On privilege

The Tribune is running a year-long feature called “Exploring Race,” edited by Dawn Turner Trice. A recent blog post asks, “Is white privilege real?” (I must note that whenever I hear questions framed in this manner, I tend to have an immediate assumption about the content. Because here we have to answer the question of whether white privilege is ‘real’ before we can ever talk about privilege.) Quick summary: white woman grew up poor, went to college and is still poor. She doesn’t believe she has known white privilege.

I was going to address this earlier, but it just made me sigh. Plus there are a couple of posters who adequately explained the concept of privilege. So I’m just going to address the things that stood out for me in the essay.

First, the author notes that she was expelled from high school for truancy. Yet none of the vitriolic responses chastise her for “not valuing education” or “not finishing school” or “not having parents who knew the value of hard work.” All of these sentiments are expressed. However, they are all directed towards black people.

Second, she believes that she has not experienced privilege. One of the main ways privilege functions is through its invisibility. I was thinking about this recently because of a white friend who had been stopped by the police while carrying a large amount of an illegal substance. He wasn’t arrested. Rather, the police officer scattered the drug and told him to stay out of trouble.

And this is one of the ways in which I believe privilege functions. White people give other white people the benefit of the doubt, maybe even when it’s not deserved.

The writer also notes as follows:

Yet, because I am white, some people think that I must be a felon or extremely lazy because of my lot.

During my job search, I noticed that when I would go to a job bank, I was treated differently in comparison to minorities. The agents grilled me, not to help me get a job, but to find out why I didn’t have one. They wanted to know what I had done to make myself so poor. They also asked why I didn’t have a family member who could help me. Did they ask this just because I’m white?

I know that many people of color have this belief about poor white people, and I think it is deeply rooted in beliefs about white supremacy as well as an understanding of privilege that eclipses other factors. My mother, for example, is extremely disparaging about poor white people. It’s another version of the “bootstrap” myth. With my mother it goes like this: Our family never asked for a handout and we worked hard and look where we all are now. And we did this when people wouldn’t give us a job because of our color and when we didn’t speak English.

The problem with this myth is that it ignores the very real complexities of poverty.

I think that there are two big problems with being white and poor in America. One is that the face of the poor, as presented by the media, is largely black. Although there are more white people on aid than black people, when most people think of “welfare recipients” the faces they picture are black.

This renders poor whites invisible. And being invisible isn’t helpful when it comes to getting assistance. How can white poverty be addressed if it is largely unacknowledged?

The second problem I see with being white and poor is that white people have been so thoroughly steeped in the idea of white supremacy that their expectations are unrealistic. On some level, they believe in the meritocracy. They believe that the system should reward them. And when it doesn’t, they are angry and bitter and resentful.

They are perhaps especially resentful of people of color who appear to have succeeded. (I am reminded of a friend with a very nice car, who was startled to have a white woman approach at a stoplight, stick her head in the window, and snarl, “Where’d YOU get the money to pay for this?” And look at how white people talk about how Barack Obama must have been an affirmative action admit. People, the man is smart. How can you deny that?)

You can hear the resentment from the essayist (the black financial aid officer, the black students at her college) as well as in some of the comments:

Lets see….my grandparents were european immigrants who worked in the coal mines of Scranton, Pa. They were exploited beyond imagination. My parents worked hard, they never had an opportunity to attend college but they provided a relatively safe albeit modest life for their four children. I put myself through college and grad school, waitressing along the way, taking classes at night.

Tonight, I came home from another 12 hour day working in the nursing profession and I look at my pay check and half of it is gone…poof. In this country we are required to support those who don’t support themselves.

I’m 50 years old and my kids will likely have to work their way through college. There are no grants, funds or scholarships for my white privileged honor student children. My kids work hard for their grades but no rewards for my white privileged kids.

No one in my family has every been arrested, we have all contributed to our communities in a positive way, it’s almost genetic for us. We appreciate every night we have a warm bed and a good meal. We don’t litter. We go out of our way to help our neighbors.
We have never taken a dime of any entitlement program. We have far too much pride for that.

I don’t know what that poster expected, but I do know that many, many people do expect that their children will work their way through college. With everything that she states her family is, it seems like she is implying that this is what people of color are not.

And it feels like there is a very real resentment aimed at people of color in this message, because it seems like the poster (as well as the original essayist) is angry that she has played by the rules, but the game hasn’t gone the way that it should.


14 thoughts on “On privilege

  1. Most white people seem to think white privilege is “having been cognizant of direct, covert instances of racism stealing something from a minority and giving it to me instead unmerited.”

