I’m not a believer, in the ordinary sense of that word, and I’m aware that Paul is a problematic figure in theological history, to put it mildly. But those words have resonated with me over the last two weeks. Painful recent events on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri — and the strongly divided national response to those events — offer us a chance to become aware of the ways we see race in America “through a glass, darkly,” and perhaps also the beginnings of a chance to see each other face to face, to know as we are known. Let me be clear that when I say “we” I am primarily addressing America’s white majority, to which I belong. We are the ones whose vision is occluded by the darkened glass of white privilege, and it’s up to us to do something about it. Black people can see white privilege pretty clearly, but from a different perspective, and it’s beyond their power to change it.
White privilege is a term that sometimes gets thrown around too cavalierly, especially when people are having a fight on the Internet and want to shut each other up. (I find myself echoing here many of the things I wrote about masculinity and male privilege in the wake of the Elliot Rodger case in May. It’s been a tough summer in America.) Recognizing white privilege does not mean that white people don’t get to express our views on controversial racial topics, or that we have to defer to whatever a person of color may say. It does mean, however, that we have a responsibility to be alert to advantages we may possess, whether as ordinary citizens on the street, economic agents or wielders of rhetoric that appears neutral rather than “racial.” By definition, it means that some of those advantages are things we don’t notice, or take entirely for granted.
My former Salon colleague Matt Zoller Seitz (now the editor of Roger Ebert’s website) wrote a memorable personal essay on this topic last week. It generated some heated discussion among my colleagues, because it’s arguably only half on-topic. It was partly a confession about a period of extreme disorder in Matt’s own life, when he did some foolish and destructive things, and partly a reckoning with the fact that the consequences of those actions could have been a whole lot worse if he hadn’t had white skin. I have no anecdotes anywhere near that dramatic in my past, but like many other white people who read Matt’s story, I was compelled to think about encounters with cops where I was treated courteously and given the benefit of the doubt, and where it never even occurred to me that the outcome might have been different for someone who didn’t look like me. (A traffic stop in suburban California at age 18: underage, probably over the limit and carrying both alcohol and marijuana. “Drive yourself straight home, son, and don’t let me see you out here again.”)
But the most insidious power of white privilege, the albatross effect that makes it so oppressive to white people themselves, is the way it renders itself invisible and clouds the collective mind. It’s like a virus that adapts in order to ensure its own survival and perpetuation, in this case by convincing its host it isn’t there. So we see polls suggesting that large percentages of white Americans believe that racism is not a significant factor in Ferguson or law enforcement in general, that cops are just doing their jobs, and that whatever bad things may have happened once upon a time in our beloved country, they’ve been locked away in the dusty cabinet of history and don’t matter anymore. We passed the Voting Rights Act and exiled the Ku Klux Klan to the margins of society (or at least to websites with really bad graphics). Ergo, white privilege obviously doesn’t exist anymore.
Among the “childish things” we need to put aside, white people, is the idea that America’s tormented racial legacy belongs to the past. You know exactly the attitude I mean: We have twice elected a biracial president and LeBron James and Jay Z are zillionaires, so no more talk of racism, please. In the more paranoid formulation prevalent in the Fox News demographic (but not limited to it), this becomes the idea that the federal government has spent the last 50 years giving away money, housing, education and other “free stuff” to black people who don’t work or pay taxes, while vigorously grinding down the white man. So either the vision of healing and reconciliation conjured up so eloquently by Martin Luther King, Jr. more than 50 years ago has now been fulfilled (and black people need to stop complaining), or America is being not so slowly turned into a gay-Muslim-socialist totalitarian state where every day is Kwanzaa. Both scenarios come up against the nettlesome fact that African-Americans stubbornly persist in being poor, living in disadvantaged circumstances, getting shot by the police for no particular reason and going to prison in large numbers.
