I’d like to tell a story about my White Privilege. It’s one that helped me land my first office job, which contributed to starting my career while I was still in high school.
I first shared this story on Twitter, but I wanted to capture it here too.
My First Office Job
I had worked at a fast food restaurant for a year, had been promoted a couple of times, and I was a traveling team trainer. My next step would have been assistant store manager. But I knew my heart wasn’t in food service for the long run—I wanted to get into engineering. Still in high school and knowing I needed to pay for college, I decided to look for a way to get an engineering job the summer between my junior and senior years.
It was spring of 1995, and I lived in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. I lived in a poor neighborhood, and one street over was Oakwood, a community of subsidized housing. That was where the majority of the reported crime was in the town (most often drug charges). There were plenty of white kids in other neighborhoods frequently drinking underage, doing drugs, and shoplifting. But Oakwood was where the arrests were. And the perception in town was to stay away from Oakwood.
Down the street past Oakwood was a small civil engineering firm. I found them in the phone book, realized it was close enough to my house to ride my bike to, and I wondered if they would give me a job. After school one day, I rode my bike to their office (which was an old 2-story house), and just walked in their front door. I was met by a lady sitting at a reception desk just inside. She looked at me with a wry smile and asked if she could help me with something.
We were poor, so I didn’t have any “nice” clothes to wear there. I was just wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes. I certainly didn’t look professional. I approached her desk and said, “Hi, I’m Jeff. I live up the street and I’d like to be an engineer someday; I don’t know what type of engineer, but I’d like to start learning. Do you think there are any jobs that I could do for you?”
She smiled, and in a surprised tone, said she could go upstairs and talk with the owner to see what he thought. She left me alone at her desk for about 5 minutes. When she came back down, she asked if I could return the next day after school to meet the owner. I agreed.
The next day, I met with the owner in his office. After talking with me for about an hour, he offered me a job. I started 2 weeks later so that I could put in proper notice at Rally’s (the fast food restaurant).
I answered phones, filed papers, assembled storage shelves, delivered blueprints, and did the office grocery shopping. I worked on some engineering projects both on paper and in AutoCAD. I did lots of field surveying too. I learned a ton about civil engineering.
Then they asked me to complete a bunch of calculus calculations for a big project. It was going to be about 40 hours of doing the same calculations over and over with different values, to find the best underground pipe diameters to use throughout a large project. I suggested that I could write a program to do the work instead of doing the calculations by hand. “Could you do that?!” the engineer asked me. I did, and I got it done in less than the 40 hours.
That was my first professional piece of software, and that week was when I discovered that I wanted to become a software engineer. A couple months later, I had a full-time job at a software company. (That’s another story on its own).
So let’s review the moments of #WhitePrivilege that benefited me in this experience.
- While I avoided it, there were plenty of white kids that were known to drink often and do drugs occasionally. None of them was ever arrested.
- I lived really close to Oakwood, in a poor neighborhood, and there was plenty of drug dealing on our street, but Oakwood (being largely black) had the bad reputation.
- When I walked in the front door of the engineering firm, the office manager smiled at me and was not afraid—only curious.
- She left me alone at her desk for 5 minutes without giving it a second thought.
- When I said I “lived up the street,” (which would include Oakwood), she didn’t judge me.
- I was granted a meeting with the owner without hesitation, or even knowing my last name.
- I was offered more than minimum wage, as well as mileage, which I didn’t know was a thing.
- I was quickly trusted to interact with customers, city and county officials, and handle important and confidential documents.
- I was trusted with full access to the office’s petty cash box (usually around $1000). And when I did the grocery shopping, I was told to just take whatever cash I needed to stock the fridge.
- I was left alone in the office after hours; I had a set of keys.
- I was invited to the owner’s home (and I even briefly dated his daughter).
- When my car was broken down, the owner let me drive his car to make deliveries.
In summary, I was trusted. I was given an opportunity simply because I walked in the door and asked for one. My White Privilege helped me discover my career path while I was still a teenager.
Had I been a black kid from Oakwood, I don’t know if I would have been trusted or given that opportunity. Until today, I gave full credit to myself for getting that job. But now I’m wondering how much credit should be given to my White Privilege. I’ll never know.