A Lesson on Privilege

We squeezed down the tight aisle with our oversized carry-ons and handbags. We walked further and further, weaving in and out of the other passengers until we finally reached seats 27B and 27C.  I was eleven years old, and it was my first time on an airplane. I felt like I was lost on the first day of school.

I sat only one seat away from the window, and my mom sat just across the aisle. We got comfortable in our seats, and I stared at the clock, counting down the minutes. Fifteen minutes until departure, next stop Disney World. As I waited impatiently, I hoped the seat next to me would remain empty so I could get a perfect view out the window. Seconds later, I saw a tall man walking down the aisle towards us, looking for his seat. He was an older, olive-skinned man, with a long, curly beard and glasses. He was skinny and dressed in a dark blue button-up shirt, light brown pants, and a hat of rich silk and bright colors.

I was bummed when I saw him smile and heard him say, “I believe this is seat 27A.”

“Sure is,” I said as I got up to let him in. I glanced over at my mother and saw her muscles tense. The grin on her face turned from happy to uncomfortable. As the man settled in his seat, she stared at him bitterly, and stood up straight.

“I need you to trade seats with me right now,” she said.

Confused, I told her no. “I want to be by the window,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t argue. You can have the window seat on the way back home. Just get in my seat,” she said as she pointed to her aisle seat next to a young white woman listening to her iPod.

“I don’t understand why I can’t just sit here,” I pestered. “Come on Mom, calm down.”

Then, she became visibly angry. “You’re going to sit there,” she said pointing. “If you don’t want to sit there, we can get off the plane.”

I sat in disbelief, and still didn’t understand why she was being so disrespectful.

Minutes later, she took me to the back of the airplane near the bathroom. “That man looked dangerous,” she explained. “I took your seat to keep you safe.”

She wasn’t making sense. What made him dangerous? His beard? His glasses? The hat? He looked friendly, but I accepted her answer and her seat next to the apparently “safe” white woman.

At eleven years old, I was oblivious to the racism displayed in front of me. For a majority of my life, I had been unaware that this happens too often, even in our post-Civil Rights world that is filled with citizens of various races and cultures.

While living in the culturally diverse city of Saginaw, I was taught at a young age to lock the car doors when driving by any “colored” person and to hold my money a little tighter when standing near them in a store line. My mother and I kept our distance from the black groups at the shopping mall because they were “dangerous.” It was as if anything that wasn’t white wasn’t clean. They were tainted, like a rusty penny on the ground that isn’t worth spending. The darkness of their skin was an irreversible flaw that sentenced them to a life of ridicule.

As doors are held open and locked behind me for my protection, I understand what it means to be privileged in America because of my race. It means that this land is my ensured opportunity, and with a little hard work, I am guaranteed success. There are jobs that I reject because they might make my skin dirty, jobs that I save in my back pocket, and jobs that I work because I can afford the degree. As I stand neck deep in opportunity, I understand what White Privilege means. The benefit of the doubt is my birthright, and I am treated with respect. I have all of these privileges that I did not earn, but rather was born with.

I have never had to fight for rights or for equality. I have never had to watch for cops out of the corner of my eye, and I am able to hide behind my skin if I am a suspect. I have never been guilty until proven innocent. I am able to walk through airport security without harassment, as others need to have their privacy invaded just to set foot on a plane. I can’t say I’ve been in their shoes, but I do realize that this injustice exists. I realize that it is immoral, and I realize that it needs to end.

It is those who have the privilege that deny its existence. As a child, I was taught in school that we asked the Native Americans to leave nicely, that slavery ended along with racism and that we are all equal now. We are often blindfolded with the excuses. It’s not our fault; it’s theirs. If we were there, it would have been different. It wasn’t us; it was them. We are polite; they need to keep their distance. We’re not racist; we promise. We’re not racist; we’re patriotic. We’re not racist; you just look like a terrorist. We’re not racist; we’re protecting our children. We’re not racist; we believe in freedom.

We need to believe in freedom for those who don’t look like us, too, by doing more than accepting our privilege and ignoring those without it. It doesn’t have to be this way; we can all be privileged Americans, no need for color categorization. We can all be born with a right to freedom and equality. We can erase the terms “White Privileged American,” “African American,” “Asian American,” “Arabic American,” and simply be Americans.

~Tiffany Sember

This essay earned an honorable mention in Delta’s local competition for the Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND). LAND provides a network for the development of the liberal arts in Michigan’s community colleges.