Monday, April 6, 2009

This White Privilege Thing

Just some thoughts here...
Recently, I've been thinking a lot about this whole concept of white privilege. Growing up as an African American in suburban Philadelphia, I've always had an awareness that certain avenues were open to whites that I could not as easily pass through. However, it wasn't until I was about to go to college that I read an article that pulled together all the things that I knew about race into the concept of white privilege.

As part of my preparation for my summer teaching internship in 2005, I was required to read "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh. On the one hand, the article was eye-opening for me, because, like most people, I was used to discussing race only in terms of how it impacted non-whites. There was a certain liberation in the idea that discussing whiteness was legitimate, that it should be a part of the public conversation on race, and not just something non-whites talk about privately. On the other hand, the article didn't strike me as particularly controversial or outlandish. It really seemed to be stating the obvious.

Over the years that followed, I have continuously been amazed at how offended many are by the idea of white privilege. I guess I still have held on to a shred of youthful innocence that makes it hard for me to believe anyone wouldn't clearly see the advantages of being white in America. It makes me wonder:

1. Why are white people so uncomfortable talking about their whiteness? Two possibilities come to mind. (1) Some have been raised to be "colorblind" and not see their own color or the color of anyone else. I have to say that this is noble, but dangerous, because by turning a blind eye to race, we render ourselves incapable of recognizing racism. What other problems get better if you ignore them? Cancer? Crime? I think one of the unfortunate consequences of well-intentioned colorblindness is that it makes whites incapable of seeing the benefits that come along with their lighter skin. (2) Some whites are just not comfortable with the idea that they have achieved success based on anything other than merit. From childhood, children in the Untied States are taught that this is a meritocricy, where people are rewarded for what they do, not for who they are. White privilege threatens this ideology. It worries me that we may be so obsessed with the fanticy of America that we can't see the truth of America. And the sad part is, if we would realize how unlike a meritocricy our society is, we could then work to fix the problems and become more of a meritocricy.

This brings up another point.

2. Why are whites so obssessed with advantages given to non-whites, but incapable of acknowledging their own advantages? Seriously, if you listened to some whites, particularly those on the conservative right, you'd think that being black was some sweepstakes or something. You'd think that being white was a disadvantage.

But, of course, many would the say "oh, no, no, no. We've come a long way but there's still much work to be done," in an attempt to acknowlege that there is still racism that impacts non-whites negatively. So...

3. If we can acknoledge disadvantages for non-whites, why can't we acknowlegde the resulting advantages for whites? I mean, it seems simple. If we're running the 100 meter dash, and you get to start 10 meters ahead of me, then I'm at a disadvantage. Well, that also means that you have an advantage.

4. Why do some whites think that the concept of white privilege teaches that all white people are raicst? Why can't people distinguish between calling individuals racist and saying that we live in a society that is set up to privilege one group over others? To me, it's clear that whites don't choose white privilege any more than they choose to be white. But it seems some people can't understand the difference between individual prejudice and systemic racism.

So, like I said, just some thoughts on this whole thing. I feel bad constantly saying "white people" because I don't want to generalize. Mainly, I just wantetd to through these ideas out there and see where the discussion goes. Hopefully, we have lots of differing views out there so that we can really dig deep on these issues.


rockync said...

White privilege, like black discrimination is (forgive the pun) not a simple black and white issue.
I grew up a white female in a blue collar town - so I must have had all the advantages -- not quite.
While the color of my skin might help preclude certain prejudices, it did not prevent other discrimination. I was never part of the country club set and never would be, my parents being immigrants and not living in the "right" part of town.
As a woman, I would, on more than one job interview, be asked if I planned to get pregnant, how many children did I have and if I got sick who would take care of them?
I would also be routinely paid less in my chosen career than my male counterparts.
I tell you this not to diminish the daily struggle of being black in America. I only wish to point out that there are complexities to every issue involving humans and while I understand the concept of "white privilege", the reality is not so simple.

Kevin Lockett said...

rockync, your so right. I agree that race, gender, and class intersect in ways that are neither simple nor always easy to understand. I would also argue that these forces are not parallel, meaning comparing them is like comparing apple to oranges, which is why the whole oppression sweepstakes thing during the presidential primary season was completely ridiculous.

