Membership Has It's Privileges: Thoughts on Acknowledging and Challenging Whiteness
Being white means never having to think about it. James Baldwin said that many years ago, and it's perhaps the truest thing ever said about race in America. That's why I get looks of bewilderment whenever I ask, as I do when lecturing to a mostly white audience: "what do you like about being white?"
having contemplated the question, folks take a while to come up with anything.
used to talking about race as a Black issue, or Latino, Asian, or Indian
problem. We're used to books written about "them," but few that
analyze what it means to be white in this culture. Statistics tell of the
disadvantages of "blackness" or "brownness" but few examine
the flipside: namely, the advantages whites receive as a result.
we hear about things like racial profiling, we think of it in terms of what
people of color go through, never contemplating what it means for whites and
what we don't have to put up with. We might know that a book like The Bell Curve
denigrates the intellect of blacks, but we ignore the fact that in so doing, it
elevates the same in whites, much to our advantage in the job market and
schools, where those in authority will likely view us as more competent than
persons of color.
which keeps people of color off-balance in a racist society is that which keeps
whites in control: a truism that must be discussed if whites are to understand
our responsibility to work for change. Each thing with which "they"
have to contend as they navigate the waters of American life, is one less thing
whites have to sweat: and that makes everything easier, from finding jobs, to
getting loans, to attending college.
a personal level, it has been made clear to me repeatedly:
the time I attended a party in a white suburb and one of the few black men there
announced he had to leave before midnight, fearing his trip home--which required
that he travel through all-white neighborhoods--would likely result in being
pulled over by police, who would wonder what he was doing out so late in the
"wrong" part of town.
would have to be cognizant--in a way I would not--of every lane change, every
blinker he did or didn't remember to use, whether his lights were too bright, or
too dim, and whether he was going even 5 miles an hour over the limit: as any of
those could serve as pretexts for pulling one over, and those pretexts are used
regularly for certain folks, and not others.
virtual invisibility that whiteness affords those of us who have it is like
psychological money in the bank, the proceeds of which we cash in every day
while others are in a state of perpetual overdraft.
it isn't enough to see these things, or think about them, or come to appreciate
what whiteness means: though important, this enlightenment is no end in itself.
Rather, it is what we do with the knowledge and understanding that matters.
we recognize our privileges, yet fail to challenge them, what good is our
insight? If we intuit discrimination, yet fail to speak against it, what have we
done to rectify the injustice?
that's the hard part: because privilege tastes good and we're loath to
relinquish it. Or even if willing, we often wonder how to resist: how to attack
unfairness and make a difference.
to why we should want to end racial privilege--aside from the moral
argument--the answer is straightforward: The price we pay to stay one step ahead
of others is enormous. In the labor market, we benefit from racial
discrimination in the relative sense, but in absolute terms this discrimination
holds down most of our wages and living standards by keeping working people
divided and creating a surplus labor pool of "others" to whom
employers can turn when the labor market gets tight or workers demand too much
in wages or benefits.
benefit in relative terms from discrimination against people of color in
education, by receiving, on average, better resources and class offerings. But
in absolute terms, can anyone deny that the creation and perpetuation of
miseducated persons of color harms us all?
even disparate treatment in the justice system has its blowback on the white
community. We may think little of the racist growth of the prison-industrial
complex, as it snares far fewer of our children. But considering that the
prisons warehousing black and brown bodies compete for the same dollars needed
to build colleges for everyone, the impact is far from negligible.
California, since 1980, nearly 30 new prisons have opened, compared to two
four-year colleges, with the effect that the space available for people of color
and whites to receive a good education has been curtailed. So folks fight over
the pieces of a diminishing pie--as with Proposition 209 to end affirmative
action--instead of uniting against their common problem: the mostly white
lawmakers who prioritize jails and slashing taxes on the wealthy, over meeting
the needs of most people.
for how whites can challenge the system--other than by joining the occasional
demonstration or voting for candidates with a decent record on race issues--this
is where we'll need creativity.
for example, that groups of whites and people of color started going to local
department stores as discrimination "tester" teams. And imagine the
whites spent a few hours, in shifts, observing how they were treated relative to
the black and brown folks who came with them. And imagine what would happen if
every white person on the team approached a different white clerk and returned
just-purchased merchandise, if and when they observed disparate treatment,
explaining they weren't going to shop in a store that profiled or otherwise
racially discriminated. Imagine the faces of the clerks, confronted by other
whites demanding equal treatment for persons of color.
from insignificant, if this happened often enough, it could have a serious
effect on behavior, and the institutional mistreatment of people of color in at
least this one setting: after all, white clerks could no longer be sure if the
white shopper in lady's lingerie was an ally who would wink at unequal
treatment, or whether they might be one of "those" whites: the kind
that would call them out for doing what they always assumed was acceptable.
what about setting up "cop watch" programs like those already in place
in a few cities? White folks, following police, filming officer's interactions
with people of color, and making their presence known, when and if they observe
officers engaged in abusive behavior.
contingents of white parents, speaking out in a school board meeting against
racial tracking in class assignments: a process through which kids of color are
much more likely to be placed in basic classes, while whites are elevated to
honors and advanced placement, irrespective of ability. Protesting this kind of
privilege-especially when it might be working to the advantage of one's own
children--is the sort of thing we'll need to do if we hope to alter the system
we swear we're against.
have to stop moving from neighborhoods when "too many" people of color
have to stop running to private schools, or suburban public ones, and instead
fight to make the schools serving all children in our community better.
need to consider taking advantage of the push for publicly funded charter
schools by joining with parents of color to start institutions of our own,
similar to the "Freedom Schools" established in Mississippi by the
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1964. These schools would teach
not only traditional subject matter, but also the importance of critical
thinking, and social and economic justice. If these are things we say we care
about, yet we haven't at present the outlets to demonstrate our commitment,
we'll have to create those institutions ourselves.
we must protest the privileging of elite, white male perspectives in school
textbooks. We have to demand that the stories of all who have struggled to
radically transform society be told: and if the existing texts don't do that, we
must dip into our own pockets and pay for supplemental materials that teachers
could use to make the classes they teach meaningful.
if we're in a position to make a hiring decision, we should go out of our way to
recruit, identify and hire a person of color.
these suggestions have in common--and they're hardly an exhaustive list--is that
they require whites to leave the comfort zone to which we have grown accustomed.
They require time, perhaps money, and above all else, courage; and they ask us
to focus a little less on the relatively easy, though important, goal of
"fixing" racism's victims (with a bit more money for this or that, or
a little more affirmative action), and instead to pay attention to the need to
challenge and change the perpetrators of and collaborators with the system of
racial privilege. And those are the people we work with, live with, and wake up
to every day. It's time to revoke the privileges of whiteness.