A reader, let’s call her Barbara, responded to my previous blog on white privilege with some heartfelt and sincere comments. So I’d like to pursue this delicate but necessary discussion further.
But I’m not talking about three things. One is overt racism, the behavior that we’re hearing so much about, from fraternity chants to police murders.
The second is what I call opportunistic racism, that nasty language that conservative politicians and pundits regularly produce for their target audience of angry, old white guys. Let’s be clear about this: most of them are nothing more than entertainers and con men who play those people like fiddles for power and high salaries. If they perceived enough money or influence in progressive politics, they’d be the first to advocate for the Green Party.
The third, inherent bias, refers to attitudes about race that most of us share quite unconsciously, and are revealed only in sophisticated psychological tests: http://www.vox.com/2014/12/26/7443979/racism-implicit-racial-bias and https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html
These three aspects of racism merit further discussion – some other time. But let’s make another thing clear: when we’re talking about privilege, we aren’t talking about racist attitudes at all. We’re observing assumptions about ourselves, not other people. But as with inherent bias, we hold these assumptions without being aware of them. And here is the most essential point: even if a white American hasn’t a single racist bone in her body, she still has many privileges over black people, simply by virtue of her skin color, even if white males have privileges over her.
Myths provide the narratives that give us meaning and construct our national identities. Generally, these stories teach us values and norms of behavior. But they also teach us what we need not pay attention to. Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as:
…an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
Barbara begins by asking: So, in what way is what you are saying here not a voice of privilege? Are you black?
No, I am a white male who is struggling to be aware of my own privilege. But that’s not the subject here, although thugs like Bill O’Reilly are only too happy to conflate maleness, whiteness and even “Christian”: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30215-bill-o-reilly-s-latest-white-dream
I have learned from many black activists that race is a white problem, that they are sick of trying to explain white privilege to whites, and that it is ourresponsibility to speak about it. Indeed, I do feel privileged to know this.
Barbara continues: I can rely on personal experience to inform me here. I had many underprivileged white friends growing up. Kids with no fathers, no money for a dentist. Teen girls that got involved with drugs and were literally raped by cops trading a jail sentence for sex. Seriously, what does the color of one’s skin have to do with power structures run amok?
She adds: …in comparison to the rest of the world, all Americans are privileged…Give us an example of a culture that is not implicated in some way in the problems of the world…
Certainly there have been countless societies in which race didn’t factor in power inequities, although elites often found ways to “divide and conquer.” But we’re not talking universals here. We’re talking about America and its unique, 400-year history of convincing powerless people to act against their own interests simply by offering them tiny advantages over others on the basis of the single thing that distinguished them: their skin color. This is one of the defining characteristics of “American exceptionalism.”
Of course all poor people are underprivileged in contrast with the wealthy. But we are talking about the over-privileged, a subject that has nothing to do with money. For example, this link describes ten separate instances of white men confronting, fighting with and even pointing guns at police and not being killed, in some cases not even being arrested: http://madamenoire.com/458516/10-armed-white-men-die-police/
Do I need to ask you what would have happened had these men been black?
By the way, far more whites believe it’s OK for cops to hit people than do blacks and Latinos. Indeed, over 50% of whites believe that officers in their communities treat white and black people the same, a sentiment that only 12% of black people agree with. One can only be this ignorant if he or she is privileged to live where one never sees how cops behave in black neighborhoods.
But there’s a deeper issue here. I encourage you to read Robin DiAngelo’s essay “White Fragility” (http://libjournal.uncg.edu/index.php/ijcp/article/view/249) in full. Here is the article’s abstract:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility…a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves…(that) in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
One common response to talk of privilege – an unconscious attempt to recover that state of insulated comfort – is to angrily deny that one is a racist, even when no one has accused him. Another is to offer universalized – and therefore valueless – statements about how their own ethnic group suffers as well. DiAngelo lists many others.
Barbara concludes: Nothing will be solved by condemning an entire group of people because they’re white or black.
Have I have condemned anyone? Haven’t I simply named an aspect of our shared whiteness? To say that I am white and therefore have privilege in this society is no different from saying that I have white skin; I never chose it, and I couldn’t get rid of it if I wanted to. There is no judgment involved at all. It is a simple observation. To be white in America is to have privilege.
I’m sorry if Barbara feels defensive, that she or her race has been attacked. And I’m sure that she is a good person. But we all have shadow; we are all unaware to some extent of the totality of who we are in the world. And it is basic depth psychology to note that when a simple observation elicits our defensiveness, we should wonder about its source. In this case, I respectfully ask if my observations about privilege have triggered Barbara’s white fragility. And I add, You are not unsafe; you are merely uncomfortable.
Defensiveness is often a reaction to our perception that someone has accused us of having acted incorrectly, that they’re trying to make us feel guilty. And here is an important lesson to learn about privilege: to feel guilty is to feel powerless.
We who teach about privilege don’t want anyone to feel guilty. We want you to feel responsible, that once your consciousness has been raised about any issue, you want to be active in changing the social conditions that contribute to it. And our denial of our privilege – not the privilege itself – is one of those conditions. To be responsible is to have the potential of responding; it is to reclaim some of the power that this mad culture has drained from you. Many are called these days, but few choose to respond. Now that’s a privilege.