The question I would ask (and forgive my if this sounds too confrontational, as that's not my intention) is this: Why, as you discuss the role white privilege plays in your life do you address only the discrimination you don't experience? I ask this only because the theory of white privilege, at least as I've been exposed to it, is more about what advantages you have as a white person. So, for example, if the history curriculum at your elementary school is written from a European-American perspective (which is the norm at most schools), that can serve as a form of privilege. If you're local news broadcast depicts people who look like you as something other than criminals, athletes, or entertainers, that can serve as a form of privilege. If you can go to the hospital in severe pain and know that the medicine you receive for your pain will be up to the appropriate strength, or apply for a mortgage and not be given a sub-prime mortgage even though you qualify for a real one, that's a privilege. If you can give your child a name that reflects your culture and not worry that it will result in employment discrimination, that's a privilege.

The point is that there are certain privileges that whites have regardless of socioeconomic status, just from being white. Things that don't, under normal circumstances, fit into this category are not white privilege. Then, of course, there is male privilege, which you gave an example of. And you also pointed out how being a woman can mitigate your white privilege. Conversely, bing black can mitigate male privilege. But white women still have white privilege and black men still have male privilege.

So, sorry I went on so long in response to your comment. I just thought you had so many interesting things to say, and I like to pick people's brains.

Do you see me? said...

the knapsack article has been influential on many people, myself included. white privilege does not eliminate other discriminations whites may suffer - gender, sexuality, age, class. But race ALWAYS trumps the others. Just by being white, you are less likely to be stopped by police, followed in a store, discriminated against in housing options or lending rates, and your chances of getting a good education are better. So while there are some times when we whites get a bum deal, it is nothing compared to the deficit with which most people of color start their day, every day.

Whites can turn back privilege by empowering people of color, even in your everyday activities and interactions. For it is empowerment that is the opposite of discrimination.

rockync said...

Kevin, you have so many interesting things to say, you make me REALLY think about how to answer you.
You are correct that the color of my skin gives me a "acceptance" in certain areas that my black counterpart would not.
I have never seen it as much of a privilege, but more of a burden. Perhaps it is only my unique experience in the world that makes it so - or that which makes me who I am has made my experiences weigh so heavily on me.
I don't want to keep TALKING about the issue of privilege and prejudice; I want to have dialog that leads to ACTIONS that correct the wrongs. We cannot go back to the beginning, when men and women were brought here and used as slaves, we cannot go back to the days of Jim Crow or civil rights struggles or Japanese internment or Indian massacres - we can only go forward, as fellow human beings.
There is a danger in becoming so anyalitical, we lose that human touch and fail to embrace each other and make a commitment to love and support each other.
I acknowledge white privilege and black prejudice; what you have cited in your comment is quite true - but how do we change it?

Do You See Me said, "Whites can turn back privilege by empowering people of color, even in your everyday activities and interactions. For it is empowerment that is the opposite of discrimination."

I have lived my life sincerely in this manner since my hippie days. My children were raised never hearing ANY type of racial slurs or derogatory names in my home. They were taught to pick their friends for their character, not their color. They would eventually hear those slurs and repeat them to me, but they were then of an age that I could explain the nature of those words. They are adults now and don't use those words. Imagine if a million mothers of my generation had raised their children in the same way. I'm not trying to toot my own horn here, just point out that if we focus on positive action instead of never ending reaction, maybe we can change the world...

Kevin Lockett said...

I think what you've said is a good start. Addressing this issue does start in the home. However, white privilege isn't about individual acts of racism, but about systemic, build in privilege. I think the best way to combat it is to discuss it and expose it. I think the real problem with white privilege is that not enough people realize it exists. Because it's something that's built into the systems of our nation (social systems, legal systems, educational systems, economy, and so on), it can't just be dealt with on an individual level. We have to first acknowledge it exists, and then explore ways to change the system.

rockync said...

Kevin, I agree with you that white privilege is a systemic problem and yes, we need to acknowledge it exists.

We must work on the systemic nature of the problem - things like racial profiling among law enforcement, predatory lending aimed at persons of color, etc.

But, we still MUST start at home to break the chain of racism. Because isn't white privilege another facet of racism? It does not exist in a vaccuum by itself. First, enough people have to consider themselves somehow superior; more entitled.

It ALWAYS goes back to racism.
I have thought on this a long time and here is my manifesto:

RACE is a four letter word that serves only to divide us. It should be as unacceptable in our speech as f**k and s**t.
RACE gives the impression we are from separate planets or something.
We ARE NOT of separate RACES - we are all part of one race only; THE HUMAN RACE.
What makes us different from one another is our ETHNIC ORIGINS.
What we SHOULD be enjoying is our rich and varied cultural heritages and we should share them with each other.
We should be proud of who our ancestors were and honor them by celebrating their traditions and then we should be proud of who we are a celebrate our common bond as Americans.
When we can get to that place, there will be no more need to talk of white privilege, male privilege or any other privilege - except maybe American Privilege.