Emotional Health

Becoming “Woke” at 65

February 2nd was my 65th birthday. And though I was born on Groundhog’s Day, not all my days have been the same. However, I have enjoyed steady economic stability and freedom from hardship, and have taken it for granted more than I should have. In recent years, I have become even more aware of how insulated I have been from many obstacles others face by the simple accident of my birth.

This has been partly due to an increasing spotlight on white privilege. Despite the progress initiated by the Civil Rights Movement, which was a major force in my childhood years, change has been slow, inadequate, and variable. Though the game may now be less rigged against people of color, it remains fixed in favor of whites.

Income inequality is on the rise, and statistics show that being able to climb from the class of your birth is a rare event. Even when disadvantaged students are provided with scholarships and opportunities once denied them, the greatest predictor of where they will end up is where they started.

There are many other factors that influence success that haven’t changed or have even gotten worse. Summer break is a good example. For people like me and my children, summer vacation offered opportunities for continuing education and enrichment. Travel, camp, and sports lessons were the favored forms of summer fun in my youth. My school had an extensive summer reading list, and parents and teachers made sure we did it. Summer jobs helped me earn extra cash, but my parents paid for college—something that even the upper middle class finds difficult now. Today, ambitious parents use summer as a way to give their kids an even further edge, with tutoring, enrichment programs, and summer activities to help pad their college applications.

Less advantaged kids, on the other hand, who don’t have access to these activities, often experience a regression over the long summer months, and by September they may have lost some of the gains they made the year before. Parents, who have to work and don’t have the money for enrichment programs, can’t use the summer break to make sure their children maintain an “edge.”

Upon high school graduation, middle class and wealthier students have usually been preparing for the option of college for years. Many take loans to be able to attend college, but the less fortunate you are to begin with, the more likely you will be too saddled with huge debt when you graduate—if you do go at all.

After college, wealthier kids have more choices again. Graduate school or professional school is always an option. They are more likely to be able to afford to take unpaid internships, live in cities with good employment opportunities, and find promising jobs—all due to parental assistance. The “young girl network” has joined the “old boy network,” that has always insured that if you knew the right people, doors would open. My daughters have gotten leads on jobs from the friends they made in the elite schools they attended, who themselves have been aided by their own connections through parents and friends.

Looking back through this lens, I can see that for people with my advantages, not succeeding would have been less likely than doing well. With all the cards stacked in my favor (other than gender), getting from point A to B was easy—or at least not difficult. I can say I worked quite hard, and I did, to get into good schools and graduate school, but there was never a question that those opportunities were open to me, and the steps were all laid out like the board of a “Candyland” game.

I can remember only one instance in my whole life when I felt like I was the “victim” of prejudice—when traveling in France during the George W. Bush years. The President’s “Freedom Fries” (a new name for French fries, the administration’s great idea to protest France’s unwillingness to join forces with us in the Iraq War) campaign had ignited anti-American sentiment abroad. I simmered at the unfairness of being treated badly simply because of my nationality, marveling at the fortitude of people having to put up with discrimination on a daily basis.

This story alone is an egregious example of white privilege. My vacation in Paris wasn’t as pleasant as I wanted it to be! Meanwhile, I have never been denied access to a taxi (except once, tellingly, when I asked to be taken to an address in the Bronx), a school, restaurant, club, etc. for any reason having to do with the accident of my birth.

We speak of starting life with a “silver spoon” in your mouth, or being “born on third base and thinking you hit a triple,” but these are real phenomena. Many successful people underestimate how much help they had getting there. Howard Schultz, the ultra-rich Starbucks magnate who just announced he wants to be President, has been sounding off this week against higher taxes on the wealthy. He bragged that he started with “nothing,” growing up in the projects in Brooklyn. “I was on Federal housing assistance. Did anybody help us? No.” he protested, in this astonishing twist of logic.

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  • Dr. Pat February 7, 2019 at 11:20 am

    Dear Dr. Ford,
    Thank you for this thoughtful essay. A close friend who is black told me years ago that she would never get into a car to drive without double checking that the car registration was uptodate, that the insurance card for the car was uptodate and that she had her driver’s license and another photo ID with her in her wallet. She never carried any medication with her because she was afraid that she would be pulled over and the medication would be deemed “illegal”.
    This year I supported the amazing Jahana Hayes, who became Connecticut’s first black woman elected to Congress. She is the U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 5th congressional district where I live. I supported Antonio Delgado who won the race to become the member of the United States House of Representatives from New York’s 19th congressional district. He is a black man who has the distinctions of being a Rhodes scholar and graduate from Harvard Law School and still had a very tough race against a white conservative candidate supported by the President. These are steps too small to mention but Dr. Ford’s post reminds me of how little I do and how much there is to be done, though nothing can erase the past. We must have zero tolerance for racist remarks and racist past behavior and work to support the election of those who will work to change institutionalized racist policies. But, Dr. Ford has given each of the opportunity, again, to be aware.

  • Karen Cox February 7, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Thank you, Dr. Ford, for saying so elequently what I believe about white privlige. We, as white Americans, need to support affirmative action which would in some very small measure mitigate this phenomenon. Sincerely, Karen McLeod Cox