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Membership Has It’s Privileges: Thoughts on Acknowledging and Challenging Whiteness


Tim Wise

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?"

Never

having contemplated the question, folks take a while to come up with anything.

We’re

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.

When

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.

That

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.

On

a personal level, it has been made clear to me repeatedly:

Like

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.

He

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.

The

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.

Yet,

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.

If

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?

And

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.

As

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.

We

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?

And

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.

In

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.

As

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.

Imagine,

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.

Far

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.

Or

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.

Or

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.

We’ll

have to stop moving from neighborhoods when "too many" people of color

move in.

We’ll

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.

We’ll

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.

And

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.

And

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.

What

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.

 

  

 

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