I grew up poor. Not dirt floors, no running water kind of poor—more like Kraft Mac and Cheese with cut-up hotdogs for dinner, move every 6 months because you didn’t pay rent the past five, kind of poor. But even growing up poor, my childhood memories aren’t sad. In fact, almost every memory I have as a kid is pretty normal and happy.
As a kid under 10, being poor wasn’t something that was even a ‘thing’. I had food, a home, and electricity (most of the time). I also had something else, something I’ve come to understand now in my adult years as white privilege. And while a part of me wants to stand up and shout, “Wait a minute, I’ve worked hard to overcome! I’ve earned everything I have. I was never ‘privileged’,” I’ve been learning over the past month that this is not completely accurate.
It’s true that I’ve worked hard my entire life, starting with my first job at 14. I’ve managed to make a successful career in education, without having a degree. I have an amazing family and am about to become a homeowner for the first time. But with everything going on in America right now, my eyes are open and I have to look back on all that I’ve accomplished and acknowledge that in part, some of it would not have been possible if not for one simple fact—I’m a white woman in America.
White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It means that your skin color isn’t one of the things making it harder.
Everything that’s been going on the past month has brought so many things into perspective, including what was, I thought, an innocent childhood memory. Which is the actual point of this post, the story of two girls, looking for a cool summer treat at the local convenience store.
It was 1980. I was 9, and we lived across the alley from 7-Eleven. During the summer, I would scrounge for any change I could. The couch cushions, my mom’s unwashed jeans, the sidewalk, anywhere stray change might be found. All for one goal—that 7-Eleven Slurpee.
It was a typical, hot Colorado day in what is now known as “The Highlands,” and I had scored enough coins for a medium Cherry Coke Slurpee. So off I went, with no shoes on my feet and wearing a dirty and torn sundress, my long blonde hair tangled and wind blown.
I entered the store and made my way to the machine. I spilled quite a lot of Slurpee, as the machine kept stopping and starting. Once I filled my cup to the brim, I made my way to the register to pay. I set the sticky, overflowing cup on the counter and proceeded to count out my riches. And I was short. A nickel short. As I turned to go, leaving my summer prize behind, the man behind the counter waved my money off and pushed my Slurpee towards me. Overjoyed, I gave him my biggest smile, grabbed my cup before he could change his mind, and skipped my bare feet out of the store.
But not before I noticed the black girl who was in line behind me. Like me, she was about 9. Like me, she had a prized cold beverage in her hand. Like me, she was in a dirty and torn sundress (one that I remember commenting on, because hers had Strawberry Shortcake on it). Like me, she was barefoot. But that’s where the similarity ends.
As I stopped to pick up the penny I had dropped because I had eagerly put my loose change back in my hand, I heard the man address the little girl behind me. I don’t know what, exactly, he said. But I do know that his tone and his manner caught me off guard, because he had been so nice to me, and he was being so mean to her. Even with her crisp $1 bill and lovely pink nails (my hands were grubby).
It was only a moment, a quick glimpse, and nothing that I’d thought about in 30+ years. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and what it means. It’s a simple, yet telling story of the difference between two little girls—one black and the other white. And it’s one of a billion stories of white privilege in America.
As an advocate and an ally to Black Americans, I can’t change past privileges I have been given simply because I’m white. What I can do is listen, and learn, and acknowledge. I can speak up when I see it happening and I can stand up for reform. I can educate those around me who aren’t quite there yet, and I can raise two aware boys.
And to that little black girl in the 7-Eleven at 44th and Tennyson back in 1980, I’m sorry that I didn’t speak up. Of course, at 9, what would I have said? But I’m still sorry, and I promise to speak up now.