Columnist Jay Fleitman: My white privilege

Published: 3/2/2020 4:17:59 PM

A columnist in the Gazette wrote earlier this month on her relationship to her white privilege. I thought I would take the opportunity to explore my white privilege as well.

I guess I’m white. My genetic profile is that I am 100% Middle Eastern Jew. When I was growing up, my parents, who spent their childhoods being poor in Jewish ghettos in New York, told me that “they” hated us, and would never let any of us succeed. I didn’t buy it. My neighborhood friends were a mixture of Jews, Italians and Irish. They told Jew jokes, we told Italian and Irish jokes, and we all got along just fine.

But now I am on the wrong side of identity politics. I am mixed in with those Irish and Italian Catholics. My category includes Scottish and Scandinavian Protestants. What do we do with Cubans and Argentinians whose ancestors came from Europe? Are they white or Hispanic? I share my privilege with poor white folks whether they are in Appalachia or Maine, and homeless white veterans on the streets of San Francisco, New York and Northampton.

In my sphere of privilege are the elderly whites on fixed incomes, and I certainly don’t want to leave out those families with both parents working hard all week to pay their mortgages and put food on the table.

I can trace the roots of my privilege. My father and his four brothers were on the wrong side of the law as bootleggers in the 1930s and early 40s. Both of my parents were family successes as they attained high school degrees. My father went off to World War II, leaving my mother behind with an infant girl. When he returned after being part of the invasion of Okinawa, he took a job with one of his older brothers as a warehouseman. The growing family of my parents and their three children lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York.

My parents were very proud of my older sister as she was the first child in the extended family to go off to college at one of New York’s municipal institutions. Their disappointment must have been great when she had to drop out at age 17 after her first semester because she got pregnant. My father had to borrow money from his brothers and then take a second job in order to afford the $11,000 they needed for a house which could accommodate us, my sister and her 18-year-old husband, and what soon ended up to be three additional children.

My sister’s marriage was badly troubled. It ended some 10 years after it started when my father had to rescue her and her children at gunpoint. My sister never reclaimed the positive trajectory of her early life.

My older brother was more problematic. He had severe behavioral problems as a child. In those days he was known as a “bad kid,” though in retrospect I’m sure he had severe attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Nonetheless, my parents had to try and negotiate his failing social life and his inability to handle school. As he aged, his worsening frustration led to his increasing violence, both in and out of school, and more frequent contacts with the law. We had temporary respite during his sojourns in reform school.

His life slowly devolved into the drug culture of the 1960s, leading to his death from an accidental drug overdose at the age of 25.

My parents tried to hold this all together and they had messages for me which were loud and clear. They prized above all else honesty, and the values of hard work and self-respect. If I wanted to do better than they did, my avenue was education. School was my refuge, and I attacked school with a single-minded intensity.

My parents were able to afford helping me pay for college with $1,000 a year. The rest was made up with scholarships, loans and various jobs during my college years. My best job was working for my father in the warehouse, unloading by hand freight cars holding some 2,500 cases of liquor. This was very good money for the time at $5.25 per hour.

Identity politics warriors portray lives like mine as a cocktail party with everyone else being excluded. I think of myself as having a beer at the dinner table after a long day at work.

I don’t think that my story is any different from that of so many people from modest beginnings as they strive through their lives, whether of white, African, Asian or Hispanic descent.

When I am lectured about white privilege, I think I may suffer from the same sense of affront that African-Americans must have when their success is questioned and diminished because they may have been given a hand up by affirmative action. I know of the insult taken from the harangue of identity politics by hard working whites who are just squeaking through.

I will admit to some privileges. I was privileged to have parents who were definite in imparting to me important values. I am so fortunate to have found a wife who is one of the loveliest people on the planet, and to share the lives of my children who have grown up to be marvelous people.

I am privileged to have my career as a physician that allows me to try and budge the world in a positive direction and to touch the lives of people I otherwise would not have met. I am privileged to live in the U.S., which has offered me the opportunity to do all of this.

Jay Fleitman, MD, of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reach ed at columnists@gazettenet.com.

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