    No. That’s not what it is. That’s not just what it is, anyways.

    White privilege is… I, as a white man, can watch any sci-fi channel show I want, and in some way identify with the main characters and cast. I can easily “fail to notice” that in most science fiction, the blacker characters are, the more violent they are. I can claim, and get credit and approval and recognition as an egalitarian activist, if I claim that Romulans and Cardassians disprove this trend, while ignoring the fact that all Star Trek did was re-double the stereotype so that the blacker species were more likely to love being violent in jungle or desert climates.

    And so on and so forth concerning any genre of any subject.

    Rarely can a non-white person in the United States benefit at all from noting that he or she has been subject to, or noticed, racism between minorities.

    But as a white man, I can readily depend on gaining credibility and an egalitarian if I can put on the affect of empathizing with other ethnicities simply on the basis of being poor or a redhead.

    The mantra of marriage and family in the United States easily shields me from recognizing bigotry as a white man. Nothing forces races into isolation better than an emphasis on family. Tim Wise tells us of the story of how after Katrina, a bunch of white people scrambled back into their town before the black people could, and tried to enact a law that decried only family of the then-present city council could move back in. And that’s only one example.

    That’s overt racism and a bit more than privilege there, but I have privileged pscyhological advantages simply because being poor effects the marriage and family statistics of non-whites more significantly than whites, and I can pretend that my success in family has more to do with my will than ethno-economic factors.

    That is white privilege. The fact is, you don’t have to feel it to have it. Another fact: you can’t get rid of it (that you can is another myth white people cling to). It’s given to me by racists and racist patterns in society, and it takes the conscious effort of an entire society to take it back.

    It doesn’t matter how anti-racist I am. I walk by a car dealership and and a racist dealer looks out the window and thinks he’d rather sell to somebody who looks or dresses like me, and the ethnic persons trying to buy from him have their chances cut. I wasn’t active in this racism, but my privilege was.

    That’s the reality of white privilege.

  2. Aerik put it eloquently, the subtly of privilege is what makes it powerful and damaging–and very difficult to identify. A helpful way to think about it is male privilege, through which we often automatically assume that men will be stronger than women, both emotionally and physically. I agree with Resistance that a defense that invokes a superior sense of pride is not productive in a discourse on privilege. Similarly, over-victimizing minority groups because they are minorities continues the cycle of superiority and inferiority.

    In that spirit I want to point out that unless the use of force is involved, no one person can make another do anything. If someone doesn’t want to sell you a car because of your color, go to another dealer and another until you find someone who will. Thus, I don’t know if it takes “a conscious effort of an entire society” to overcome issues of privilege. I would suggest that it takes individual courage to set yourself free.

    Once again, great topic.

  3. White priviledge accounts for the fact that my husband and his siblings were never placed in foster care during their impoverished Chicago childhoods. If they’d been Black, Latino, or Native American, the state would almost certainly have removed them from their home situation at least temporarily while their mother got herself financially and emotionally sorted out. So yes, white priviledge affects even those white folks who are socio-economically underpriviledged, often in ways that are key to moving the next generation out of an intergenerational poverty cycle.

  4. Even I can notice that in more-than-most Sci-Fi shows, the hero is white. More than most, male.

    In fact, in all the shows that I’ve watched in the last two years, there’s only been two that had a black hero. And in one of them, he died. And it was the same actor.

    So, wouldn’t it be fair to say that ‘white privilege’ is about how the new shows on USA have three white guys and two white women as lead characters? At least there are women characters, though one is an alcoholic and the other is incompetent half the time. Oh, wait, they added another show with a lead white woman. She’s more like the third white guy, dashing and action-hero-y.

    Letsee… What else… White guys on Stargate, white guys on Galactica, white guy in Eureka.

    Have I missed any? They’re all good shows, yes, but they’re also all white.

    Oh, right, I went to see a movie with Jet Li and Jackie Chan! Two big stars! …Oh, wait, the lead was a white guy I could’ve done without in the other movie he was in I saw as well.

    That’s privilege.

  5. Excuse me if I may.

    The fact is, you don’t have to feel it to have it. Another fact: you can’t get rid of it (that you can is another myth white people cling to). It’s given to me by racists and racist patterns in society, and it takes the conscious effort of an entire society to take it back.

    While actively refusing to exercise said privilege does not eliminate is it not the ultimate goal of any movement to eliminate the privilege of the privileged class (whether said privilege is real or not is another story)?

