Sometimes it can be difficult, having a conversation with those whose political views are so diametrically opposed to one’s own.
But even more challenging, is having a discussion with someone who simply refuses to accept even the most basic elements of your worldview. At that point, disagreement is less about the specifics of one or another policy option, and more about the nature of social reality itself.
This is what it can be like sometimes, when trying to discuss the issue of white privilege with white people. Despite being an obvious institutionalized phenomenon to people of color and even some of us white folks, white privilege is typically denied, and strongly, by most of us.
Usually, this denial plays out in one of two ways: either we seek to shift the focus of discussion to our status as members of some other group that isn’t socially dominant (so, for example, whites who are poor or working class will insist that because of their economic marginalization, they effectively enjoy no racial privilege at all), or we retreat to the tired but popular notion that all have an equal opportunity in this, our colorblind meritocracy.
Denying ones privileges is of course nothing if not logical. To admit that one receives such things is to acknowledge that one is implicated in the process by which others are oppressed or discriminated against. It makes fairly moot the oft-heard defense that “I wasn’t around back then, and I never owned slaves, or killed any Indians,” or whatever.
If one has reaped the benefits of those past injustices (to say nothing of ongoing discrimination in the present) by being elevated, politically, economically and socially above persons of color, for example–which whites as a group surely have been thanks to enslavement, Indian genocide and Jim Crow–then whether or not one did the deed becomes largely a matter of irrelevance.
Of course, what is ultimately overlooked is that denial of one’s privilege itself manifests a form of privilege: namely, the privilege of being able to deny another person’s reality (a reality to which they speak regularly) and suffer no social consequence as a result.
Whites pay no price, in other words, for dismissing the claims of racism so regularly launched by persons of color, seeing as how the latter have no power to punish such disbelievers at the polls, or in the office suites, or in the schools in most cases.
On the other hand, people of color who refuse to buy into white reality–the “reality” of the U.S. as a “shining city on a hill,” or the “reality” of never-ending progress, or the “reality” of advancement by merit–often pay a heavy toll: they are marginalized, called “professional victims,” or accused of playing the race card.
Consider the common charge of conspiratorial paranoia hurled at any person of color, for example, who dared to point out the racially-disparate voter purging that took place in Florida in 2000, or in various places in 2004. White reality is privileged at every turn, so that if whites say something is a problem, it is, and if whites insist it isn’t, then it isn’t.
Those of us who are white remain thought of as sober-minded, and never as given to underestimating the extent of racism, making a molehill out of what is, in fact, often a mountain, or playing our own race card, the denial card, which far and away trumps whatever pallid alternative people of color may occasionally find in their own decks.
In other words, privilege is not merely about money and wealth. It is not merely something that attaches when one is born with the proverbial silver spoon in one’s mouth. Rather it is the daily psychological advantage of knowing that one’s perceptions of the world are the ones that stick, that define the norm for everyone else, and that are taken seriously in the mainstream.
Whiteness is so privileged in everyday dialogue that one need look no further than our nation’s post-election discourse to see how it operates.
So, for example, one after another commentator in the wake of election night pontificated, without hesitation, that the outcome had been a referendum on “moral values,” and the result of high turnout amongst evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly voted for President Bush.
Yet what this analysis ignored is that it was only some evangelicals who overwhelmingly chose to re-elect the President, while others voted to do exactly the opposite. Indeed, black evangelicals voted eight to one against Bush, meaning that the mainstream talking heads, as usual were privileging the white perspective, and universalizing the particular behavior of white folks, as if it were the standard for everyone.
So too with the so-called “red state, blue state” divide. Fact is, the divide is less one of geography than race: a majority of whites in the blue states (including California and New York) voted for Bush on election day, while the vast majority of blacks and the majority of other persons of color in the red states voted against him.
But part of white privilege is never having to examine the peculiarity of white behavior (or even acknowledge that there is such a thing as white group behavior at all), and so naturally, this racial aspect of electoral division remains unexamined, and the more comforting perspective (for whites at least) that there is merely a split based on residence remains largely unchallenged.
But it’s more than that. Even more important as an example of white privilege–the kind that adheres to all whites, not just the rich–is the ability to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others who just so happen to fall within the same racial group as you.
While people of color bear the burden of disproving negative stereotypes regularly–when interviewing for a job, taking a standardized test, or merely driving in the “wrong” neighborhood, where they are presumed not to belong–whites rarely if ever have to worry that the actions of others like us, no matter how horrible, will stick to us or force us to prove that we are somehow different.
