Facing My White Privilege

The image is a watercolor painting of the author (Joyce O’Day) as a teen, in a bikini, sitting on the sand facing the ocean. It was painted by Michael Joseph in Laguna Beach, California, on July 16, 1978.
Watercolor painting of the author as a teen by artist Michael Joseph.

People of color have been incarcerated for the same activities that resulted in little or no repercussions for me and my white friends.

The Night My White Privilege Slapped Me in the Face

My last MRI was scheduled for 8:00pm — a time when the facility was virtually empty. Shortly after my arrival, an older man checked in and mentioned to the gal at the front desk that he had recently moved to Las Vegas from Mission Viejo, an upper-middle-class city in Orange County, California. And by older, I mean OLD. I am 59 and he was at least 15 years my senior. With only the three of us in the room, I initiated a conversation, mentioning that I was from Lake Forest, (formerly known as El Toro), the town next to Mission Viejo.

The old man told me he was a retired cop. I mentioned that I had moved to Las Vegas from El Toro after I graduated in 1978. The old man said that in those days he was policing in Central California, and we briefly discussed the “wild times” of the late 1970s. To my utter surprise, he offered up how when he busted kids with pot back in those days, it was just a slap on the wrist. He talked about breaking up keg parties where weed was in abundance, stating that the cops showed up just to send the kids home — nothing more. After all, he noted, community leaders did not want their children to be saddled with a criminal record while they were applying to college. I was called back for the MRI, and though my conversation with him ended, my internal conversation was just beginning.

The 1970s Was a Wild and Crazy Time!

Lying in the MRI chamber — amidst the THUMP, THUMP, THUMPING of the machine — my mind reverted to days long past. As a teen growing up in relatively affluent coastal Orange County, my friends and I got away with things that would not fly in contemporary society. The 70s was a unique time. The hippie era and the Watergate scandal had so disrupted the status quo that my generation of “late boomers” had a freedom that our older siblings and cousins only dreamed about and our younger relatives would never know thanks to the conservative wave that followed the election of Ronald Reagan. Social mores had broken down to the point where as long as no one was getting hurt, we could do as we pleased.

I was among the kids who attended those parties. I remember the cops eventually showing up to break up the parties. But our behavior was far worse than that. My best friend and I smoked pot at Laguna Hills Mall more than once, and one day in a particularly bold mood, we smoked a joint at the exclusive South Coast Plaza. We openly smoked pot at patio restaurants on Pacific Coast Highway, and on one occasion, we lit up in a movie theater, where another patron politely requested we desist, as he did not want to breathe any smoke in such a confined place — a logic we completely respected.

Party Time at El Toro High

More outrageous than that, half of the kids at our school got stoned at lunch. El Toro High School had an open campus in those days — maybe they still do. Kiddie corner from the school existed a large wooded area with a small creek running through it. When the lunch bell rang, the students headed for the woods. I recall a couple of times when the administration braved the woods to disrupt our daytime party, but no one to my knowledge ever got busted, we simply dispersed. One morning, a few friends and I got busted for smoking pot in the school parking lot. My dad was called to pick me up for the day, and the dean checked the locker I shared with my best friend. Luckily, all he found was a couple of Thai stick s— personal use only! The weed was confiscated by the dean, and the next day I was back at school. Randomly, these days El Toro High School is famous for having one of the best skateboard jumps in the world; it even got mentioned at the 2020/2021 Olympic Skateboard competition!

Seeing My Early Life in a Different Light

For most of my life, I looked back fondly, and with humor, at my high school antics. For me, society’s laxity toward my illegal activities was merely a symptom of the times. I always sensed that us So-Cal kids were getting away with a lot more than what kids in other parts of the country could even ponder, but I failed to equate our social liberties with our prevailing “whiteness.” How wrong I was! Looking back, I doubt that kids from my generation living in Watts, Compton, or even Santa Ana were openly smoking pot in shopping malls and other public places. Had I been Black or Latina, I would have likely been arrested. Our jails and prisons are filled with individuals of color whose crime was nothing more than possession of weed. It could have — and even should have — been me, but my whiteness protected me. And it was not the only time.

It All Depends on the Cost of Your Car

I avoided numerous traffic violations thanks to being a relatively-attractive white girl driving daddy’s pricey Chrysler New Yorker, (its V-8 engine had a tendency to get away from me). A smile and an apology, along with the promise to watch my speed, allowed me to drive off unencumbered by a ticket on my record. However, after my financial situation took a dive in my early twenties, I was repeatedly pulled over and fined for “driving while poor” in my shitty old Chevy Nova. Back in the 1980s, there was a law in Nevada wherein if you were traveling less than 15 miles an hour over the speed limit you got a $10 or $20 mail-in fine. Cops would pull up behind me on the freeway and aggressively tail me until I increased my speed just enough to barely exceed the legal limit and BAM, I was pulled over — again. After I could afford a better car, I quit getting tickets. Coincidence? I think not!

Getting Away With Theft

The final example of white privilege that I experienced in my younger days occurred when I shoplifted a leather purse. After a day at the beach, my best friend, her Mexican boyfriend, and I popped into a nice leather goods shop in Saddleback Valley Plaza. As we browsed around, I impulsively tucked a purse I admired under my beach towel. The shop owner, who was avidly monitoring my Mexican friend, paid no attention to me. When we left the store, I displayed my prize. My friends had no idea what I had done, nor did the shop owner — not right away at least. My era of thievery was fortunately short-lived. After the concept of karma took hold in me, I had no desire to acquire something I had not earned.

Understanding My White Privilege

During my adult life, I have unwaveringly supported Affirmative Action, realizing the advantages that society has afforded me, even during my days of relative poverty. As a Jew, I have experienced a lifetime of antisemitism, but religious hate is not the same as being judged 24/7 based on the color of your skin. Shopkeepers have never felt threatened by me and the authorities looked the other way when my friends and I behaved badly by flaunting the law in such a public manner. When the long-retired cop openly confessed to displaying overt favoritism to wealthy white kids during the wild times of the late 1970s while waiting to get his MRI a few months ago, my white privilege slapped me in the face and opened my eyes to the deeper reality of institutional racism.

I got away with everything — legally anyway. While karma has taken its toll for the few items I shoplifted as a foolish and rebellious teen, I have gone on to receive an education and pursue a career, when my contemporaries of color went to juvy or jail for pulling the same stunts.

It pains my heart that people are currently incarcerated for activities I repeatedly got away with!

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