Racism & White Privilege, Pt. 2
One Sunday, last summer I believe it was, several of us went out for brunch after the Sunday Service. We met at a local restaurant and waited to be seated. I believe there were 5 of us, both African American and white folks.
When we finally were seated, we were given menus and chatted as we each were choosing what we wanted to eat.
Time past, people came and were seated after us, and were waited on after us, and even served after us.
Finally, as I started up to get the waitress passing us, our waitress stopped by the table. Of course, we all were ready to place our order by then.
That was the first time I had witnessed open prejudice because of race, or at least that it registered as such. Any other time I went to the restaurant, and I favored the place often, I had no problem getting seated timely and waited on quickly.
Up until recently, I had very little experience, directly, with people of color. And as I became involved with my spiritual journey, it has been one more thing that I have had to look at, brutally honestly, I must admit.
In Robin Diangelo’s book, “White Fragility – Why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism,” Diangelo looks at how, after the Civil Rights movement, we white northerners claimed a moral superiority over the southerners because we were good moral people who would not treat the Black community in such harsh ways.
We were progressive, educated, open-minded northerners, good moral folks while the racists were bad, ignorant, bigoted, old southerners. That was the thought at the time…and maybe still some today.
To call someone a racist was to insult their character. But instead of reflecting on that possibility, we use that energy to defend ourselves. And THIS is why it is nearly impossible to talk to white people about race.
“If we cannot discuss the dynamics of racism or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism.”
If I said I am not racist, then it turns out to not be my problem, and I need not do anything more about it…. simple. But that way nothing gets done, nothing changes.
Is that your way out of looking deeper, not answering the question, Am I a Racist??
And saying you are colorblind is just an easy way out. Making excuses like I was taught to treat everyone the same; I don’t see color; if people are respectful to me, I am respectful to them, regardless of race; our family has multiracial children in it, or I went to a very diverse school or lived in a diverse neighborhood are more excuses to not look within.
How does any of these claims, and there are many more, function in the conversation about race? Do they exempt the person speaking it from any responsibility?
What they do is close rather than open the conversation to any further discussion or exploration.
And without that exploration, we do not change our outlook. And without that change, racism continues.
In reality, we can’t treat everyone the same because humans can’t be 100% objective, so claiming this closes us off again. And since we are born into the racist social system embedded in our culture and institutions, we can’t be brought up racism-free, as many claim.
“We live in a culture that circulates relentless messages of white superiority. And at the same time, relentless messages of black inferiority.”
Thus, white superiority depends on the projection of black inferiority.
We can’t have white privilege without blacks.
In America, black people are, as the Sentencing Project observes, “more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences”.
And more likely to be killed by the police, too. Yet studies also show that the problems faced by African Americans are not due simply to white people, or even to white police officers, but to a system of justice that is structurally deeply unjust.
White privilege exists because of historic, enduring racism and biases.
When I say white privilege, what do you feel, what do you think? Oh, I wish you were here to have this discussion right now. Please respond on FB or email me.
Although the definition of “white privilege” has been somewhat fluid, it is generally agreed to refer to the implicit or systemic advantages that people who are deemed white have relative to people who are not deemed white.
White privilege is a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses on advantages that white people accrue from their position in society as well as the disadvantages that non-white people experience.
This same idea is brought to light by Peggy McIntosh, who wrote about white privilege from the perspective of a white individual in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. McIntosh states in her writing that, “as a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage”.
Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” in the early 2010s, later releasing her 2018 book by that title. She has said that “white privilege can be thought of as unstable racial equilibrium”, and that when this equilibrium is challenged, the resulting racial stress can become intolerable and trigger a range of defensive responses. DiAngelo defines these behaviors as white fragility.
For example, DiAngelo observed in her studies that some white people, when confronted with racial issues concerning white privilege, may respond with dismissal, distress, or other defensive responses because they may feel personally implicated in white supremacy.
Elsewhere, it has been summarized as “the trademark inability of white Americans to meaningfully own their unearned privilege”.
DiAngelo also writes that white privilege is very rarely discussed and that even multicultural education courses tend to use vocabulary that further obfuscates racial privilege and defines race as something that only concerns blacks. She suggests using loaded terminology with negative connotations to people of color adds to the cycle of white privilege.
It is far more the norm for these courses and programs to use racially coded language such as ‘urban,’ ‘inner city,’ and ‘disadvantaged’ but to rarely use ‘white’ or ‘over advantaged’ or ‘privileged.’ This racially coded language reproduces racist images and perspectives while it simultaneously reproduces the comfortable illusion that race and its problems are what ‘they’ have, not us.
She does say, however, that defensiveness and discomfort from white people in response to being confronted with racial issues is not irrational but rather is often driven by subconscious, sometimes even well-meaning, attitudes toward racism.
The system of white privilege applies both to the way a person is treated by others and to a set of behaviors, affects, and thoughts, which can be learned and reinforced. These elements of “whiteness” establish social status and guarantee advantages for some people, without directly relying on skin color or other aspects of a person’s appearance.
In her book Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America, Stephanie M. Wildman writes that many Americans who advocate a merit-based, race-free worldview do not acknowledge the systems of privilege which have benefited them. For example, many Americans rely on a social or financial inheritance from previous generations, an inheritance unlikely to be forthcoming if one’s ancestors were slaves.
Whites were sometimes afforded opportunities and benefits that were unavailable to others. In the middle of the 20th century, the government subsidized white homeownership through the Federal Housing Administration, but not homeownership by minorities.
Whites have historically had more opportunities to accumulate wealth. Some of the institutions of wealth creation amongst American citizens were open exclusively to whites. Similar differentials applied to the Social Security Act (which excluded agricultural and domestic workers, sectors that then included most black workers), rewards to military officers, and the educational benefits offered to returning soldiers after World War II
Thomas Shapiro wrote that wealth is passed along from generation to generation, giving whites a better “starting point” in life than other races. According to Shapiro, many whites receive financial assistance from their parents allowing them to live beyond their income. This, in turn, enables them to buy houses and major assets which aid in the accumulation of wealth. Since houses in white neighborhoods appreciate faster, even African Americans who can overcome their “starting point” are unlikely to accumulate wealth as fast as whites. Shapiro asserts this is a continual cycle from which whites consistently benefit. These benefits also have effects on schooling and other life opportunities.
WOW. I’ve learned a lot about white privilege these last few weeks. Even coming from a very poor background, I know now that my family still had a hand up over people of color.
Next week, we will continue our look at racism from the Black and people of color point of view, or at least I’ll give it a try.