wishing for’ might run to the privileges ASSOCIATED with being white, however… meaning of course, THEIR race having economic advantage and personal and political power (not necessarily OVER others, but not below, either).

  5. karmadondruplhamo, (grace)

    thanks Dee for making the effort to decipher some pretty raw thoughts.
    i always think it would be best to think things over before i write, but if i do, i
    never write…so it just comes out As Is. and NO, you did not imply anything
    at all. no. not at all.
    and re Rachael Jeantel, it’s when she was actually in the courtroom, giving
    her testimony. how she presented there. how it was interpreted by various
    people, various Points of View. how, what’s the word,?, Long Suffering she
    was in the repeated effort of the defense to trip her up. but they couldn’t because all she said over and over was the Truth as she understood it to be.

    anyway. your last paragraph above is important. and it’s where a lot of
    my thinking is. there’s that thing about Power With v.s. Power Over.
    and Choice.
    the free possibility to Choose that is enabled by the mother country.
    OH! maybe that accidental thought in the above sentence is important…
    Why did i say that? mother country? funny accident of words, but maybe
    it’s important. Maybe time has gone on. maybe there are so many children
    been born and born on this soil, having little but DNA connecting them to
    other places. they are American. This is their Mother Country. like i harp
    about at Spriti Cloth. it’s my MotherShip. this is their MotherShip. and the
    older ones keep pushing them away, seeing them as Other. they are not
    Other, they are just one of the many of the tribes of America. maybe we don’t
    need so much to heal. maybe we just really need to CHANGE. ?????
    thanks Dee and Love
    and also…i have NO idea what i’m talking about…

  6. wendy

    Hey, Dee, I spent a lot of time digging around in your work, again; I am really engrossed by how work fits in with the rest of your work I’m reading about here. I am struck by how sinister a house is here. Ouch- and awesome.

    Our public broadcaster here in Canada aired a brief piece on the history of Sanford; it’s hard to watch, but it might speak to what you are revealing in your last lines above, “it is not over yet”. I hope this link works:


    And thank you, Dee.

    1. deedeemallon

      Hi Wendy, the link worked and was worth every minute… I encourage others to watch it, too. Thank you.

      I’m going to put the link up by the last sentence above. I am wondering if such reporting was made somehow possible because it was a Canadian writing/interviewing? instead of an American? — just a thought.

      PS I think of you as ‘Grace’ because of the name of your blog. I will do better on recognizing you as you. Your work, particularly the urban salvage aspects of it, and how those collections come from a place of deep respect, really moves me.

  7. deedeemallon

    Grace I need to read your subsequent comment when I am not so tired… because obviously you DO know what you’re talking about… but let me add before I sign off for the day that I have had chances to observe my children behaving in ways that make me think (as Obama noted) that maybe things are getting better… Certainly a million miles from being a ten year old visiting relatives in NYC, listening to my uncle who had been a cop with a beat in Harlem complaining about the n______s.

  8. Debby Oldenburg

    I think you are right on. my 87 year old father while watching the news and coverage of the demonstrations yesterday—commented you know we need white people carrying those signs and doing a demonstration themselves for Trayvon.
    Zimmerman should of been convicted of something. he was told by the police to stay put-but didn’t. result one dead 17 year old kid.

  9. Anonymous

    Hi Dee, thank you. I’m not going to add anything to the discussion other than I leave here feeling better. Increasing awareness is key and you are doing that through word and work. xx

