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  • Maureen Dempsey

A Personal Story about White Privilege

I want to tell you a story about an interaction I had years ago, with a young woman who was my patient on an antepartum unit. I don’t remember her diagnosis. She was in her mid-twenties, about 27 weeks pregnant, and a bit overweight. Oh, and she was black. And I am white. This story is about race.




Her physician had ordered one hour of fetal monitoring three times a day. Because of the gestational age of her fetus and her own weight, it was challenging to get a good strip on the fetus. With many of our patients, we could put the monitors on and then leave the room to take care of other tasks while keeping an eye on the strip. However, in order to get a good strip, her monitors needed frequent adjustments. I had a routine for this type of situation. I would check in on her briefly first thing in the morning. If she was doing ok, then I would complete all my other morning assessments, tasks, give medications, and just basically get all of my other patients happily tucked in. I would then return to sit at her bedside, place her monitors, complete her morning assessment, and we would talk as I kept readjusting in order to get the strip I needed.




And we found that despite our differences in race, age, and geographical origin, we had a lot in common. Both of our families had moved around a lot. Our parents were divorced. We each had always wanted to be a nurse. We had both been wild teenagers. And when we were about 14 years old, we both started drinking and running around with older boys.




She told me about one summer night in particular that had changed her life. She was riding in the back of a car full of kids, most of them older than her. They were on their way to friend’s party. She remembered that she had been drinking a warm beer out of a can, listening to music blasting. The windows were rolled down, air whipping her hair back from her face. She told me that she had had a little crush on one of the boys in the car and she had been pretty sure he liked her too. He had just said something to her. She was leaning forward to hear better. The music was so loud. And that’s when she first saw the blue lights.




Everyone in the car was arrested that night. One of the passengers had some marijuana. My patient ended up spending almost a year in a juvenile detention center on a drug charge. She told me that she had been assaulted while she was locked up. She didn’t graduate from high school. She told me she had been in jail twice more, but she didn’t tell me the details. She told me it was really hard to find a job with a record.




I had lived that story, too. Up until the point where everyone in the car gets arrested. Every time I was in a car that was pulled over, the driver got a warning. My friends and I lived and thrived inside the privilege of our white skin. The police never even notified our parents. We were allowed to experiment, be wild, make mistakes and still pursue our dreams. The whiteness of our skin gave us all second chances. By the time I turned seventeen, I had most of that nonsense out of my system. Despite all the mistakes I made when I was young, I always got a do-over. I was able to change direction and become a registered nurse. But my patient? She ended up with a police record. It’s very difficult to get a nursing license with a record.




Before I met this woman, I knew about white privilege. However, I didn’t think it really applied to me. I really thought that I had had anything but a privileged life. She taught me how wrong I was. I had made every mistake she had. We should have had similar outcomes. I’ve been thinking about her a lot these last few days.

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