This kind of white privilege is a willful blindness, along with a passionate embrace of exactly the kind of aggrievement and victimhood that white people often claim to resent in others. It’s found in Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity, of course, but also among people like hipster über-troll Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice, who wrote a piece not long ago explaining that racism, sexism and homophobia do not actually exist. But I’m not principally talking about Republican ideologues and their hardcore supporters, who have built their power and influence on thinly veiled racism over the past 40 years and barely even bother denying it. There is a much larger population of white Americans, I believe, who feel troubled by what they saw in Ferguson but are unable or unwilling to face the fact that it reflects a recurring historical pattern that has obviously not been exorcised, a pattern of power, privilege and domination in which they are complicit.
Any white person who is being honest can understand this reluctance, and probably any other kind of person too. It’s a lot more comfortable to believe that equal opportunity has been pretty much afforded to all, allowing for some bumps in the road – or to believe that you yourself belong to the unfairly downtrodden and stigmatized group – than to consider the alternatives. It is not comfortable at all for any white American to read the case assembled by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his magisterial reported essay “The Case for Reparations” that American society has not done nearly enough to erase the cultural and historical debt left behind by 250 years of slavery followed by another century-plus of economic discrimination, political suppression, institutionalized theft and straight-up terrorism. “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear,” Coates writes. “The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
William Faulkner’s famous remark that the past is not dead, and isn’t even past, could not be more vividly illustrated than by the images from Ferguson: A black man shot dead in the street; angry African-American protesters facing impassive and heavily armed white police officers; tear gas, broken glass and the National Guard. But how to deal with these events that seem like nightmarish echoes of too many previous events? One way, the path of survival pursued by the virus of white privilege, is to detach each of these cases from history. Each of these inexplicably dead black men becomes an isolated phenomenon, with no reference to any discernible pattern. History is bunk, as Henry Ford and then the Gang of Four told us; there are no lessons in the past.
This urgent agenda of historical decoupling offers one reason why the specific details of each case become so fraught with meaning, and why the elaborate character assassination of every victim is so important to TV talking heads and Internet trolls. If Michael Brown was a thieving thug who made Darren Wilson fear for his life, if Trayvon Martin was a drug-dealing ne’er-do-well who was casing out potential burglaries (and probably high on “Purple Drank”), if Eric Garner was a bruising gangster who resisted arrest and stopped breathing because of asthma and cardiac arrest rather than an illegal chokehold, then their deaths were regrettable (or maybe non-regrettable) consequences of the system working as it should. Race was not a factor, the police and/or random armed citizens acted reasonably, the protesters are mobs of looters and law-breakers, and the liberal pantywaists crying about it on TV are the real racists.
That pathway remains highly seductive for white America, because it avoids any notion of collective or social responsibility and accesses the Calvinist myth of individualism that lies at the core of white American identity. A man makes his own fate or is elected by Providence – it comes to the same thing in the end – and if those young men and a distressing number of others met death in the street under unsettling circumstances, that can only have been their just deserts. Considering the possibility that they died because of a system of justice and law enforcement that skews heavily toward arresting, imprisoning and otherwise suppressing black and brown people, and that that system is itself embedded within much larger cultural and historical patterns, raises a lot of painful questions. What are we supposed to do about it, for one thing?
For starters, we can be honest with ourselves about white privilege, when we’re able to see it. That means being honest about how it benefits us and also how it imprisons us, which for me was the great public service of Matt Seitz’s article. Coates’ credit-card metaphor is particularly apposite, directed at the largely white readership of the Atlantic; what middle-class family these days does not understand the crippling effects of long-term debt? Resisting white privilege is not about “liberal guilt,” or donning sackcloth and ashes, or whatever Bill O’Reilly thinks happens in graduate seminars at elite universities. It’s about finding material ways to pay down that debt, and also about recognizing how much the debt has weighed us down – all of us, white and black and brown and all other shades.