  10. saskia

    whoa, I missed this on holiday and feel slightly removed, but have kind of caught up here and other ‘places’ …..plus living in Holland I am of course further from away it all, however we know racism, discrimination ….only too well. In our country there is always at least one group that we can point at and use as a scapegoat for everything that’s wrong, these days we blame the Poles for taking our jobs and blame the Moroccan youths (boys, not the girls!) for any rise in crime.
    it’s odd how being born white in our western society lets you take the world for granted whilst your black neighbour makes no such assumptions.
    I hope and reading grace’s comments believe people born into what they perceive to be their place of birthright do take their place in the world for granted…I’m not sure if what I want to say comes across

    another ‘thing’ I felt, whilst reading your post Dee, yes we are blind, being white and taking what we have for granted and at the same time as a woman, a buzz in my head: John Lennon’s: ‘woman is the nigger of the world.’..(and that was before I read Mo’s comment)
    I’m not saying it’s the same thing, but it is part of the problem, we do not as human beings truly feel equal, black white yellow man woman child gay hetero handicapped and until that happens …..
    it is huge really, unfair and the way it is, I have no answer

  11. saskia

    …and as an afterthought, if we’re part of the problem, we’re also part of the solution.

    and also: trying to ‘solve’ the problem, means getting to see what exactly IS the problem, because I’m thinking it’s not about the colour of our skin it’s deeper in our psyches, there is a fear of what we amount to and instead of looking at our own fear(s), we choose to look at others, and measure ourselves against them and say I’m bigger and better and whatever than you are and therefore I can piss on you; and we’re all shouting so loudly, no body’s listening anymore.

  12. handstories

    my comment didn’t make it either…in short…grateful for opening the window to this conversation, which is so important to get past the white privelege guilt and move forward with growth.

  13. deedeemallon

    sorry about lost comments… I was away last week and thought I had approved a couple vis-a-vis my phone, but I guess I hadn’t…

    This all feels so long ago already and that is part of the problem with these quick-cycling news stories, isn’t it? Thanks all who took the time to say something. How to keep going with awareness is a real question.

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  15. Kit Lang

    It’s more that lynching is alive and well rather than slavery (my latest piece about Trayvon is all about that – my first one after his death is currently part of the Art of Justice show in Maryland); I’m so glad to see someone else addressing this in fiber.

    And glad to see a white woman talking about privilege. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation.

  16. deedeemallon

    Lynching is a more precise description, you are right about that Kit… But my point about slavery being a continuum holds… lynching not being all that different from the right a slave owner had to kill or maim or hobble or otherwise mutilate his property. .. the killing of Trayvon and the lynchings of the pre-Civil rights era are not all that different from the right ANY white person had (not just the owner) to kill a slave who was somewhere he ‘didn’t belong’ or doing something not ‘permitted’.

  17. Lisa Eaton

    This is a great post, Dee. The thing that hits home again and again is that it’s the absence of thought about race for me, personally. I think about it in regards to what other people deal with, but for myself, it’s a non issue. Currently, my favorite song is one by John Gorka called Ignorance and Privilege, and I so relate to not knowing the wind was at my back. Here are the lyrics:

    Ignorance and Privilege

    I was born to ignorance, yes, and lesser poverties
    I was born to privilege that I did not see
    Lack of pigment in my skin, won a free and easy in
    I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

    I grew up a Catholic boy, in a northeastern state
    A place when asked ‘Where you from’, some people tend to hesitate
    Reply a little late, as if maybe you didn’t rate
    I was born to privilege and ignorance.

    My dad ran a printing press, a tag and label factory
    I may have seen it as a child, now a distant memory
    Almost too faint to see, dark red brick factory
    I didn’t know it but my way was paved

    We moved from a city street, shortly after I arrived
    To a house on a gravel road, where I learned to be alive
    Crawl, walk, run and ride, that’s where I learned to come alive
    I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

    If the wind is at your back and you never turn around
    You may never know the wind is there
    You may never hear the sound

    Got to grow and go to school, work at home and dream at night
    Even be a college fool, like I had any right
    Never went through a war, never Great Depression poor
    I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

    Nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel
    Back against the wall, maybe you know how it feels

    If the wind is at your back and you never turn around
    You may never know the wind is there
    You may never hear the sound

    I was born to ignorance, yes, and lesser poverties
    I was born to privilege that I did not see
    Lack of pigment in my skin, won a free and easy in
    I didn’t know it but my way was paved
    I was born to ignorance and privilege.


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