When We’re Talking White Privilege…

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In class the other day, I was talking about W.E.B DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk and a student mentioned that sometimes DuBois takes stabs at white people – like saying they have “stringy hair” – and then another student argued that DuBois was “hypocritical” because this kind of comment is a racist action against white people. In other words, I was suddenly looking at a student and thinking, I see your logic – and from your position of white privilege I can understand why you might think this is true – but honey, you’re not even close to right.

The student was incorrect because occupying the position of white privilege means that you cannot suffer racist oppression. You may, however, experience hatred or prejudice, but the negativity directed toward you is not a systemic issue. The thing is, as the teacher, I can’t just come out and call bullshit when I see it. Instead, I have to logically justify why the point being made is wrong, but when I started to really think about this idea, it occurred to me that there might be a whole lot of people who would not clearly see the complexity that underscored why my student’s point was faulty.

Before I can really delve into this idea, I want to be clear about where I’m coming from: I am a middle class, well-educated white woman, which means I clearly reap the benefits of white dominance/privilege. I cannot speak to the lived experiences of women of color, but I can explain how culture is structured in terms of a privileged dominate group; therefore criticisms of that group do not result in the same issues/problems as critiques of those who suffer systemic racism.

The experience of white privilege is invisible when you’re living it. Many, like my students, tend to think of themselves as above racism, classism, sexism and homophobia. (Despite classic tells like phrases that start with “I’m not racist/sexist but…”). These uninformed people make arguments like, “people of all race groups have access to public education,” and continue to back up these arguments with statements like, “there were Hispanic and African-American students in my high school.” And there were. However, that simple fact does not alleviate that within the economic system African-Americans and Latinos make less money than Caucasians. Consequently, they are more likely to live in less expensive neighborhoods, which have poorly funded schools because education is linked and largely funded via property taxes. In other words: sure, people of color can sometimes have equal access, but the deck is stacked against them. Many white people simply do not comprehend this injustice because it’s not affecting them; when you are living a white life, white dominance is hard to conceptualize, but that does not mean it is nonexistent. Additionally, you may be someone who is not “really” racist but standing by idly while injustice continues makes you complacent in its existence.

Honestly, white privilege is not only about big conceptual economic ideas, it is also about lived experience. Consider a simple example: When I, as white woman, am partnered with a white man and have children, I will never need to explain to those children that the world may be unkind to them based solely on their skin color. Clearly, I should most defiantly clarify for my kids that all people are equally deserving of respect, but this conversation isn’t about their skin color because they have the privilege of living in the dominate space.  In contrast, a woman or man of color would most likely feel a need to explain to his or her children the premise of racism so when their child faced the world, he/she would have an understanding of the hatred that can be linked to his/her skin tone and/or the skills to struggle against such animosity. Just simply not having to worry about the ideas that your children will encounter about their race when they forage out into the world is an aspect of white dominance and privilege.

White privilege also rears its head when we engage with popular representations. Consider the reality that women of color are regularly represented in hypersexulized ways, and they have been being represented in this way for centuries. (If you want to know more about this you should definitely read Venus in the Dark by Janelle Hobson). That whole Miley Cyrus, MTV music award debacle is a perfect example of this common and misconstrued representation. People everywhere were up in arms, slut-shaming the child star gone sex deviant, but outside of the feminist/social justice community, hardly anyone mentioned that the swarms of dancers surrounding Miley were half-naked women of color.  Yes, these women were not the stars of the performance, but does that alone render them completely invisible to viewers? I don’t think so. In fact, I  believe they were invisible because we are conditioned to see people of color displayed as sexual objects or deviant demon counterparts to images of elevated whiteness, and it has become nearly acceptable because of its frequency. Consider these advertisements:

Neutrogena--pure--various women's 93diesel1-1992And this recently used promotional shot of the editor of Garage Magazine:

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Both of these advertisements and the promotional shot affirm the identity of whiteness as elevated and pure – superior, even – while blackness is wild, animalistic, sexual and in need of restraint.  In this context, we see can see that Miley was breaking the mold of the understood ‘white purity’ so people feel the need to critique, condemn or, at the very least, discuss her sexual performance, but the women of color are enacting their culturally normalized role of hypersexuality and deviance. They are rendered invisible to the critical eye and also as the representational placeholders of a culturally frowned upon behavior: female sexuality. Clearly, the American assimilation of the Judeo-Christian take on sex deserves some serious critique, because in the words of George Michael, “Sex is natural, sex is fun,” but despite this reality, Americans still cling pretty tightly to the idea that the sexually promiscuous woman isn’t worthy of value or social acceptance, let alone a woman of color. Thus, occupying the space of assumed sexual purity is a privilege afforded to young white women, and the space of sexual promiscuity is an oppression that women of color bare.

My basic point here is this: when you are white, you live a life free of systemic racial oppression and therefore, you can’t experience racism. Nastiness, sure, but racism isn’t a nasty comment. It’s way bigger than that.

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2 thoughts on “When We’re Talking White Privilege…

  1. Very interesting. You’ve put into words a concept I feel I intuitively knew. I’ve always cringed at the notion of “reverse racism.” Who comes up with something like that?
    Now, here’s a question. Does the same apply to sexism? One could argue, just as black people will have to grow up understanding the system is against them, so do women. We learn from a young age we can only dress a certain way and act a certain way or else we will be discriminated against, or worse, assaulted. Men clearly don’t experience this, but are taught (should be taught) the sexes are equal. This is in the same sort of way white parents teach their children all races are equal. It’s a naive view and convinces the younger generation that racism and sexism don’t exist on the systematic scale that they do.
    On the other hand, the issue of sexism may be more nuanced. There are many ways we can be sexist against men. For example, ignoring that they get raped, teaching boys to be macho, etc.
    I see a lot of men and boys trying to disparage the feminist movement by showing sexism against men, in the way your student tried to show racism against white people. I think it’s tricky business, because while certain actions and words do hurt men, they are not the systematically oppressed sex.

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