As I said earlier, the virus of white privilege survives by convincing its host organism that it does not exist. That’s because the more clearly we see it the more likely we are to notice that its purported benefits have faded almost to nothing. Whites of the working and middle classes correctly perceive that their economic fortunes have deteriorated over the past half-century, even if the average white household is still 20 times wealthier than the average black household (an especially deleterious consequence of white privilege). An entire right-wing ideological empire remains devoted to convincing white people that benefit-sucking African-Americans and job-stealing Latino immigrants are somehow to blame for their downward trajectory. White privilege is the solvent used, throughout American history, to dissolve multiracial coalitions of working people, and the drug used to brainwash whites into making common cause with the class of CEOs, financiers and landlords. Kicking that drug habit is the only way white America can ever set itself free from the past.
Police handcuff a protester during the demonstrations on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 20, 2014. A fresh wave of confrontation briefly shook Ferguson Tuesday night, hours before a county grand jury was to start considering evidence in the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer on Aug. 9. (Photo: Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal for The New York Times)
Mother's White Privilege
from Huffington Post
As the ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri show us, America's racial tensions didn't disappear when George Wallace backed down from the schoolhouse door. Dr. King didn't wave a magic wand, and we never got together to feel all right. White America remembers this at ugly flashpoints: the Rodney King beatings, the OJ Simpson trial, the Jena Six, Trayvon Martin's death. White America recoils in horror not at the crimes -- though the crimes are certainly horrible. It's not the teenagers gunned down, the police abuse, the corrupt trials. It's this: at these sudden, raw moments, in these riots and demonstrations and travesties of justice, White America is forced to gaze upon the emotional roil of oppression, the anger and fear and deep grief endemic to the black American experience. Black America holds up a mirror for us.
And white America is terrified to look.
To admit white privilege is to admit a stake, however small, in ongoing injustice. It's to see a world different than your previous perception. Acknowledging that your own group enjoys social and economic benefits of systemic racism is frightening and uncomfortable. It leads to hard questions of conscience many of us aren't prepared to face
What is White Privilege?
“White Privilege is the other side of racism. Unless we name it, we are in danger of wallowing in guilt or moral outrage with no idea of how to move beyond them. It is often easier to deplore racism and its effects than to take responsibility for the privileges some of us receive as a result of it… once we understand how white privilege operates, we can begin addressing it on an individual and institutional basis.” ~Paula Rothenberg
from: The White Privilege Conference
Tim Wise explores how racial identity and whiteness influence the lives of white Americans, by examining how they have impacted his own life. Wise examines what it means to be white in a nation created for the benefit of those who are “white like him,” and how privilege seeps into every institutional arrangement, from education to employment to the justice system. Importantly, he also discusses the ways that white privilege can ultimately harm its recipients in the long run and make progressive social change less likely. Through personal storytelling and convincing analysis, Wise makes the case that racial inequity and white privilege are real and persistent threats to personal and collective well-being, but that resistance to white supremacy and racism is possible.
My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man's Journey Through the Nation's Racial Minefield by Michael R. Wenger Pin It Add to List + ( 1 ) Overview In 1970, a working-class, Jewish man from New York City married an African American woman from rural, segregated North Carolina. From their union, Michael Wenger has three children, four grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Years later, Mr. Wenger served as Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for President Clinton's Initiative on Race, an opportunity that confirmed for him the conscious and unconscious bias that people of color confront daily in the United
White Privilege Exists in America
By Zerlina Maxwell
White privilege is a concept that far too many people misunderstand. These are the same people who argue that white privilege is made-up, that people of color and others who work to point out entrenched social injustice are just complainers.
Number 4 on the list:
You are less likely to be perceived as a "thug."
When Seattle Seahawks superstar Richard Sherman dared speak out after making a game-winning play to get his team to the Superbowl, the word "thug" was used 625 times in 24 hours of television broadcasts. Sherman, a Standford University graduate, called out his critics, noting that white male aggression is seen as acceptable in sports like hockey because the vast majority of players are white.
