"But I'm White!": Privilege and the Perception of Self

When I was 21, my father flew over to England to meet up with me after my semester abroad. We traveled through Europe together, spending time in London, Paris, and Rome before returning to London to fly back to the US.

Coming back to South Dakota from Europe leaves precious few options for flying in – Chicago is often the only airport you can go through if you want a flight with any reasonable regularity and no connecting flights. On this particular trip, we were booked on the last flight into Sioux Falls for that evening – a Sunday – and, lo and behold, the flight got canceled. This meant we had to get a hotel and go back through airport security.

Coming back through security, something happened. And the way in which my whiteness influenced my perception of the incident is what I’d like to discuss today.

But before I get there, I’d like to bring up something else. This weekend, an (alleged) teenage girl “jokingly” tweeted a terroristic threat at American Airlines’ twitter. She claimed to be “Ibrahim” from Afghanistan and said that they should worry about their planes in June. Her profile picture is that of teenage singer Demi Lovato. American Air responded by saying that they take these kinds of tweets very seriously and will be contacting the FBI.

Upon seeing the response, this supposed teenage white girl leapt to her own defense, saying, “That was a joke! I wasn’t being serious! I’m a 14yo white girl!” Many, many people I follow on Twitter noted how immediately this girl leaped into the defense of white privilege – “I can’t be a terrorist; I’m white!” This is white privilege in a nutshell.

Any person of color involved in social justice movements and privilege theory will tell you that one of the most annoying responses to the question of white privilege is a white person sticking their nose in and saying, “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE!” This is because such an action is simultaneously annoying, false, and derailing. I’ve learned to stay silent and listen during these discussions of white privilege, to assess my own privilege, and to learn from the voices and actions of others. Often, this self-assessment and listening leads me to realizations about myself and spurs me on to understand better my own power within a privileged and biased system.

This all leads me back to my airport story. My father has sleep apnea and travels with a CPAP machine in a bag. As it’s large electronic equipment, the TSA procedure is to take his CPAP to a secure room and plug it in to make sure it is what it’s supposed to be, and not simply a case for something else.

During this particular hectic morning at O’Hare, security was taking a long time. I was annoyed, because I’d not been home in four months and I didn’t want to be delayed anymore. Going through security seemed like just another way the universe was delaying me getting home to see my mom and my friends after some extremely tough goodbyes abroad.

The man in line in front of us at O’Hare was an older Sikh man, with a turban and a beard. I watched as the TSA took away my father’s CPAP, and then saw the Sikh man being pulled aside by the agents and his bags opened and searched (this was in 2007, before the full body scans and pat downs were common procedure). I watched as the TSA agent pulled a coil of copper wire from the man’s bag, asked him about it, and then put it back.

For years, I’ve told that story as an example of the incompetence of the TSA. I didn’t bring up the race of the man in question, because in my white-privilege soaked mind, it was something that could probably be assumed. It took me a long time to realize that underpinning the “injustice” of my story was the racist assumption that “terrorists look like that man and not my father.” The “but we’re white!” is unspoken, but it's there. The claim of “injustice” from the TSA scrutinizing my father with a CPAP more than a Sikh man with copper wires is actually a claim of white privilege – I should get a free pass because white, and that man should be profiled and scrutinized.

For years, I accepted my privileged narrative of events; I believed that this story was one of incompetent security agents not realizing they might have let a dangerous man go. My whiteness blinded me to the reality of what happened – that this man was probably racially profiled, subject to extra searches, and went through daily life with whiney, 21 year old white girls thinking he was a terrorist and hoping he wasn’t on her flight.

The realization and checking of privilege isn’t something you do once and you’re done.

Realizing your own privileges means you have to consistently reframe and reorder your own narratives about yourself and your own life. It means that those harmless stories you’ve been telling for years might contain more insidious racist narratives. It means making a concerted, consistent effort to acknowledge the system of injustice and the radically different worlds you live in.

Privilege changes our perception of our very selves. It permeates the narratives we tell about ourselves, adjusts our expectations in situations, and blinds us to what's actually happening. If we want to combat our own privilege, we need to accept that our narrative of events is not the only one.