When I meet the mailman for the first time, he says, “I’m glad GOOD PEOPLE like you have moved in here,” and I wonder what makes him think we are good people. His words would have gone right past me, except the woman two doors down said the same thing to me – those very words – a few days earlier when I was out front raking leaves. She saw me through her living room window and hurried over to introduce herself.
“I’m so glad GOOD PEOPLE like you have moved in here,” she said.
First her, then the mailman, and it takes me a while, but I start to wonder if ‘GOOD PEOPLE’ is code for something.
* * *
I’ve not forgotten the weekend we came house-hunting, how a man in a restaurant, a lifelong resident, said:
“A lady like you belongs in Audubon Park.”
My husband and I were waiting for a take-out order and a conversation started up with this guy who seemed like a fixture in the place. He was either the owner or manager, or possibly just someone who warmed a bar stool there each evening, we didn’t know. We’d just come off three full days of looking at houses and were eager to get back to our bed & breakfast so we could discuss making an offer on the last house we’d seen.
Deep furrows appeared on the man’s brow when he learned where we were thinking of buying, the general area. “I’m not saying that’s a bad area, mind you,” he said. “Just that there are good parts and there are not-so-good parts, if you know what I mean.” I did not turn to see whether a wink punctuated that. I expect one did.
Our order came up. We got ready to leave.
“I’m just saying, I see a lady like you and I think, a lady like that belongs in Audubon Park.”
I have since driven through Audubon Park. Found myself there one day early on when I made a wrong turn. Lovely! I don’t mind one bit people thinking I’m the type of lady who belongs there.
Still, between the man in the restaurant and the neighbor and the postman, I’m left wondering how people make these leaps based almost solely on my appearance.
* * *
Walking to the library with refugees on a warm autumn day, I SEE how it is. Very exciting day! Everyone is applying for library cards. But I SEE how it is when a few of them get ahead of me. I SEE the looks on the faces of those chatting outside of shops, sitting on benches, waiting in cars parked curbside. I SEE how people stop talking and turn to stare. Then I come trailing behind and it becomes clear I’m with them. I SEE how my sudden appearance changes things, as if my presence somehow validates them, makes them acceptable.
“Good morning” comes forth and students are excited because they know how to respond to this greeting.
“Good morning,” they say in chorus. The class overachiever adds, “How are you today, good?” and the rest dissolve into giggles because of her daring to engage.
What was it about my appearance that turned stone into flesh on Bardstown Road?
* * *
Go ahead and say it’s age. There’s some truth there. Since acquiring this look – white hair, sensible shoes, slower pace – all sorts of graces have been extended to me. And yet this type of experience is not a recent development. Pretty much all my life people have ascribed to me, at first encounter, positive traits I may or may not possess – good background, good education, right thinking, goodwill toward all mankind, etc. Based solely on my appearance and knowing absolutely nothing about me, people will assume and believe these things, unless and until I prove otherwise. It’s a presumption of goodness.
I am not complaining. It’s nice to know I look like the kind of lady who belongs in Audubon Park, that the door there is open for me.
But here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure most of the non-white world is having the opposite experience, that for them, at first encounter, based solely on appearance, a host of negative characteristics are assumed.
And it’s right here, in the discrepancy between these two types of assumptions, that privilege lies. White privilege. And it doesn’t really do anybody of any color any good to say it doesn’t exist.
Let us at least start from a place of truth.
Many decry the idea of white privilege, saying “What privilege? I’m white and I’ve had to work hard for everything I have.” Yes, you have. Absolutely you have. I’m not taking anything away from any of that.
All I’m saying is…put this white hair, these sensible shoes, this schoolmarm face, this conservative style of dress on a non-white person and have her move into the neighborhood. How often is she having the experience of neighbors rushing over to say how happy they are good people have moved in? Not much, I’m guessing. And she might actually be a better person than me.