For example, whites can screw up on the job, run entire corporations into the ground, rip off the Savings and Loans to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, cut corners on occupational safety and health in the workplace, or scam millions from employee pension funds, without the rest of us having to worry that such incompetence or outright dishonesty will result in whites being viewed suspiciously every time we seek to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.
White men in Lexuses (or is it Lexi?) will not need to fear being pulled over by police on suspicion of transporting documents confirming their latest fiscal shenanigans.
When Martha Stewart conspires to cover up a stock dumping scam, white women across America do not cower in fear that somehow they will be viewed as dishonest and predatory as a result. Nor white men thanks to Ken Lay.
If the President of the United States mispronounces every fifth word out of his mouth, none of us white folks have to worry that someone will ascribe his verbal incompetence to some general white illiteracy. But honestly, do we think that if this President were black, or Latino or Asian Pacific American, or indigenous, and mangled the English language with the regularity of the actual President, that no one would make the leap from individual to group defect?
Why is it that when the white President of the University of Tennessee overspends his expense account by millions, using public funds for expensive rugs, home furnishings and lavish chartered plane trips, no one suggests that perhaps it’s time for the school to pick a black or brown chief executive, but when the black President of historically black Tennessee State University is seen as mismanaging that school’s resources, voices all across my hometown of Nashville began to whisper (or even say quite loudly) that perhaps it was time for TSU to get a white President?
For those reading this who are white, ask yourselves, when was the last time you felt the need to stand up and apologize for a crime committed by another white person? Better yet, when was the last time you felt the need to do this for fear that if you didn’t, your community would come to be viewed as inherently violent and dangerous, and perhaps be attacked as a result? And when was the last time someone suggested that our failure to openly condemn white criminals implicated us in their wrongdoing?
Yet what of the recent murders in Wisconsin by a Hmong immigrant, who killed six white hunters when they confronted him in a private deer stand? Not only did bumper stickers crop up within days reading, “Save a deer, shoot a Hmong,” implying that the shooter was somehow representative of a larger group evil, but more to the point, the Hmong and larger Southeast Asian communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota (where the shooter was from) rushed to distance themselves from him.
This distancing was, of course, only made necessary because to not do so would put others like them at risk, in a way no white person has ever been put at risk because some of our number occasionally kills folks.
Likewise, nearly a decade ago, when a Hmong woman in the Twin Cities murdered her six children, her status as a racial and ethnic minority was front and center in discussion of the crime–anger on talk radio was pointed at the Hmong as a group, or Asians more broadly, for example–but a few years back, when Andrea Yates killed her five kids in Texas, or when Susan Smith drowned her two boys in a South Carolina lake, no one attacked her as an example of what’s wrong with white folks these days.
Even when some white teenager commits a racially-motivated hate crime, as happened recently in Simi Valley, California where four white youths beat two black kids to a pulp, the white response is one that seeks to demonstrate that their town is not racist (as if geography alone ever commits an aggravated assault), rather than hoping to prove that all whites aren’t that way. The latter possibility would never enter their minds, and why?
It’s why in the aftermath of 9/11, you could hear one after another white person demanding to know, and being treated as reasonable for asking it, “where are the moderate voices in the Arab Muslim community prepared to condemn terrorism,” all because nineteen out of 1.5 billion Muslims on Planet Earth flew planes into buildings. Yet one cannot fathom anyone being taken seriously if they were to ask, “where are the moderate white Christians,” in the aftermath of Oklahoma City or any of a number of abortion clinic bombings.
It’s why whenever this issue is raised, white folks rush to insist that we’re “just individuals,” and want to be thought of as such, rather than as whites. Indeed, we often believe that to even point out our racial identity is racist, as it groups us unfairly and diminishes our “humanness,” or “Americanness.”
Of course, the irony in such a position is that it is only members of the dominant group in a society who could ever have the luxury of viewing ourselves, or expecting to be viewed by others as “individuals.”
That’s the point: no one else has ever been able to assume they would be viewed that way, because at no point have they been, nor do they get to be so viewed today, as the aforementioned examples demonstrate all too clearly.
To even say that our group status is irrelevant or should be is to suggest that one has enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the world that way (or rather, believing that one was). In other words, it is the result of a particular social arrangement, whereby some and not others have been seen as individuals no matter the actions of others within their group. There is, of course a phrase for this arrangement.
And until it is eradicated, dug up and discarded root and branch, there can be no legitimate discussion of “colorblindness” or simple individualism. Nor can we be taken seriously as a nation when we hold ourselves up as an example to other nations of what freedom and democracy are supposed to look like.
Tim Wise is an essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his website is located at www.timwise.org. Hate mail, while neither appreciated nor desired, will be graded for spelling, grammar, style and content.