SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2002        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Deborah Jenkins

Seeing the Light (Whiteness)

I grew up in a mid-size town in South Dakota. There were very few ethnic kids in my school. I remember only one black student in my graduating class who I did not know well. Ten years later, 1992, I moved to Houston, Texas with a boyfriend. My boyfriend was a supervisor in a factory that employed a high percentage of minority workers. This plant was located in central downtown Houston which I later found out was a ìbadî part of town. With my background of little exposure to African American people I did not have a prejudice towards them. I had never heard the dialect nor had I seen the mannerisms that they in Houston have. It was different but I was open-minded to the change.

 I started working on the assembly line with the other workers (mostly female and all black or Hispanic) and felt a little uneasy. Not one person would talk to me. I sat at break by myself while the others would sit together. I would eat lunches alone and I felt excluded from the conversations. As the only white person working on the assembly line I experienced what I felt was reverse prejudice. African American and Hispanic people did not want me in their world working with them. I could relate to how a black person must feel in a room with all white people. This was an eye opener and the first time I experienced what thousands of non-white people experience all the time.

 I was only working this job to pass some time and help out my boyfriend. The people here had to do this tedious, low paying, laboring job every day to support themselves. I did not understand at the time why they resented me being there, until after three weeks I was called into the ìbig bossísî office. I sat in the office as he looked at me and told me what a wonderful job I had been doing and then to my amazement offered me a supervisorís job! I declined and told him I was only there temporarily but thanked him anyway. I walked out of the office thinking how the others had worked longer and harder than I did but they did not get this offer. Was it because I was white?

I left Texas and went back to South Dakota. I still think about this experience and exposure to a world and people that I had never known before. I wonder what the other side is like, what would they say?

ìHere I am, a black woman, on my way to work, and I have to deal with that new white girl who just started three weeks ago. I have been working this crappy job for a year now and I have only had a twenty-five cent raise. I bet the white girl started making more money because her boyfriend is the supervisor. What I canít figure out is why she works with all black and Hispanic people, what is she trying to prove? That she can be like us? She will never know what it is like to be raised in a poor black neighborhood in the armpit of Houston Texas. No matter how long I work this job I donít think I will ever see a promotion. I am a black woman with three kids living in one of the worst areas in Houston. I bet the white girl has never worked a labor job in her life, she got this job because her man gave it to her. She probably got bored and just wanted to go to work with him for a while; she probably doesnít need the money either. I had to stand in the unemployment line for hours with my kids for this crappy job. It barely pays the rent with little left over for food. I bet she has never had to live like this, she never will, sheís white.

 The other girls and I sit on break and watch her sit alone reading a magazine. She thinks she is better than we are. I hope she quits soon, she bugs all of us ìother peopleî. White people have it so much easier than we do; they get the better jobs and the higher positions.

I noticed last week after the break the big boss sent her boyfriend (our supervisor, also a white person) out to get her. They went into his office, she has only been here three weeks and I bet they are giving her a raise or promotion. The white girl wonít have to work for a raise like the rest of us she will get promoted because of who she is, thatís the way it works in the white world.

This factory is run by white folk and we minority workers know how they stick together, why should she work so hard when they have Mexicans and black people to do all the grunt work.

I hope the white girl is not here today, maybe she found a real job in some fancy clothing store in one of the suburbs. That is where the white people live and work. I can only hope that some day I will get out of this hellhole with my kids. I want my kids to live in a better place and have a better job. Maybe things will change some day and black people will have the same opportunities that white people do in the work force. In the meantime I am stuck working at this factory with some white girl who doesnít belong here. I wonder if she knows just how much better she has it than I do?î

Looking back to the event that took place in the factory in Houston, I did not know back then what I have learned about white privilege. I thought at the time that I was working in an environment with people who were racist against me, a white person.

I remember how the environment was cold, dirty, gray and dull. I knew that this was not a job I had to do and I could leave at any time. I had choices that the other workers did not have. Perhaps the resentment was that I did have this privilege. Most of the workers needed this job and may have been stuck in this environment because nothing better was being offered to them.

 Not knowing about white privilege and that I had it contributed to my naive attitude that I was the same as the other workers. I was not, and they understood this. I did not want to think of myself as different. I wanted to just fit in with the other workers in order to make my workday less dreary. But I was different; I was a white person in a minority environment who had more choices in life than many of the other workers did. They understood white privilege and I was blind to it. I understand their resentment now. I see the ìWhite Privilegeî that so many do not see and do not try to change.

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