Whites Talking to Whites: moving beyond anti-racism and privilege

* this is a section of a larger work which will be published in 2015.

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I think it was my junior year in college. I was already hot over something, I can’t remember what exactly now, but I know it was not a good time for me to be taught anything about privilege. I remember my voice being horse from all the yelling. I was on the phone with my girlfriend, who was a junior at the University of Minnesota, who was explaining white privilege and systems of domination to me. I was clearly not trying to hear it. I went to Hamline University with a bunch of wealthy bougie people that constantly judged me for being working class; they were privileged, not me. How could I be privileged when I was being laughed at for having to use a bungee cord to hold my trunk down? How could I be privileged when I was being told that a pair of jeans cost more than my whole life? It just didn’t make any sense to me.  My girlfriend was gracious and eventually convinced me to agree to disagree. It would take me a number of years to call her and tell her she was right, I still remember the feeling vividly. Little did I know privilege was only the first step on the journey.

As I learned more and began to explore my own racial existence I came to understand that my white skin, whether I liked it or not, meant something. I realized that the price those European immigrants paid to enter into America covered my cost of admission as well. My skin color did indeed come with privilege in American society.  I dedicated a tremendous amount of energy to understanding this phenomenon, and then proclaimed my newfound understanding to anyone that would listen. I passionately consumed anything dealing with race and privilege. I examined my whole world through this lens. However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized centering privilege, for me as a European-American working to dismantle white supremacy and reconnect with humanity, was all wrong. I wanted to be anti-racist so badly that I spent very little time actually thinking about what I was for. I yearned for something that made me feel whole, something that gave me life. I needed more than anti-racism. I needed culture.

When anti-racists lead by talking about privilege it often leads to anger and defensiveness, like mine at my girlfriend. I certainly was not alone in my anger at the notion I had any privilege due to the color of my skin. There are literally millions of working class and poor whites who feel similarly to how I felt. Leading with privilege when trying to call them in does nothing but shut them out, making them defensive. If this were the only reason to stop leading with privilege it would be a terrible one because it caters to white sensibilities. Sadly, it is not.The most important reason to readjust how we approach the conversation is because understanding, and even addressing, privilege does nothing to address the culture which created it: white supremacy. If our goal is to eliminate racism then we need to truly examine whether or not discussing white privilege moves us any closer to that goal. The answer is quite clearly: No.[i] Whiteness cannot be framed as a privilege. It is no privilege to pillage the Earth. It is no privilege to live a life disconnected from creation, to be cultureless. We must move beyond a system of knowing that can frame whiteness as a privilege and move to one that understands that quite the opposite of being a privilege, whiteness is a problem.

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There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem- Richard Wright

Much of the rhetoric attached to privilege has to do with the fundamental unfairness of it. This is meant to appeal to people’s general sense of right and wrong in order to convince people to care about the race based disparities that serve as the measurement of white privilege. Often times those that take up this rhetoric advocate for eliminating white privilege by approaching the subject from the angle that inequality is un-American, and therefore should be eliminated. This approach caters to the patriotic sensibilities of the general public and assumes that the foundation of America is one of equality and fairness. This misreading of America’s foundation leaves this approach incapable of actually providing any remedy for white supremacy and the racism that is its result, which, ironically, creates white privilege.

The failure to place white supremacy at the heart of America only sets any movement for justice up for a catastrophic failure because it fails to identify the root of the problem: whiteness. Even if everyone acknowledged privilege European- Americans would continue to identify with the made up racial category of whiteness and still subscribe to the race thinking that feeds white supremacy. Folks are left with nothing to do but placate to some vague sense of equality and justice. Furthermore, it furthers the belief that we are all individuals living free from the legacy of our ancestors; nothing could be farther from the truth: We are all products of our past. This legacy means that we must wrestle with the origin and purpose of whiteness: divide and conquer. However, when whites fail to identify whiteness as the racial problem nothing is done to uproot white supremacy. This plays out in movements and public rhetoric. The white, liberal anti-racists who are often, ironically, the public figures of the discussion around racial justice fall short of calling for the reorganizing of institutions such as the criminal justice system, which is so entrenched in white supremacy that murders the likes of George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson — whose only motivation lie in racist lines of thought– are absolved of all responsibility. They lead protests which ask for these systems to reform and to provide justice for Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice; to them the system is broken when in reality it is working perfectly. They never openly call for the government to pay reparations for slavery. In fact, they are often the ones claiming those calling for reparations are dangerous radicals. They tend to believe the essence of the system is good, it just needs tweaking. They are cut from the same cloth as the white moderates Martin Luther King wrote about in his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” who claimed he was too extreme. They saw his actions as fundamentally changing the culture of America and were uncomfortable with it. Just like the white moderate that was urging Martin Luther King to slow down and accept the gradual, largely meaningless, changes which they were willing to accept the white, liberal, anti-racist of today is urging a similar slowing down and gradual softening of whiteness. They realize the inherent unfairness of American society, and want the absolution that comes with denouncing that unfairness but do not want to give up what whiteness has provided. They want their cake and to eat it too. What’s worse,  by not problematizing whiteness conversations about white privilege not only fail to move us closer to racial justice they actually end up perpetuating white supremacy.

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Much of the anti-racism rhetoric is actually much more in-line with a softening of whiteness, an easing of consciousness for folks who perceive themselves to be good people and may even want equality. However, when push comes to shove these people are not willing to sacrifice what whiteness has granted them. They simply want everybody to have what they do. The problem is, without attacking the root of the problem: whiteness, they are using cough syrup to treat lung cancer.

