It is My Privilege…

Power pole with a handwritten label on it that says "Use your privilege for good causes"

There’s often a lot of confusion surrounding the term “white privilege”. Much of this confusion comes from hard working white folks who feel slighted at the suggestion that anything other than hard work was a reason for their success in life.

So I’m going to take a second and give an example, using my own family’s white privilege.

My father is the hardest working human being I’ve ever known. Ever. Even now, at the age of 69, I can go over to his house and, if it’s between 7 am and 6 pm, I will find him doing some kind of work…real work, like mowing down a field, or insulating a roof, or cleaning out the gutters on his two-story house.

Seriously, this man does not know how to stop.

However, despite all of the genuine, back-breaking labor my dad put in as a journeyman lineman, despite the 115 degree Las Vegas workdays and the -34 degree Montana workdays, the storm damage jobs, and the countless nights he spent sleeping in his car as an apprentice to make sure that every spare penny he earned came back to his family, yes…he absolutely did get himself an assist from his skin color. Let me explain how.

My father’s dad was also a journeyman lineman who started with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union in the early 50’s. 

The IBEW was founded in 1891. It is a very old and highly respected union that maintains an incredibly thorough, and competitive, four-year apprenticeship for linemen.

To get into the apprenticeship, in addition to having some basic academic requirements, such as a high school diploma or GED, contenders needed a letter of reference from a union journeyman. Who you know is very important. Keep this in mind.

The IBEW had been in existence since 1891, however, as with most unions in the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century, they did not allow black members. 

Sam Whitney became a member of the IBEW Local 48 in 1943 – over 50 years after the founding of the union. He was the first African-American, in Oregon, to earn his journeyman wireman’s card in the post World War Ii era. Local 48 was a very progressive local. During this time, in Oregon, six of fourteen unions did not allow black membership at all. Out of the remaining eight, only one, Local 48, provided full and equal membership to blacks. This doesn’t mean it was easy. Blacks faced many obstacles and threats from whites in this trade.

So…now I’m going to make things even more difficult. My dad was a lineman, not an indoor electrician. Furthermore his area of expertise was high line construction – the big old metal electrical towers. This is a very niche career. It is very dangerous, difficult, and requires constant relocation…sometimes a worker will relocate every few weeks, anywhere across the US. Due to these conditions, this is a very high-paying career…trust, that money is absolutely earned.

I know there are a few black linemen, but they are very, very rare. I grew up surrounded by this trade, I worked as a laborer and flagger for these crews and spent a lot of time on the job site with my dad as he moved up higher and higher in management. I never once saw a black lineman, personally. Not in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, or California – all places where my dad worked. All places where his career took us as his family.

Early on blacks were not allowed membership. When they were finally allowed, they had no fathers, grandfathers, brothers, or uncles in the trade to help haul them in and retain them. My dad had a father and two uncles in the trade who helped get him in. My grandfather and uncles had white privilege. They were allowed membership because they were white. My father then benefitted from both their white privilege as well as what’s known as “family privilege”.

This is what privilege is. It’s “unfettered opportunity”

My pops worked his ass off and proved himself, but he had a couple of head starts compared to a black man in his generation.

I would also like to point out that my pops was well aware of his privilege. He was so aware of it that he made certain he was always the hardest and smartest worker so no one would ever question whether he deserved his position or not. When he hired me, or other family members, we were always held to a higher standard of performance and behavior as well because he never wanted to be accused of playing favorites.

There are lots of different types of privilege: race, class, ability, gender…all types. Being privileged, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It is what it is. We don’t ask for it. It just *is* given a particular culture. 

What a person does with it, though, can be good or bad.

Published by Jonah Sheridan Fenn

Nerd herder, word wrangler, working on the next chapter...

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