"The only reason it bothers me is that it seems like it's the accepted way of calling people the n-word nowadays,"Sherman said. "Because they know. What’s the definition of a thug, really? Can a guy on the football field, just talking to people — maybe I'm talking loudly, or doing something I'm not supposed to be. But there was a hockey game where they didn't even play hockey, they just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and I thought, 'Oh man, I’m a thug?' So I'm really disappointed in being called a thug."
The Abolitionist Echoes of Ferguson: White Privilege as Moral Duty
Thursday, 21 August 2014 by Truthout
By Michelle Corbin, Truthout | Op-Ed
What are the responsibilities of those enjoying white privilege in a white supremacist society? The abolitionists offer inspiration in the fight against racism and structural injustice.
to #Ferguson Focus on
Fear, Injustice and White Privilege
BY NICOLA MENZIE , CHRISTIAN POST REPORTER"Well, I think the role of the faith community is primarily to see the injustice and connect this injustice to the gospel, and realize that every word that Jesus spoke and even the actions that he did when he walked this earth were not just to get us to heaven, but to give us a preview of the reality that should be," said Crump. "The reality that should be is never one where a teenager can be gunned down in the street despite what he did. We're a nation of laws, and those laws are meant to protect us."
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
by Peggy McIntosh
EXPLAINING WHITE PRIVILEGE
TO A BROKE WHITE PERSON
...Years ago, some feminist on the internet told me I was "Privileged."
"THE FUCK!?!?" I said.
I came from the kind of Poor that people don't want to believe still exists in this country...
by Gina Crosley-Corcoran
Veterans and White Supremacy
By KATHLEEN BELEW
NY Times APRIL 15, 2014
WHEN Frazier Glenn Miller shot and killed three people in Overland Park, Kan., on Sunday, he did so as a soldier of the white power movement: a groundswell that united Klansmen, neo-Nazis and other fringe elements after the Vietnam War, crested with the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, and remains a diminished but potent threat today.
Mr. Miller, the 73-year-old man charged in the killings, had been outspoken about his hatred of Jews, blacks, Communists and immigrants, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a crazed outlier. The shootings were consistent with his three decades of participation in organized hate groups. His violence was framed by a clear worldview.
PHOENIX — About a dozen people carrying guns, including one with a military-style rifle, milled among protesters outside the convention center where President Barack Obama was giving a speech Monday — the latest incident in which protesters have openly displayed firearms near the president. Gun-rights advocates say they're exercising their constitutional right to bear arms -- AP
17 Deplorable Examples Of White Privilege
And this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg
People of color must assimilate every.single.day. It’s hard to break free of the ways of the dominant hegemony and forge your own path.
The Southern Poverty Law Center
On Racism and
White skin privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. Unlike the more overt individual and institutional manifestations of racism described above, white skin privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society.
Slaves in the Family,
Edward Ball rewrites his family legends in an effort to bring black and white history together
The journalist Edward Ball grew up steeped in the lore of the antebellum South. His family's dynasty began in 1698, when Elias Ball sailed from England to Charleston, South Carolina, to claim his inheritance -- part of a plantation and twenty slaves. His descendants became members of one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the South -- before the Civil War they owned more than twenty rice plantations and thousands of slaves. The rose-tinted stories about life on the plantations that Edward Ball heard as a child rarely mentioned the slaves who outnumbered their owners' families by seven to one. Ball set out to discover what life had really been like for his family's slaves, in the process tracking down and befriending their descendants and sifting through 10,000 pages of Ball-family archives. As a columnist for The Village Voice, Ball had written about race issues prior to this book, but it wasn't until he returned to Charleston for a family reunion that he decided to "make an effort, however inadequate and personal, to face the plantations, to reckon with them rather than ignore their realities or make excuses for them." Slaves in the Family is Ball's first book.