  6. Danny could you please proofread that and form more than one long run-on sentence so I can understand what you’re getting at?

    @Crissa (and everyone):

    Yes, it is also a racist trend that not only are the non-white characters portrayed poorly in sci-fi, but the casting is overwhelmingly white in a way that’s blatantly antithetical to any of the alleged near-utopias that they try to illustrate.

    Star Trek: After World War THREE, Earth puts racial bigotries and war behind. Yet somehow 99% of humans in the alpha quadrant are white.

    Battlestar Galactica: same shit, except Earth didn’t survive.

    Stargate: most of the non-goaul’d planets are inhabited by white people. Every black settlement is a form of Jaffa. All the priors of the Ori are white, the goaul’d prefer white hosts, almost everybody in the other two galaxies are white as well (actually can anybody remember a single non-white native of the Ori galaxy?). — and did you see a single black scientist? I didn’t.

    Farscape: never watched more than 2 episodes, but I did notice that once again all the good guys and bad guys were white, and the one ethnic-looking character was again a ‘warrior’.

    sci-fi channel shows: the seinfeld and Friends of the nerd sphere. And like with those shows, it’ll take years after the cancellation of the show and endless syndication until its white fans finally have to have it spelled out to them and then they’ll say “Oh, well I didn’t really notice…”

  7. Oh, and here’s some shit. The Discovery Channel show Mythbusters has been pissing me off recently.

    Any time they do a show where they need to remark upon the history of a device, and the inventor wasn’t an American, Adam Savage needs to do a horrible accent stereotyping the guy’s country of origin.

    And he always does this amazingly bigoted French pseudo-accent, disney style, when they do food and he gets even close to cooking something. And the producers go ahead and throw in some accordion music to help the xenophobia along.

    The more aware I become of my white, American, male privilege, the more I am noticing that nerds can be just as bigoted, if not moreso, than anybody else.

    I mean fuck, have you ever heard of DragonCon? A scifi/fantasy convention that named itself after the most white-centric mythic creature ever, the dragon (and you damned well know they don’t imaging Chinese dragons). The dragon, which is just an amalgum of raptors, predator cats, and reptiles. An idea anybody could come up with, and everybody did.

    You’d think that something that literally appeals to the lowest common denominator would be surrounded by diversity and acceptance, but no. There’s all this medieval-like bullshit they read and write, where the default race an culture of the character is a white Englishman with an American accent. Yeah, the fucking dark ages or early renaissance, I can’t think of a better place to produce hero archetypes. Damnit.

  8. Sure thing.

    The fact is, you don’t have to feel it to have it. Another fact: you can’t get rid of it (that you can is another myth white people cling to). It’s given to me by racists and racist patterns in society, and it takes the conscious effort of an entire society to take it back.

    I would agree that one cannot just claim privilege is gone simply because they do not make use of it (although that is a good start on the personal level). However to say that it cannot be gotten rid of almost seems to contradict one of the main goals of any movement (or at least thats what I would think). By that I mean, “Isn’t one of the main goals of any activists (feminists, MRAs, PoC, etc….) to get rid of privileges?”

    I hope that clarifies what I’m trying to say.

  9. I gotcha now.

    I did not say that privileges cannot be done with in any absolute sense. I’m saying that privilege (a purposely ironic term as a privilege is something you’re supposed to earn but when we use it here, it’s not earned) as we’re discussing it here, is not necessarily created by the persons benefitting from it. What I have recognized is that a person cannot erase one’s own privilege, and that to decrease and eradicate privilege as a genus, will take global effort and change.

    But anyways… did you just include MRA’s. My, no, no no no. MRA’s are just misogynists whose tactic for frontin’ is a whine.


    The privilege MRA’s claim to be fighting doesn’t really exist to begin with.

  10. Im with you on the privilege thing but I have to say that Jeff Fecke’s “explainer” (and I use that very loosely) about MRAs is just as offensive and wrong as calling all feminists “hairy armpit, man-hating, humorless, fat chicks”.

  11. it’s inaccurate to refute white privilege with the account of one individual’s success whether they’re black or white because the evidence of privilege exists in disparities that lie along racial boundaries as a whole.

    if white privilege is a myth, then you would expect the percentage of minorities affected by social problems (like poverty, reduced access to health care, and lack of educational resources) to equal the percentage of white population dealing with these issues. However, minority groups are overrepresented in these areas.

    The legacy of racially discriminatory policies in institutions like banks, schools, and hospitals, produced racially biased impacts on minority populations as a whole that are still present today.

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