Columnist John Sheirer: We all deserve the privilege of normalcy

John Sheirer

John Sheirer


Published: 01-02-2024 10:31 AM

Modified: 01-02-2024 10:32 AM

Nearly 40 years ago, I entered a college classroom as the instructor for the first time. I was a 23-year-old graduate teaching assistant, charged with my very own section of English composition. Twenty-five students silently inspected me as I placed my backpack on the front table, looked around the expectant faces, and smiled to cover my cluelessness.

I didn’t even know I’d be teaching a class until three days earlier during the graduate teaching assistant orientation. I thought I’d be assisting a real teacher (note the term “teaching assistant”). But as cheap labor for the university-industrial complex, there I was, grinning like a dope in front of students barely a handful of years younger than I was. These students would have been perfectly justified to ask, “Where’s the real teacher?”

But you know what? They didn’t. When I distributed my hastily typed syllabus, they accepted it without complaint. When I held up the textbook, they touched their own copies as if I’d provided a magical talisman to guide our semester. As I pretended to know how to navigate our assignments and deadlines, the students jotted notes, listened politely, and assumed I belonged.

Fast forward to last week. I drove home from my job at a college where that frightened kid is now the senior member of the faculty, the one colleagues come to for stories about the old days before the internet, smartphones, and the pony express. I stopped for holiday shopping at the Holyoke Mall and its sparsely populated stores, examining clothing, cooking utensils, toys, books, and boxes of candy. Store employees ignored me, asked if I needed any help, or just smiled and said hello.

In one store, a young, mixed-race couple joked in Spanish and laughed at holiday sweaters so hideous they’d only be appropriate for an ugly sweater contest. Nearby, a clerk stared at them, so I said to her, “Isn’t young love wonderful?” She harrumphed and eagle-eyed the kids until they noticed her, stopped laughing, and left the store.

My hour at the mall was much like my hour in that first classroom many years ago because everyone assumed I belonged. That’s how life should be for all of us and how I’m usually treated. It’s so “normal” for me that I hardly notice. Ask a fish, “How’s the water?” and it will say, “What’s water?”

Here’s the plot twist: This normalcy is “privilege.”

Some people scoff at the term “privilege” and claim it’s a “woke” term designed to make white people feel bad. Some say that “privilege” implies special treatment and an easy life. But “privilege” these days is experiencing life the way it should be. “Privilege” has come to mean “normal.”

The people working in the mall assumed I was a “normal” shopper. They didn’t profile me as a shoplifter. The students in that first class (and the hundreds of first classes since then) assumed I was a “normal” teacher.

As everyone has guessed by now, I’m a white guy. My Ancestry DNA test results would make Tucker Carlson salivate.

I’m not saying that being a white guy has made my life easy. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, just like 99.9% of the people on this planet. No one has ever winked at me and said, “Hey, put down that burden, skip that line, take this better job, cash these secret checks. You’re a white guy! You’re entitled to the good stuff!” That only happens to white guys like Eric Trump.

The “privilege” I’ve gotten from being a white guy is that my life hasn’t been made harder just because I’m a white guy. I’ve been granted the “privilege” of normalcy. Unfortunately, many people who experience this privilege are like fish being asked about water. It’s all they’ve ever known, so they assume it doesn’t exist. But ask the young couple profiled by the store clerk. They know.

I’ve seen many people whose lives are harder because they’re denied the privilege of normalcy. I’ve seen white students roll their eyes at teachers with dark skin or accented English on the first day. I’ve seen male students interrupt and disregard women students during discussions. I’ve even seen full-grown college administrators belittle and ignore Black, Asian, Hispanic, women, gay, trans, and nonbinary professionals. I’ve seen Donald Trump (unqualified criminal) question Barack Obama’s birth certificate and college records. I’ve heard Sean Hannity (college dropout) claim that Obama isn’t intelligent and Tucker Carlson (trust-fund baby) call Kamala Harris dumb.

In a “normal” world, we’d all be treated equally. But discrimination is still so common that “normal” treatment is a privilege. When I get pulled over on the highway, I don’t have to fear that my race will endanger me. When I interview for jobs, I don’t have to worry that my race might disqualify me in the eyes of the people with hiring power. When I apply for a mortgage, being white never gets me redlined.

That’s the normalcy every human being on this planet deserves but doesn’t always get. That’s why we have to understand that white male privilege is real, it’s wrong, and we have to make it stop. We all deserve to swim as fish in invisible water.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher from Florence. His most recent book is, “For Now: One Hundred 100-Word Stories.” Find him at