I wrote Part One of this essay preaching, I thought, to the choir, assuming that my readers (many of whom read my blog on the Depth Psychology Alliance website) would understand the basic idea of privilege and might only need some clarification to help them discuss it with others. But no.
A reader, let’s call her Barbara, responded 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 lately, from fraternity chants to police murders.
The second is opportunistic racism, that nasty language that conservative politicians and pundits regularly spew at their target audiences of angry, old white guys. Let’s be clear about this: most of them are nothing more than entertainers, salesmen and/or con men who play those people like fiddles for power, high salaries and (as we hear about FOX News), sexual favors. I am firmly convinced that if most of these people were offered enough money by progressive media, they’d be the first to advocate for Single Payer, Black Lives Matter and BDS.
These three aspects of racism merit plenty of discussion – some other time. But let’s make another thing clear: when we’re talking about privilege, we aren’t talking about overtly racist attitudes at all. We’re bringing subtle assumptions about ourselves and our places in society to awareness. Here is the most essential point: even if a white American woman hasn’t a single racist bone in her body, indeed even if she is a committed anti-racist activist, even if she is poor and homeless, 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 her response to my blog by asking: So, in what way is what you are saying you’re not a voice of privilege? Are you black?
Me: 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.” 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 our responsibility to speak about it. Indeed, I do feel privileged to know this.
Barbara: 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…
Me: Certainly there have been countless societies in which race didn’t factor in power inequities, although elites always 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 in this context has little 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 arrested. Do I really 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. This is another example (Characteristic # 8 in Part One of this blog) of whites feeling privileged to say to blacks, “I know your reality better than you do.” One can only be this ignorant if he or she is privileged to live where one never sees how cops behave in black neighborhoods, or to ignore the dozens of videos of racist police behavior itemized here.
But there’s a deeper issue here. I encourage you to read Robin DiAngelo’s essay “White Fragility” 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.
To understand the white nationalist backlash that Trump has unleashed, all you need to know is this (as Tim Wise says), “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
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. Another important article of hers is “Eleven Ways White America Avoids Taking Responsibility for its Racism.”
Barbara concludes: Nothing will be solved by condemning an entire group of people because they’re white or black.
Me: Haven’t I simply named an aspect of our shared whiteness? Why does Barbara think that I have condemned the entire white race? 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 I’ve caused Barbara to feel defensive, to feel that I have attacked her or her entire race. And I’m sure that she is a good person. But I can’t leave her feeling like a victim either. Since she wrote to me from the Depth Psychology blog, I must also challenge her to remember that we all have shadow; we are all unaware to some extent of the totality of who we are in the world. It is “Depth Psychology 101” to note that when a simple, non-emotional observation elicits our defensiveness, we should at least wonder about the source of our reaction. Why do we get so upset? In this case, I respectfully suggest that my observations about privilege have triggered Barbara’s white fragility. And I must ask: Do you really feel unsafe? Aren’t you merely uncomfortable? Can you – this is really important – tell the difference?
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. And exactly who might be interested in eliciting that feeling of powerlessness, which as we all should know, is the source of white rage? Well, as always, Cui Bono – follow the money. But before you do, consider the long history of Affirmative Action for whites, as I have enumerated here.
Speaking as I did above of opportunistic racism, a link from a conservative website (next to a Viagra ad – talk about powerlessness!) landed in my inbox today. Mike Huckabee “debunked” the idea of white privilege, citing a study that showed that Americans of any race are likely to join the middle class by adhering to three basic rules — “…at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.” Indeed, Indian-, Israeli- and Taiwanese- Americans make more money than European-Americans. Case closed: “…race is not what determines the success of an individual in the United States…Our system benefits anyone who wants to study hard, work hard and make the most of it.”
That’s fine as long as the discussion is limited to the most simplistic legal issues. But again, when we’re talking about privilege, we aren’t talking about racist barriers to advancement, though the fact that they still exist should be obvious to anyone with eyes and ears. Even today (September 2017) a comprehensive study shows that “Bias Against Hiring African Americans Hasn’t Budged” between 1990 and 2015.
We’re talking about white people, and the unconscious assumptions we hold, especially when we are in positions of authority and influence. Huckabee, preaching to his own choir to buttress their subtle racism, innocently – more likely, deliberately – ignores the subtler aspects of the issue. His reference to “…anyone who wants to study hard, work hard…” is a clear message to the choir: If you don’t succeed, it’s your own fault. Blame the victim rather than the system. Even better: blame black people.
But again, privilege is not about financial success. LeBron James’ vast fortune did not prevent some thug from spray-painting “nigger” on his front door. Being a black member of the upper-middle class or even higher does not insulate anyone from the privileged and often hateful gaze of a white person. If Clarence Thomas or Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell or Ben Carson or Steph Curry or Oprah Winfrey or Denzel Washington or Samuel L. Jackson or Dwayne Johnson or Morgan Freeman or Republican Senator Tim Scott (who has been stopped by police seven times) or Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala or Harvard Professor and TV host Henry Louis Gates or Barack Obama himself were to be pulled over for driving with a broken tail-light, this would be the likely scenario, at least until they showed identification: their motives for driving in a certain part of town at night, as well as the specific manner of their response, would be highly scrutinized.
And if that response were to elicit the fragilty I’m talking about, they might still be in physical danger from an American policeman, who would himself be privileged, as so many do, to claim that he used his weapon because he feared for his life.
Well, of course, if Mike Huckabee were a cop, he wouldn’t behave like that, because he’s not a racist, and we should stop trying to make him feel guilty for denying what he and his audiences assume all day long.
In fact, we who teach about privilege don’t want anyone to feel guilty. We want you to feel responsible. Once your consciousness has been raised about any issue, we want you want to become active in changing the social conditions that contribute to it, if only to call out your friends and loved ones when they display their own unconscious assumptions.
Denial of our privilege – not the privilege itself – is one of those conditions. To be responsible is have the potential of responding; it is to reclaim some of the power that this mad culture has deliberately drained from you, without distracting yourself by blaming scapegoats.
Many are called these days, but few choose to respond. Now that’s a privilege. Read Part Three here.