Hard Work and The Ruse of White Privilege

work white privilege lemonade stand

We started out poor. My parents grew up poor. During the Depression, families had to share one house. People went without meals. Kids put cardboard in their shoes to cover the holes. People shared what little they had. People died young. Folks didn’t complain. It was considered unseemly.  Then came WWII.

My parents married after the war. They had nothing. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Dad was the first in his family to go to college. Mom worked and attended college for a time. No one waltzed up to them to offer work. They sought work, any work, and earned their way, step by step.  Before college, Mom worked in the corn fields. Dad witnessed discrimination against Blacks in Kentucky working tobacco as a kid.

My grandparents on both sides worked all their lives, starting out poor, and ending up not much better, but proud, and industrious, hardworking and patriotic. Their parents emigrated from Scandinavia just after the Civil War, settling in the Midwest.

Looking for a better life, my Dad brought us to California in 1958. He worked as an independent insurance agent, built an agency, partnered with another Vet, and became very successful.  He worked for it. No one handed it to him. He suffered many setbacks, but just kept plowing forward.  Mom made a home, and worked outside the home to bring extra income.

My first enterprise as a 2nd grader, coached by Dad, was cutting ice plant sprigs, and selling them for $1 a bunch. We also gleaned lemons left after harvest to make lemonade for sale.  I shined shoes in our little town, 50 cents a pair.  I grew corn, worked in the orchards gathering walnuts, moved irrigation pipe, did tractor work in the sugar beet fields and worked as a farm and ranch hand for others, building fences and water systems, caring for horses, and working as a wrangler.

I worked in the fields hoeing weeds by hand, working shoulder to shoulder with men from Mexico, guys who had to work 11 months away from their families, returning home once a year for Christmas. The rancher who employed them paid them above scale, and provided free housing. He told me it was the right thing to do. I understood.

Working at the college administration building I helped pay my way through college. After graduation, not knowing what I would do, I went to northern California and worked in commercial fishing, and in the mountains planting redwoods and Douglas fir. I worked as a waiter, a wine steward, a talk show host and a reporter, and I once again worked in the fields, stoop labor.  Journalism led to sales and then my own business.

Doors did not open because we are white. No one offered special consideration because of our skin color. I never saw a silver spoon or a silver platter. My precious wife, a real hero, a real patriot, brought four children into this world, working hard every day, without complaint, working outside the home even today.  In 2009, when we lost our house to the great recession, no one jumped in to help because we are white. We suffered right along with everyone else going through hard times. We lost everything, took our hits, and got back to work.

It never occurred to us to demonstrate in the streets, blame someone else, set something on fire, or pull down a statue. However, I see and hear a lot of people say they want to kill me, just because I’m white. It’s tragic seeing so much progress destroyed in just a few years.  Did we suffer like the Blacks my Dad saw in Kentucky, or like the Mexican men I worked with?  No. We did not have that kind of discrimination and hardship to overcome, but we were just as poor, and equally required to work, and we must all admit, in the last 80 years, the enormous growth in wealth for people of color is a testament to the real opportunities offered to all in this wonderful country, a country that continues working toward full equality regardless of race, despite the naysayers, the violent, and the indolent.

Dad is 92. Mom is 89. They continue cheerfully, sometimes tearfully, wondering: “Where did America go?”  Our kids, all patriots, answer that question: “America still lives, right here in our hearts.” Our only privilege:  living in the land of the free.

Allan Erickson

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