Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My thoughts on white privilege

Well after a long overdue hiatus, I’m back with another posting about white privilege.
But guess what?

It's my birthday!. Yeah I'm 35 and ready to take the world by storm...

As I said before this is part of a series of posts that I’ll be contributing over the months to come. I asked everybody to share their thoughts on white privilege. It’s a difficult topic and I appreciate all of the responses I received. I’m not quite prepared to respond directly yet, so there is still time to share your thoughts, please do! Also I mentioned that my partner Laura would be writing a post on the subject. That is still to come.

Lastly I hope you checked out the blog posts of my students. They are an amazing group of young intellectuals and could use your encouragement.

Today I’ve decided to share with you my thoughts on white privilege. I figure I asked y’all to put your ideas out there; it’s only fair if I stick my neck out there. So here it goes:

Newsflash, I believe that white privilege exists! I don’t know if y’all knew that I felt this way but I do. I think I have a pretty interesting perspective on the subject. I grew in Binghamton, NY, raised by my white mother from Montana. My father, a Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, was in and out of the picture. Even though I had a diverse group of experiences, through my family and various networks, the majority of my friends growing up were white. My mother was a PhD in English. To many kids, both white and black, I “spoke white”. I found this ironic because aside from my brilliant mother the most eloquent adults I encountered in my childhood were people of color.

I often found myself in conversations that normally wouldn’t take place with a person of color around. At least 10 times in my adolescence, someone used the word nigger in front of me thinking I was white. I would like to say that I always confronted these situations assertively, but I didn't. A few times I almost got in fights, sometimes I vocalized my concern, and a couple of times I said nothing. It’s hard to admit that. The last time it happened I was 24 years old. Ironically I was in a hotel in Puerto Rico with my ex-girlfriend and her father. He made a reference to OJ and how he was exonerated because of all of the Niggers in LA. I remember thinking I couldn’t believe this was happening. It had been years since I’d encountered this type of situation. I grew dreadlocks in college because I never wanted anyone to doubt that I was brown. I thought for a second. I was so extremely angry I was about to go off on the man and then I determined it would be best for his daughter, if I didn’t and so I left. I told her I wasn’t coming back in and we left together. In the past 11 years, I have yet to encounter that situation again.

The reason I share this is because I want to make the distinction between bigotry and privilege. 99 percent of the white people I have encountered do not use the word nigger. However 99 percent of the white people I have encountered are friends with, were friends with, or are related to, someone that uses the word nigger. Every time I've encountered the word, there were other (white) people in the room and the person using the word felt comfortable enough to use it. Most of the white people I know would say something if they encountered that situation. If anyone used the N-word around my mom she would have screamed at them so loudly that the world would have shook. That’s not the point. The point is bigots are all around us and they treat their white counterparts differently. The thing is many times the people they encounter will have no idea that they are bigots. It might be the policeman that pulls you over, or the principle at your kid’s school, or your boss’s boss.

It’s a safe conclusion to say non-bigoted whites are treated better by bigots than non-white people. That’s a privilege. What percentage of white people today could be considered overt bigots? I couldn’t guess but I will say that it’s probably a whole lot less than 50 years ago. But here is the thing. If you get pulled over and let go by a bigoted cop and you don’t know that person is a bigot, what can you do about that? Are you going to read the cops mind and demand to be treated the same as a person of color? For people that are not mind readers it might be difficult. Others might say, I'm not doing anyone any favors by getting a ticket and that might be true. White privilege can't be boiled down merely to a handful of isolated events.

For argument's sake let's imagine you live in a country that was founded by white bigots. Well that would mean that your country was designed to benefit them. Let's say that great strides have been taken to address bigotry. It is no longer socially acceptable in mainstream society to be a bigot. But nothing has been done to pro-actively address the privileges gained by generations of white people as a result of the bigotry of the founding fathers. (For the record, feel free to ask the same questions about Gender) Assume that aside from affirmative action, which has mostly eroded, there have been virtually no institutional changes to address this fundamental issue. It basically boils down to this. “OK back then they were really racist, we won’t do it again and everything will be fine”. And heck it is fine. It turns out that this hypothetical country created by bigots just elected a black president. Hooray!!!

To get a better understanding of the dynamics of the hypothetical country let's take a look at the hypothetical Senate:
94% White, 3 % Latino, 2% Asian, 1 % Black

Hypothetical Population of Hypothetical country:
66% White, 15 % Latino 13% Black 4 % Asian 3% everybody else

Now the way the Senate was elected was determined by whom? You guessed it, those bigoted slave owning founding fathers. And let’s assume for argument’s sake that all 94 white members of the Senate aren’t bigots. (And let's assume that former Ku Klux Klan member and current US Senator Robert Byrd isn't a bigot either, for the heck of it) Well it appears that some of them certainly benefited by the designs of the former bigots. And that’s because of you guessed it, white privilege.

*Please note that the preceding condescending tone is directed towards bigots across the USA and not my beloved readers.

Now in our daily lives there are countless situations that continue to enforce the institutions of privilege and I have ten million more things to say but my brain is going to explode if I look at this computer any longer, so how about I check in again soon, cool?

1 comment:

  1. Well you won't get a much better example of the discrepancy between how white people and people of color are treated by the police than the recent arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis-Gates, the renowned scholar and chairman of the Harvard African-Studies Department. The geist, which you can read more about via the links below, is that Prof. Gates, a person of color, had trouble opening the front door of his house upon returning home from a trip abroad. A white neighbor called the police reporting that a black man was trying to break into someone's house (a nice townhouse in an upscale neighborhood of Cambridge). When the police arrived, Gates was inside. The police said they were responding to a report of a break-in and asked him to step outside. Gates responded by asking them for their id's and wanted to know if they were suspicious of him simply because he was black. Gates then provided identifcation that clearly showed that he lived at the address, which should have ended the encounter, but the police continued to question him about why he was there and he became frustrated and asked for their badge numbers and again questioned their motives. At that point white officers handcuffed Gates on his own front porch, arrested him for disorderly conduct, and took him to jail. I can't possible fathom a prominent white Harvard professor being treated like this under similar circumstances.

    There is an interesting inter-relationship with class issues here. Obviously this would not have been national news if a poor person of color was racially profiled and unjustly arrested. That literally happens every day and does not make the papers. What seems to have outraged people here is that a wealthy, prominent, black intellectual was arrested unjustly. While I think this reflects a degree of classism and selective outrage, I also think it reveals just how widespread the scope and breadth of racism are in our society. Regardless, of how wealthy or powerful you are, there is still a two-tiered system by which people of color are treated more harshly and with greater suspicion than white people by law enforcement, and no matter who you are, you are more likely to end up in cuffs if you are a person of color. Even the most economically oppressed white people still enjoy a degree of privilege compared to the most economically privileged people of color when it comes to interactions with the police.