THANKSREADING 2019: Understanding White Privilege

Me putting together my Thanksreading list.

We’re on day three of this year’s celebration of Thanksreading. I’ve been examining my book shelves, figuring out which authors to highlight as individuals I am truly grateful for. It’s a long list, and I feel a bit like the woman in that math lady meme, with complicated equations being constructed to figure out who I’m going to pick. 

Today I chose an author who’s left me wanting more since his debut novel was released back in 2007. Word is that Michael Thomas is working on a nonfiction book of some sort, and I can’t wait to get that into my hands.

Michael Thomas

Thomas’ debut novel, Man Gone Down, took the literary world by storm, winning accolades across the board and receiving the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He was only the third debut author to win the IMPAC, which is famous for being one of the most valuable literary prizes in the world, the prize being around $150,000. 

I learned about Man Gone Down while listening to On Point, the public radio show based out of WBUR in Boston, Ma. (Here’s a link to the episode.) The description of the novel – the story of a black father of three kids, estranged from his upper-crust white wife, needing to come up with several thousand dollars in four days to support his family – was intriguing and appealed to my situation at the time as a recently divorced, financially unstable father of three.

Contributing further to my financial instability, I went to the nearest bookstore and put Man Gone Down on a credit card.

My reading followed the timeframe of the book. The narrator had four days to get the money he needed, and I read the 432 pages across four nights. It was a whirlwind of literary insight into the American Dream and where it has fallen terribly short for so many, particularly those who are not white.

Man Gone Down is a line of delineation in my life. Before reading it, I didn’t understand the concept of white privilege. After reading it, I did.

“How dare someone suggest I have privilege?” I’d think. “I have so much debt, and life is a struggle. Where’s the privilege in that?”

It’s a cliché, but there you go. Part of white privilege, I think, is being able to fall back on clichés and expect that to be a decent enough defense of your position.

Over the course of reading Man Gone Down, though, I learned that the terrible magic of white privilege is that the struggles I face as a white dude are considerably less than those faced by people of different skin colors in the same situations. 

Compelled to learn more after finishing the novel, I discovered that my decision to buy the book with a credit card was a benefit of white privilege. Minorities are less likely to have access to credit cards than white people. Recent data shows that while 20 percent of whites don’t have access to credit, 47 percent of the African-American population lacks access. Some of that can be attributed to higher rates of bad credit among that population, and that’s a huge rabbit hole of not just white privilege, but also predatory capitalism (oxymoron?) and other contributing factors.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately that it’s time to re-read Man Gone Down. I’m in a very different place in my life now than I was then, and I’ve learned a lot over the past 12 years. Not just about white privilege, but also about life in general. I want to go back to the stream-of-consciousness narration of Thomas’ book and re-immerse myself in it, see what else there is I can learn from the work on a second reading.

There are a lot of different reasons to be thankful for those who write. One of the most important, I think, is an author’s ability to make you see the world in a new way. Thomas is transcendent in that act, and I am so grateful for him.

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