What if I wasn’t white?
About February of 2017, I was looking around Beaver Falls for houses to rent, as I would be living off-campus and commuting during my junior and senior years to lessen the cost associated with room & board.
I searched online, browsing Zillow, Trulia, and Craigslist hoping to find something within walking distance. I would check these sites almost every day and was consistently disappointed—it is difficult to find just the right place you’re looking for.
After searching online for a while with no success, I was relieved and surprised when I noticed a sign outside a house in between Geneva’s apartments and Sheetz that read For Rent. There was a phone number on the sign, and I wrote it down and called as soon as I got back to my apartment.
A woman answered the phone. I could tell by her voice that she was an older woman. I told her I was interested in the house listed for rent down the road from Sheetz. She was happy someone called, and immediately began describing the house—the square footage, number of bedrooms, etc.
Perfect. I thought. This could be perfect.
I was on the phone with her for maybe two or three minutes when she abruptly paused to ask me a question; a rather startling one.
“You’re white, right?”
The implication of what she asked me did not sink in until after I answered her. “Yes,” I responded.
Wait—what? I thought to myself. What did she just ask me?
“And your family’s white, right?” she continued.
“Yes,” I replied again, feeling more and more shocked with each passing moment.
“Okay. Good, good,” she responded.
I was absolutely stunned. She kept talking with me, chipper through the entire conversation, telling me how nice the house was and how she wanted me to stop by and see it. But I was having trouble focusing on any of it. I think our conversation went on for a while, but I really can’t remember what was said—I was so taken aback that it seems like a blur. She asked me if I was white, I kept thinking. She asked me if I was white. What if I wasn’t white?
What’s more disturbing is that she really wasn’t asking; she was confirming something to make sure she could continue talking about the house with me. I assume had I said “no,” the discussion would have been over right then and there.
Our talk ended, and I hung up the phone. I did not end up renting from that woman. In fact, I never spoke to her again. I don’t even remember her name. But the feeling of coming face-to-face with white privilege and racism and having it so clearly revealed before me is a feeling that I will never forget. I felt sick to my stomach for the rest of that day—that’s not hyperbolic; I honestly felt physically ill.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what she said, and I started to feel guilty. I should have hung up, I thought. Why did I keep talking with her?
I started to think more deeply about it. My intermediate family is white, but not my entire family. I have a black aunt, and I have three black cousins. What would have happened if I rented this house and they came over for a visit? Did I betray them because I let this conversation continue after such explicit racism was displayed?
White privilege is a real thing; there is no denying that. That doesn’t mean all white people have it easy, nor that poverty is not a reality for many. What it does mean is that I will have opportunities merely because I am white, just as I had the opportunity to rent this house simply based on my skin color.
The reality of white privilege doesn’t mean white people should wallow in guilt, nor that they should be berated for their race. But if you don’t believe white privilege exists, think again; otherwise, you too could be blindsided by it one day.