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Being Upper-Class Doesn’t Protect You From Racism

Lawrence Otis Graham family
<p> Christine Butler</p>

Even though the idea wasn’t fully formed, I somehow assumed that privilege would insulate a person from discrimination. This was years before I would learn of the research by Peggy McIntosh, the Wellesley College professor who coined the phrase “White male privilege,” to describe the inherent advantages one group in our society has over others in terms of freedom from discriminatory stops, profiling and arrests. As a teenager, I didn’t have such a sophisticated view, other than to wish I were privileged enough to escape the bias I encountered.

And that was the goal we had in mind as my wife and I raised our kids. We both had careers in White firms that represented the best in law, banking and consulting; we attended schools and shared dorm rooms with White friends and had strong ties to our community (including my service, for the last 12 years, as chairman of the county police board). I was certain that my Princeton and Harvard Law degrees and economic privilege not only would empower me to navigate the mostly White neighborhoods and institutions that my kids inhabited, but would provide a cocoon to protect them from the bias I had encountered growing up. My wife and I used our knowledge of White upper-class life to envelop our sons and daughter in a social armor that we felt would repel discriminatory attacks. We outfitted them in uniforms that we hoped would help them escape profiling in stores and public areas: pastel-colored, non-hooded sweatshirts; cleanly pressed, belted, non-baggy khaki pants; tightly-laced white tennis sneakers; Top-Sider shoes; conservative blazers; rep ties; closely cropped hair; and no sunglasses. Never any sunglasses.

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