The Girl in the Polaroid vs. White Privilege

Someone from the periphery of one of my past lives gave me this picture. I have a fleeting recollection of the moment – I think my brain was rather empty, or unable to process what I was supposed to be feeling. Here I was, dressed for Graduation from Middle School. I like how the picture is a little bit creepy. 

We were living in a Deep East Texas trailer park. Each trailer was situated on at least one acre of land. Ours was a three-bedroom: parents and new baby Michael in the master, a room for four boys, and a room for the four girls.  My dad built bunk beds – two sets for each bedroom. There was a connecting bath, like the Brady Bunch. All the wars you can imagine happened there.  The eldest son lived in the camper out back.

In this picture, I’m wearing the graduation dress that was made for me. One of the school counselors had approached my parents about the pending ceremony and asked whether she could arrange an outfit for me.  She took me to the mall, and we shopped sewing patterns; she had a friend who was going to sew my dress.  This was the design I chose, and if I remember correctly it was blended from two different patterns. She then took me to shop for fabrics, and we discussed colors and textures. The cape around the top is sheer floral.  We also bought the shoes – some platform sandals that were in fashion with the cool kids.

In this picture, I am standing in front of my sad little flower garden. It was in theory a group effort with my sisters, but I was the only one who tended it. There wasn’t enough sun in our acre to make a really decent garden, but we did what we could. The orange flowers you can see are Cosmos; I think to the right of me you can see the tomato plants that never got big enough to bear fruit.

What was this girl thinking? What were her dreams? I don't think she had any. She’d been uprooted from a life she’d already realized was insufficient, transplanted to two different schools in less than a year. She’d been handed a second set of siblings with no explanation and a completely different demographic. She’d recently learned new definitions for Poverty and for Racism. She’d taken over a tiny plot of land, cordoned it off with sticks, and put what she knew of herself into the ground. And someone outside the nuclear family had recognized that the school ceremony was a coming-of-age that needed to be celebrated and documented.

And for possibly the first time, she felt special in this dress. Maybe even pretty.

This is why many White Americans can't grasp White Privilege. My story isn't all that unusual. A lot of us understand how white bread can be a hot dog bun and also a pizza crust. We know the size of a pot of oatmeal big enough to feed eleven kids. And our families lived this life for generations.

The piece that's missing to understand White Privilege is the fact that we never once worried about being harassed or even shot if the police stopped us on our bikes. Nobody looked at us with anything but a smile when we all went into the General Store at once. And I can't say with any certainty that I would have gotten that dress had I not been pasty-white.

Privilege isn't the right word. I don't know the right word. Suggestions are welcome. 


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