I won the lottery and I didn’t even know it. I realize that happens all the time – people buy a ticket, forget about it, and then discover days, weeks, or months later, that their numbers came up and they go cash in. But this is different. I won the lottery and I’ve been reaping the benefits day in, day out for decades now and never realized it.
I won the lottery. Not the Mega-Millions that only has drawings a couple times a week and then pays you for just 20 years.
No, I won the lottery the day I was born so many years ago today. I won the birth lottery, the one in this country that says, if you’re born white, you automatically win, you are at the top of the heap in terms of privilege in our society. And I was born white, purely by chance, through no effort of my own. That’s why it’s a lottery, a game of chance and not skill.
The black intellectual and leader W.E.B. DuBois had a name for this idea that being born white, or considered white by other whites, had value. He called it "the wages of whiteness." Books have been written about how "the wages of whiteness" were defined and paid out in everyday life throughout our nation’s history. Southern states were particularly good at keeping the masses of whites dirt poor but making it clear that although they were poor, they were still white and therefore better than others. Elsewhere, immigrant groups, such as the Irish, had to prove they deserved the wages of whiteness because whiteness isn’t just about skin color, but about being labeled white by those who matter – people who are already white.
The wages of whiteness aren’t quite as high as they were even 50 years ago due to slowly changing racial attitudes, but they remain real. Since I was born white, I was born into a neighborhood that had far less crime and better schools, giving me a head start in staying out of trouble, finishing school, and going on to college. Since I don’t look Latino, no one has ever questioned whether I’m in this country legally. If Michigan passes the Arizona-style immigration law that the far-right fringe demands, I won’t have to worry about carrying my passport around to prove I’m a citizen because I "look American." Since I have white skin, shopkeepers won’t keep a little closer eye on me in their store than they would otherwise fearing I will steal something. Since I’m white, nobody gives me a second glance when I walk down the sidewalks of our community.
Yes, I know we have a president who is African American. But Barack Obama helps prove the wages of whiteness theory. Would anyone have questioned his citizenship had both his parents been white instead of only one? Would millions of Americans have bought into that nonsense?
I won the lottery, for sure. Everyday, I try to remember that I didn’t do anything to deserve it.