On a very frequent basis I hear how white people have been the beneficiaries of “white privilege.” I am not sure what that really means as those who make the charge have never defined the term. There is just the accusation that successful white citizens are the beneficiary of “white privilege.”

I have given some thought about this and have come to the conclusion that I am not such a beneficiary. I have tried to think what has led to my having a successful career in law. I think it started with my mother’s parents who scrimped, saved and worked their fingers to the bone on their family farm so that they could send their daughter to the University of Michigan in the early 1930s. Those were depression days and I vividly recall my grandmother telling me that there were times when she and my grandfather didn’t have two dimes to rub together. Both of them were uneducated; my grandfather leaving school after the 8th grade to go to work and my grandmother quitting school at age 13 to help raise her siblings as her mother had died and, being the oldest, she had to run the household. Yet they believed in education and saw to it that my mother obtained one.

I grew up in what I’d describe as a lower middle class household. My father ran a business and my mother was the homemaker. The best year of his life my father only earned about $4,000.00. Yet in the 1950s that was enough, if you pinched pennies, to put food on the table, clothes on your back and once in a while bring home a 6 pack of Pepsi for the kids. Mom made clothes for both myself and my sister. When there were holes in the knees of our Levis we didn’t get new pants but instead got patches. We went to school that way and did so without shame or embarrassment because that’s just the way life was and there were lots of other kids just like us. 

When I was old enough to work (my first social security withholding was in 1952 when I was 11 years old) I went to work washing dishes in a restaurant or helping my Dad in his business by shoveling coal and stacking sacks of fertilizer. I also mowed lawns for pocket money. Later I worked for the DPW of Imlay City and recall standing in human waste up to my waist, in a rubber suit, scraping down the walls of a below ground storage room for sewage at the sewage disposal plant for $1.35/hour. I knew then I was at the absolute bottom of the economic ladder and had no place to go except up.

My parents stressed the importance of education which, more than anything I believe, led me to a path of success. My mother brainwashed me so that when I was asked what I was going to do after high school my reply was “go to the University of Michigan.” Not go to college but go to the University of Michigan. I did go to U. of M. and with financial help from my parents as well as student loans and part-time work I got through college and law school.

Do I feel privileged? Well, in a sense I do in that I had parents and grandparents who saw the value of education and hard work and instilled those values in me. Do I think I was privileged in the sense that I was given something that I didn’t earn? The answer is no. I worked to pay off my college loans. I spent the many long hours in the library or in my room studying so that I could get my degree. I gave up the instant gratification of going to work in an auto factory after high school and earning a good wage allowing me to buy “stuff” and live the good single life. 

Did I have opportunities that were not available to some people of color in our country at that time? I have to be honest and say of course. The southern states of our country were hot beds of segregation and racial bigotry. It is self evident that blacks, at that time in the nation’s history, had a greater difficulty in taking advantage of the opportunities offered by this nation. I don’t accept that the same was necessarily true in the northern states. Imlay City was a bi-racial community when I grew up. U. of M. had students of all races as well as students from around the world in attendance. I would admit it may have been easier for me to open the door of opportunity than it was for some others. However I refuse to feel guilty about whatever success I have achieved. I decline to accept the notion that I was given something that I didn’t earn because of the color of my skin. The color of my skin does not define my life and I refuse to allow those who rant about “white privilege” to cause me to disparage what I have achieved through my own efforts. 

—John L. Lengemann