What does White privilege look like?

What’s the difference between White privilege and essential work?

Well, for starters, essential work looks like this:

(No, those field workers are not on Mars.  They’re actually working by the light of their cell phones, because this is what the Willamette Valley sky looked like in early September.)

On the other hand, White privilege looks like this:

White privilege is volunteering to harvest grapes for your winery owner friends, once a year on a Saturday morning, on your terms. You have the option not to go if it’s too cold, too hot, too wet, too COVID-y, or too smoky. White privilege is performing this work as a recreational activity, and being provided lunch and wine after only three hours of picking.

By contrast, essential agricultural workers–the vast majority of whom are Brown folks–do this work all day, every day, regardless of how they feel, what the weather’s like or the fire burning a mile or two away that’s not only endangering their lives, but making it extremely difficult to see and breathe.

They plant, weed, prune, harvest and clear for the next crop:  they can’t opt out–not if they want to pay their bills and support their families. Their hardship results in my being able to drink wine (and eat fruits and vegetables) whenever I want. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Harvest time can be hot or cold, wet or dry. Comfort-wise, this translates into the potential for heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn or ending the day soaking wet and muddy up to your knees. Either way, harvesting grapes full-time is exhausting.

Nina Cassidy, Emerson Vineyards

According to Emerson Vineyards Assistant Winemaker Nina Cassidy, many field workers carry two 20-25 lb. buckets of grapes in each hand. They don’t stop to take selfies or arty photos.

In fact, they barely stop to hydrate, eat lunch or use the toilet.

According to a United Farm Workers Facebook post, Samuel (above, wearing a plaid shirt) earns $2.10 per bucket of grapes at a vineyard in Dayton, Oregon. Other winery owners pay contractors by the ton and have no way of knowing what each individual field worker is paid. They may also pay contractors a per-worker hourly rate for pruning or other jobs, but again have no knowledge about how much of that trickles down to individual workers. Sebastian, the vineyard manager at Airlie Winery, is Latino, as is his right-hand man, Guadalupe; Sebastian, in turn, works with winery owner Mary Olson to hire field workers and choose contractors. They’re among the lucky ones:  they work for a winery owner committed to workers’ rights and social justice.

While I was picking grapes, eating lunch and enjoying my wine that day, I thought a lot about the glaring contrast between our enjoyment and the experience most essential workers have, compounded this summer by a pandemic and the worst fire season in Oregon’s history. I thought about the 2014 movie Cesar Chavez and how much of that history I still know nothing about. I thought about the hundreds of bottles of Oregon wine we’ve consumed with family and friends since we moved here eight years ago, and how much time and effort went into those bottles.

Even if you take no further action, at the very least, be mindful when you eat and drink, and know how much effort went into making it possible for you to do so.

I’m With the Birds–And the Humans Who Love Them

I’m a bird nerd. There, I’ve said it. Now you know. Birds see me coming with my binoculars, confer with their friends and take off. I’m totally okay with them laughing at me behind my back. It comes with the territory.

Birds and humans have something very important in common: we see color. However, whereas birds rely on their color vision to choose mates, find food and scan for predators, whether or not we’re conscious of it, humans use it to make snap judgments about other humans. We’ve been conditioned to do so almost since the day we were born.

We receive messages about the meaning of skin color from our families, our friends, our teachers, movies and TV shows, magazines, newspapers, advertising, you name it. We’re immersed in this conditioning. It is quite literally impossible to be unaffected by it.

That being said, we can work on recognizing it when it happens and redirect the resultant thoughts and behaviors we may have.  Example: you’re walking in a park with your (unleashed) dog. A Black man with binoculars asks you to leash your dog, citing park regulations. Should you:

A) apologize and immediately leash your dog, wish the man a enjoyable day and continue on your walk, or

B) go all Mount St. Helens on this guy’s ass and call 911, screaming that an African-American man is threatening your life, while you simultaneously strangle your still-not-leashed dog and demand the man stop recording your antics.

Seems like a no-brainer. I would choose option A, but some women, like Amy Cooper, use their White lady fairy dust for evil rather than good and unfortunately, inexplicably choose option B.

Don’t be that White person. Be the one who sees color, acknowledges that Every. Single. One. of us is different, appreciates and embraces that diversity, and knows that all of our lives are vastly better because of it.

Photo credit Jeffrey Ward/Bird Collective

White lady fairy dust

Remember February? When we could still go to work? When we could still go . . . anywhere at all? After less than a month, that feeling of personal freedom is already starting to fade–and I don’t like it one bit.

Like so many other challenges, though, the situation we’ve all found ourselves in is providing me with some Aha Moments. You know what those are: the lightbulb comes on, either spontaneously while you’re in the shower or as a result of something you’ve heard or read. Aha Moments can be super cool, but they can also be super uncomfortable. For me, lately, they’ve been the latter.

What I’ve learned in the past few weeks is this: my White privilege (or “White lady fairy dust,” as we jokingly call it in our department on campus) allows me to feel resentful about not being able to do what I want when I want, where I want to do it. But get this: Black and Brown folks have to think about this every day–not just sheltering in place during a global pandemic.

Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about being pulled over by the cops on their way to or from the grocery store. Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about being shot in a Wal*Mart because they were holding a BB gun they took off the shelf. Every day, Black and Brown folks worry about their Black and Brown kids being the target of bullying–or far worse. Every day, everywhere, Black and Brown folks know they’re being scrutinized more closely than White folks. Every day, Black and Brown folks wonder if they’ll be targeted for something.

Yeah. They do. And what you may not realize is that most Black and Brown folks adjust their behavior accordingly to mitigate the potential of something bad happening. And they tell their kids to do the same thing.

My White privilege protects me from this. If you’re White, it protects you too. I’m not saying White privilege doesn’t feel good–it does, because it allows me to not have to think or worry about things Black and Brown folks think and worry about. If you look up the word, you’ll see what I mean:

priv-i-lege
noun
a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group

Yes, privilege feels mighty good indeed–but it feels icky too, because it comes at the expense of those who don’t get to enjoy it as well.

So, what can White folks do about it?

    1. Acknowledge it’s there. Know that you’re not a shitty person for admitting it. You didn’t actively request White privilege; if you’re White, it just happened. You know, because you’re White.
    2. Want to do something about it. Why would you want to change the status quo?  Because it’s unfair, and it’s been that way for a long, looonnnng time.
    3. Gently point out to other White people that White privilege is a thing. I say “gently” because we’re not very good at hearing this, much less accepting it as truth.
    4. Actively read, participate and learn.  Your local NAACP chapter is a great place to start.
    5. Journal your journey.  Or blog it, whatever works.

I’m not sure how we’re all going to come out the other end of this pandemic.  My optimism comes and goes.  I haven’t started day drinking yet, which I guess is a good thing.  And I’m trying to feel a lot more appreciation for what I do have (a home, Loving Husband, Happy Dog, One-Eyed Wonderpug and their feline step siblings) and less anger and resentment about being told not to go anywhere.

But it isn’t easy.