White privilege is one of those things I understand better through a real life experience than through an academic definition.
In the pre-operating room on December 16, 2020 I was holding hands with Gloria at my right side. (I love to hold hands, but had made sure to ask permission first, like, a year ahead of time.)
A young man in blue scrubs came to my other side, introduced himself as Tyler, and started talking very fast about how my anesthesia would work. I couldn’t stop noticing how young he looked.
“Um, Tyler, are you an intern?” I interrupted him. Interrupting is a sign of privilege.
“Yes.” He halted his spiel.
“OK. Please don’t take this personally, but my mentor Heather told me to not let interns work on me. I’m going to need your boss to do my anesthesia. Thanks for understanding.”
A couple minutes later a tall, regal-looking Asian-American woman, Tyler’s supervisor, appeared at my pre-operating bed. She noted that Tyler was quite capable, and close to the end of his internship, but she would be happy to be my anesthesiologist. After she left, Gloria whispered, “Oh, she’ll be good.” I nodded happily.
“I know this is racist, but Asians are really smart. They’re perfectionists*,” I said. “Uh-huh!” Gloria nodded vigorously.
Some time after my kidney transplant surgery, which went well, Gloria and debriefed my anesthesiologist intervention.
“Would you have done that, refused to have an intern work on you?” I asked her.
“No,” she said without hesitating. “For one thing, I’d never heard you could do that. For another thing, I’d have been worried that something then might go wrong with the surgery. You know, they could be upset with me.”
“Wow,” I said. “That would never have occurred to me that I’d have repercussions. That’s white privilege.”
“But now that I’ve seen you do it, I can do it too when I have my kidney transplant surgery,” Gloria said. It makes sense to only have experienced people work on you.”
And that was how it played out in May 2021 when Gloria received her new kidney, i.e. no interns, bless their hearts. And she wants people to know she is now doing so well that her doctor calls her “a boring transplant patient”.
I exercised white privilege that morning in the pre-operating room, telling the hospital who could work on me and who could not. And I see I’ve often behaved like that my life, readily asking for what I want with the conviction I’m entitled to it, or simply telling people what can or should happen, because it’s what’s fair, or it’s my personal will. We could say some of this is just me, i.e., not all white people are as assertive as I am. But my behavior is largely driven by white privilege.
I want privilege to be shared and equal, not hoarded by fair-skinned people as has been done for centuries in the U.S., at the expense of darker-skinned people. (Isabelle Wilkerson, a Pulitzer prize winner, describes this cogently in her book “Caste”, which I summarized here). I’m humbled to confess that at 60, I am just now starting to learn what white privilege looks like in my life, along with its cousin entitlement, and what I might do about them. I’d love to hear any thoughts or comments you might have on this topic. Comments here.
*Apologies for stereotyping! And P.S. My mentor Heather Hannam, whom I’m deeply grateful to along with my mentor Sherwin Moscow, is a health care professional whose story of live kidney donation I told in 2019 in this newspaper story.