Equality has never been an American ideal. This is a truth that many cannot come to grips with. From the genocide of the Native people, to slavery, to Jim Crow, to the largest wealth gap in history equality is not something America, the institution, has even remotely been interested in pursuing. Any progress that has been made towards justice is the direct result of people, who were traditionally not even included in the definition of American, pushing the system. The system, however, is what is important. It is the system, the institution of America, that has the greatest impact on social status and life opportunities, and therefore it is the system that must be examined and changed. And it is the system that is largely ignored in the discussion of white privilege.

Now, at this point, many might be saying “but it is obvious that the system is what grants privilege. So, the system is always present in conversations about privilege.” While it is true, the system does generate privilege, so in that sense the system is omnipresent in those conversations, there remains a failure to connect the dots back to the very origin of this country. The remedy, therefore, is often to simply advocate for everybody to experience life in the same way as whites do. This analysis fails to understand that the way whites experience life only exists because of the divide and conquer effect of whiteness, as well as it ignores what so many poor European-Americans know: they are oppressed too. True they are not oppressed racially, but the poor and working class European-American has much more in common with communities of color than they do with the elite whites who run this country. Discussions of privilege often flatten out this nuance and therefore fail at building the kind of coalition necessary to achieve real change.  Still, most importantly, this approach ignores that how whites experience life flows from a system of knowing that objectifies and harms the Earth, humanity, and all of creation resulting in a hierarchical society where a small few live isolated and disconnected lives hoarding immense resources while the rest of the world pays the price.

We know there has to be someone (or millions of someones) on the bottom, that is how America, and the capitalist world, works. This is directly related to the economic system and relationship to the land which necessitated whiteness in the first place. Because white supremacy and whiteness develop out of the capitalist mode of thought, which privatizes and objectifies everything, there had to be an explanation and rationale for the obvious and completely ludicrous disparities present in American life. This explanation and rationale came in the form of the ideology of white superiority. Recall Bacon’s Rebellion and the systems response to it: the articulation and legislation of whiteness and the color line. The system has been heaping benefits on white folks ever since, whiteness was the goal of every immigrant group precisely because of these benefits. So, when anti-racists express sorrow and regret over the wages of whiteness, but are not willing to tear down the systems that paid them, their regret amounts to an exercise in futility and egotism. The conversation does nothing to chip away at the identity of whiteness, in fact it accepts the legitimacy of whiteness as an identity, and therefore fails to make any real strides towards racial justice.

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As long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you- James Baldwin

It is worth noting here that the audience for this work absolutely matters. People of color have long said the job and role of European- Americans in the struggle to eradicate white supremacy is to work among and with the white population. Most famously through  Malcolm X:

I tell sincere white people, ‘Work in conjunction with us- each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do- and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people

To this end it makes absolutely no sense to talk to white people about their privilege, or to hashtag about it (#crimingwhilewhite), which is only a symptom of the disease. Instead, for those people interested in true racial equity and justice, they should turn their attention away from privilege and start to think about their own identity as white people. Privilege assumes that our identities are white. This is where we need to begin: we are not white. Whiteness is a political socioeconomic alliance that maintains and props up the very systems that create the privilege, and our oppression, in the first place. The only way to effectively redress white privilege is to address the category of whiteness. European-Americans need to divest from the idea that is whiteness and the system that nurtures it: white supremacy. Then and only then, will efforts towards racial justice be authentic and productive.

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Now, let me be clear privilege does exist, and it is an important part of being European-American. So, addressing it is necessary, but the time for doing so comes after problematizing whiteness in and of itself. When we prioritize a divestment from whiteness, when our identities and knowledge of self are not tied up in this insidious mythical racial category it becomes easier to recognize and accept that a lack of melanin means something socially. It also makes obvious the need for new systems of knowing which result in harmony with creation as opposed to objectification.  That is to say it has the potential to “call white people in” instead of calling them out for their privilege. It shows whites the myth of race and the reality of racism.[ii] What made me call my girlfriend and apologize for not hearing truth was because I understood, at the most basic level, in my DNA, that I was not the problem, whiteness was. This realization remains crucial to my identity and, more importantly, it is the reason I am able to acknowledge the benefits my white skin gives me while also realizing “benefits” in this system amounts to hemlock from a golden goblet. This leads to yet another benefit of contextualizing privilege as a symptom of the larger disease: the potential for diffusing the tremendously obnoxious and counterproductive aspect of the anti-racist position, white guilt. When we divest from whiteness and begin to think of ourselves culturally, as opposed to racially, white guilt becomes less of a factor and is replaced by a desire to build a society and culture together that has, at its root, harmony and peace for all. This desire, this new connected worldview, would be one that inherently indicts privilege as fruit of the poisonous tree of whiteness. Whites would move from race thinking back to cultural systems of knowing and begin to think of themselves as part of a community as opposed to individuals who exist in a vacuum free from the consequences of our ancestor’s decisions and actions. European-Americans, instead of being viciously opposed to participating in healing from our historical traumas, would be active participants with a stake beyond feeling guilty. So, what might that society look like?

[i] It is important to me here to make a distinction between people of color calling whites out for colluding with their privilege and white folks who think they are doing antiracist work by telling folks they have privilege but failing to indict the system that gave them their privilege. People of color and even European Americans doing this work should call people on their bullshit when they are manipulating and capitalizing off their privilege.

[ii] This is the title of elder Mahmoud el Kati’s work.

 

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