Do I Have “White Privilege”? Oh Wait, Am I “White”?

By | January 29, 2018 | 1 Comments

When I was growing up, no one talked about “white privilege.” I’m not claiming that no one had it ‒ merely that no one talked about it. But now, the subject is raised frequently. So I ask myself, do I have “white privilege”? Have I had it all my life and didn’t even know it? But to answer this question, I must first answer another: Am I “white” in the first place?

Obsession with race used to be the province of far-right reactionaries, as exemplified by the KKK and the Nazis. Now, however, it is the province of left-wing people who call themselves “progressive,” but who in fact are throwbacks to an earlier age, a time when race was the first consideration in evaluating a person.

When Barack Obama first ran for President in 2008, some pundits questioned whether he was “black enough” to deserve the support of black voters. And after he was elected, and many Americans were rejoicing at this sign of improvement in race relations, actor Morgan Freeman opined that we had yet to elect our first black president, because Obama was “mixed race.” True, his mother was white. But how black is “black enough”?

What about neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development? What about scholars Dr. Thomas Sowell and Dr. Walter Williams? All three of these gentlemen are quite black in complexion. In fact, they are blacker than Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s mentor, and blacker than agitator Rev. Al Sharpton. But they are conservative, so their “blackness” is questioned, while Wright and Sharpton are “progressive,” so their “blackness” is never questioned.

Similarly, what about Sen. Marco Rubio, whom some pundits opined wasn’t “Latino enough” to be President? True, both his parents are Latino. But he is of Cuban ethnicity, and Cubans – at least the older generation – tend to be conservative and anti-communist. But how Latino is “Latino enough”? The same ridiculous question was asked about Sen. Ted Cruz.

And when Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court, pundits agreed that she was our first Latino justice. But what about Benjamin Cardozo, who served on the Court from 1932 from 1938? His ancestors came from Spain and Portugal, but he was a Jew. Did that mean he wasn’t “Latino enough”?

What do “black enough” or “Latino enough” really mean? Do they simply mean “leftist enough”? Do they mean different things to different people? Do they mean anything at all? So let me return to my original question: Am I “white”?

At first glance, this question seems absurd. I have fair skin and green eyes. I don’t tan well. My father never tanned at all. He was a redhead with pale blue eyes and skin so pale he could have been mistaken for an albino. But was he “white”? Not to the Poles, among whom he spent his early years. They considered him a Żyd parch, a dirty Jew who could never be a Pole because he was of an inferior group.

That’s why he came to America as a teenager. When World War I broke out, he entered the U.S. Army and was sent to France as a private in the infantry. I still have his dog tag. All it lists is his name, his number, and U.S.A. His eldest brother stayed in Poland. He also got a number. It was tattooed on his arm by the Nazis. They didn’t just believe he wasn’t “white;” they acted on their belief. That’s the risk we run with racist ideology – someone will act on it.

Because he decided to leave the racism, religious bigotry, and class system of Europe behind, my father survived, got married, and put himself through medical school. He was admitted despite a quota for Jews – that is, against Jews. Even in the America of that era, he wasn’t “white.”

My mother was brought to America as a little girl. Her most salient memory of childhood in Russia was hiding from a pogrom for three days in a neighbor’s house. The Russians didn’t consider her and her family “white.” But if they were here today, no doubt my parents would be accused of benefiting from “white privilege.” I can only guess what their reactions would be. But I can see my father muttering curses, and my mother doubling over with laughter.

Privilege? What privilege? The privilege of fleeing for your life? The privilege of being disrespected and discriminated against? The privilege of being called vile names? The privilege of being excluded from social and professional groups?

Eventually I applied to medical school. My first interviewer was sympathetic, and I thought my chances were good. But my second interviewer was unfriendly and insisted I had an accent. I pointed out that I had spent my first eight years in North Dakota and had been told I sounded like someone from Chicago. But the interviewer claimed I said “going” as if it were “goink.” No one else ever told me I had a Yiddish accent. Despite my green eyes and fair skin, to him I wasn’t quite “white.”

Perhaps because of this interviewer’s negative attitude, I wasn’t accepted for medical school on the first round, though a friend in pre-med, who had lower grades, was accepted. I was accepted on the second round, but by this time my father had died of a heart attack and never knew I got in. Yes, racism has all kinds of consequences, some direct, some indirect.

I began my clinical rotation in medical school on the surgical service. One night, after my patient’s appendectomy had been completed, I walked into the next operating room to see what was happening. The chief resident was performing some kind of abdominal surgery, so I knew it was a difficult case and peered over people’s shoulders, hoping to learn. I did, but not about surgery – about something even more important.

The patient was completely covered in sterile drapes, so all I could see was the incision itself. His face was blocked off from the operating field, and the anesthesiologist was keeping him alive while the surgeons worked. I observed for several minutes before I noticed the patient’s hand just protruding from the drapes. It was black. I had spent some time looking at his internal organs, but had no idea he was African American.

It struck me then that we humans are so stupid that we spend a good deal of our precious time and energy concerning ourselves with the least important part of a person – the outer few millimeters of the skin – while we often ignore the much more important aspects of the body, the mind, and the spirit. What a colossal waste of time.

Both biology and religion teach that each one of us is unique, unlike anyone else who ever lived or is ever likely to live. Isn’t that good enough? Do we have to invent phony reasons to feel superior to others? Don’t we have enough real problems? Have we cured cancer and ended terrorism, so we now have time to waste on foolishness?

And speaking of “white privilege,” did I have it when my uncle and 6 million other Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust because they weren’t “white”? Did I have it when the interviewer claimed I said “goink”? Did I have it when I was turned down for a fellowship and had other professional disappointments? Exactly when did I acquire this “white privilege”?

In fact, when, precisely, did I become “white”? That question I can answer: I became “white” when being “white” began to be viewed as undesirable. When it was desirable to be “white,” I as a Jew was not “white.” But now that it is undesirable to be “white,” I am considered “white.” It seems that “white privilege” is like a neon sign ‒ it flashes on and off, whenever it suits those who do the defining.

The obvious problem with racism is that it divides people who should be together. The less obvious problem is that it lumps together people who should be considered separately. It is deeply offensive to take people like my parents, who were subjected to severe discrimination, and lump them together with those who grew up in comfort and ease ‒ and claim they all benefited from “white privilege.” What utter garbage.

In the past 50 years, we have come a long way toward eliminating racism and bigotry from our national life. But we still have work to do. Is Barack Obama “black enough”? Is Marco Rubio “Latino enough”? Is Tiger Woods “multiethnic enough”? Am I “white enough”? Who knows? Who cares? Get a life.

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One Comment

  • Dr. Stolinsky,

    The liberals are reigniting what they claim they oppose: Divisiveness in the name of diversity; class conflict in the name of community; racial strife instead of reconciliation, etc. In short, their “color-blind” egalitarian society is mendacity.

    Where diversity should count the most — in diversity of opinion— it is condemned. As you and I’ve proved, in medical journalism, they practice censorship.

    They thrive on civil discord and attack those who work hard and succeed. And those who do, are class enemies with “white privilege,” regardless of the color of their skin or their content of their character. They include Latinos as well as African-Americans. Therefore Clarence Thomas and Walter Williams are Uncle Toms; Marco Rubio is not Latino enough; and women with guns are dangerous feminists! Great commentary!

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