Privilege—I've got it.
This morning, rather than toil over the scattered bodies of evil space invaders, I’m minded to talk about privilege.
It is common, among white men and others, when faced with the notion of privilege, especially white privilege, to bristle and be all about “Hey, I’ve worked ‘king hard for everything I’ve got. Privilege my …” Well, you know how it goes. I’ve been there and felt that, even though I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever worked all that hard. But privileged? Oh yes.
To begin with, I was not born a poor child of black sharecroppers eking out a living in the arid soil of dust belt Kansas. I was born into a middle class white family, child of two college-educated parents, with a stay at home mom and a dad with a good series of heavy equipment sales and management jobs.
We had Encyclopedia Britannica Junior in our home library, and I read everything in it that I found interesting. This was easy for me because my mother read to us when we were little, and showed us the words. I read well, at a very young age. The family had a lot of books in fact, and I read any of them that I wanted to read.
In kindergarten, I guess it was, I still didn’t know how to tie my shoes. My friend Judy Knoblock used to wait when it was time to change shoes and help me tie them. This was the second time that a woman—a very young one in the case of Judy—helped me with things I wasn’t good at. First reading, then shoe-tying.
Mom was Catholic, so my brothers and I were all educated in Catholic grade and high schools. The priests were pretty good: the nuns were marvelous. They knew their subjects, they knew how to teach, they knew how to keep order. And, no, I never saw one strike a child, with or without a yardstick in hand. Women, again.
To my recollection, I never knew a black person in all that time. Not one, unless I have forgotten. But I also didn’t get indoctrinated with many racist ideas that I recall. I’m sure there was bias in my life, but not much that I recall.
I do remember going on a train trip with my grandmother, when I was perhaps ten and my brother six. Maybe we were a bit older. When we needed help with our luggage, my grandmother called a porter “boy”. I knew at that time that that was wrong, but I don’t know how I knew. Mind you, that would have been about 1949, not last week.
It was assumed that I would attend college. I tried Iowa State (Ames) and hated it. In the middle of the first quarter of sophomore year, I came home. I hated it because I didn’t fit into the fraternity that I had joined, the school was grinding out undergrads by the thousands, and surely other reasons that I don’t recall. My folks were concerned. They got me some aptitude and other tests. They let me do summer courses at Morningside in Sioux City. And I went the next year to Creighton, a Jesuit school in Omaha.
As my junior year there came to a close, the family were sitting out in our large back yard. A man came into the yard and introduced himself as Rick Camp. He was a neighbor down the road. I didn’t know him, but I think my mother knew his wife. Camp said:
I work in a civilian scientific organization at Strategic Air Command, and we have an opening for a summer student. My wife said “Isn’t that boy up the road, that goes to our church, a math major? Maybe he’d be interested.”” Would you be interested?
Would I? I would surely have been required to take a job doing manual labor for the summer had this not come along. I applied and got the job.
When I got there, they had no idea what to do with a college junior with a Confidential clearance. There were things in that shop so secret that a year or two later, after I had attained a Top Secret ESI clearance that let me read the war plan, there were things in that shop whose code name I was still not allowed to know.
Having no idea what to do with me, they handed me to their computer / software guy, Bill Rogers, who handed me a FORTRAN manual and told me to write a subroutine to calculate the great circle distance between two points on the earth. I’m pretty sure that I never accomplished that, but I did finally manage to compute the linear distance between them.
Bill’s job was to understand what was going on in computer hardware and software, and to bring that knowledge back to the command, to ensure that SAC was on top of such things. As such, he was visited by and visited computer manufacturers, went to research facilities, and had access to all the interesting computer system and language software of the day. And he took me along, brought me into it.
A summer job turned into next summer, then the summer after my first year in grad school, I started at SAC full time, learning about computer stuff and preparing briefings for the staff. I got that war plan clearance, and got hands-on time on the machine that would have run the nuclear war if we had one, because Sergeant Whittaker would let me work directly on the machine at night. It was about then that I learned that if you need something done in the military, you really want to know the Master Sergeant who’s in that area. They’re the ones who get stuff done.
I worked my tail off on that stuff. I studied hard, programmed, gave talks, really dug in. I did that.
But do you see the privilege there, at every level? Imagine a black child of that same era.
Would that child be born into a middle-class college educated family? Odds are strongly against it.
Would their mother have time to read to them? Very likely she had to hold down a job, and not a very good one.
Would their house have an extensive library, including an Encyclopedia aimed at youth? Very unlikely.
Would they go to the expensive Catholic grade school and high school? More likely they’d go to the public school. Would they get two or three shots at finding a college, winding up at an expensive Jesuit school? More than likely not.
Would a director-level white man from Strategic Air Command wander into their back yard and offer them a job that turned into a marvelous education for a fascinating career? I really doubt it.
I could double the length of this article with examples of situations where I had an easy step up that a black person, in particular, would never have had.
Of course, most white people don’t get as cake a deal as I have had. Especially if we skip over my father being an alcoholic, losing his job, declining further and further and dying too young. If we skip over my mother, with still two boys not out of high school, going back to work as a teacher, finishing her education degree at 50 or 60 years old, working until she was 80 or more.
I almost don’t have a right to say that I earned any of what I have. I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by people, better than I am at anything I’ve ever tried to do, who were willing to share, to coach, to guide, to correct.
Sister Mary Marjorie, Father Kelly. Rick Camp, Bill Rogers, Morris Dansky, Father Sharp, Adele Goldberg, Ward Cunningham, Kent Beck, and now the innumerable folks I encounter in the profession, and on the Internet, every one of which knows things I don’t know, is better than I am at something I do, and shares it with me. I can’t list them all. I’m going to list some, at random. The point is, it took more than a village to put me where I am.
Rebecca Wirfs-Brock. Alan Wirfs-Brock. Phil Brock. Diana Larsen, Esther Derby, Jim Shore, Chet Hendrickson, Steve Weiss, Gene Somdahl, Patricia Hughes, Charles Bair, hell I can’t remember one tenth of the names I should, hundreds of people, each one of whom is better than I am at something. Fred Zello, who can fix anything. Elisabeth Hendrickson, Gitte Klitgaard. Keith Braithwaite. Brian Marick. Dave West. My own two sons, Ron and Mike, both of whom excel over me in things I’m supposed to be good at. Karen Dueweke, Beth Locke, Ann Anderson. Stan Brocky, Ward Edwards, Mark Roth, Greg Cieslak, Bernie Galler, John Holland. Bill Tozier. Liz Keogh, Sal Freudenberg. So many. So many more.1
All of them. All of you.
I got wherever I am, lifted by the hands and thoughts of innumerable people. Yes, I worked hard, I fought against odds, I won some and I lost some. You’re had it tougher than I have, you’ve worked harder and maybe succeeded more than I have, maybe less.
But you didn’t do it alone. You’ve stood on the shoulders of giants, been lifted by hands other than your own.
And if you’re a white male … you’ve had a lot more of that than you would had you been other than a white male.
Think about it. That is privilege.
Are you not in this list? Yes, you are. If you know me, and I know you, then you’ve taught me something, given me something. I haven’t forgotten. ↩