During this Thanksgiving holiday, I am reminded of the many privileges I have experienced in my life. As a white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, male American, I grew up with just about as much privilege as is possible. When you add to that educational advantages, the privilege only increases. Part of the design thinking process is noticing your place in the world and recognizing that when you change the world, you are primarily changing yourself.
When I tell people I grew up in Wisconsin, I imagine they think of cheese and farmland. While there is plenty of that in the state, the mid-sized city I grew up in is surprisingly urban and diverse. My hometown of Racine, Wisconsin is located on Lake Michigan in the urban corridor between Chicago and Milwaukee, two cities which consistently rank among the most segregated cities in America. In fact, in 2018, Milwaukee and Racine were ranked as the second and third worst U.S. cities for black people to live in. According to a study by 24/7 Wall St., black people living in Milwaukee and Racine earn half the income of white people and are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated.
The neighborhood I grew up in is a perfect illustration of the disparity. In the southeastern corner of the city, less than a mile from the international headquarters of SC Johnson, is Racine’s historic district. Not surprisingly, the most desirable and most expensive houses overlook the lake on Wisconsin Avenue. One block away away from the lake on College Avenue, the houses are half the price of the lakefront homes. Another block away on Park Avenue, the houses are half the price of the College Avenue houses. Another block away on Villa Street, the houses are again half the price. After Villa, you have comparably priced homes on Grand, Center, Franklin, and Howe. Growing up, I was very aware that white people generally lived in the three blocks closest to the lake and people of color generally lived on Villa and beyond. While I was in grade school, we lived on Park Avenue, three blocks from the lake and one block from Villa Street. My mother being a high school teacher and my step-father a college professor, we were not wealthy but comfortably middle class. When I started middle school, we moved a block and a half (nine houses, to be precise) to the cobblestoned College Avenue with its impressive Victorian homes.
I always attended public schools. The elementary school I went to was between Center Street and Franklin Street and so many of my classmates were black and brown. In middle school, though most of my classmates were white, I was aware that I enjoyed a higher socioeconomic status than most of my friends. For high school, I went to one of the only International Baccalaureate schools in the state. Ironically, I was able to attend that high school thanks to desegregation efforts. My high school was over five miles from home, and despite the fact that the high school that my mother taught at was less than two miles away, because of the neighborhood demographics, I was bussed to the farther school. I rode the school bus every day, and I was one of the only white kids on it.
My worldview widened considerably when I went to a small liberal arts college that emphasized multiculturalism and internationalism. In addition to meeting students from many different backgrounds, I also studied abroad in London for a semester and traveled around Europe afterwards. Later, I visited the island of Cyprus, both the Greek side and the Turkish side, and also Egypt. On all of these trips, I felt my privilege as a white American. After graduation, I moved to California for graduate school and I was exposed to more Latino and Asian cultures than I ever had in the Midwest. I remember being amazed at the existence of fish tacos.
After grad school I became an ESL teacher in South Central L.A. where I met a fellow teacher who would become my wife. She was a Mexican immigrant who had grown up in extreme poverty in Mexico. Despite the fact that we had completely different upbringings with respect to privilege, we fell in love. For six years we lived and worked in South Central, and being the only white person for miles around, I was reminded of my white privilege on a daily basis. People would often ask me if I was a cop, once I was asked if I was lost, and one time I was riding my bike to school when I saw a white guy sitting on the curb with other day laborers. We made eye contact and he shouted, “You’re not the only one!” When my wife took me to her hometown in Mexico, a town where her family still does not have running water, I was painfully aware of my privilege and whiteness when her relatives looked me–the first white person they had ever seen in person–as if I were from another planet.
Living in an interracial marriage and having an interracial child provides for frequent opportunities to reflect on the advantages I have had. I know that because of my privilege, I always have to do my best to listen and learn from those who have not had the same privileges. As I move forward with my work with Enso Education Institute and our goal of creating a world that works for everyone, I know how important it is to continuously notice my privilege and, as I take action to change the world, remember that change starts with me.