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White Privilege and Erudition: How Black Me Might Be Doing

White privilege can be a concept that, as sociologically valid as it clearly is, is very vague. It’s called an “invisible knapsack” for a reason: People with white (and male and heterosexual and American and…) privilege don’t notice it, but its effects can be perceived. Another analogy I’ve heard from Scott Meyer of Basic Instructions (regarding luck more than privilege but still in the context of class privilege) is that it’s like a big ugly mustache: The people who have it can see it, and the people who don’t can’t see anything else past it. The knapsack is not so invisible to others.

So let me offer an example.

As I’m starting to engage in activism and writing, speaking and interacting with others, I am of course encountering barriers. Everyone does. Some people disagree, some people are too angry to listen, and there’s simply the wall of apathy that has to be surpassed.

My own writing style tends to be conversational. I like to include slang, I like to sometimes include expletives, I reference movies and video games. I’ve found this approach makes the writing more personable and engaging.

Now, let’s say I was black.

Would I have a reasonable expectation that people would tolerate me as I developed my erudition?

Would I have a reasonable expectation that I would not be mocked for my usage of slang?

For white people to pay attention to people of color, they often must hear the message from truly great orators: Dr. King, Barack Obama, etc.

Tim Wise has pointed out that very few people, white or black, are like Obama. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics (and I happen to criticize Obama from a left perspective), he is clearly an incredibly intelligent, erudite, confident individual. And while George W. Bush may have come across as a simpleton and was simply not a very good orator, in interpersonal dynamics he demonstrated that he was quite charming and witty. Most people who survive the gauntlet of being elected President are fairly special people. They’re certainly not the median.

How much more would I have to censor myself, censor the references I make, if I were black?

It’d be an additional barrier to my success and to me doing the work I am passionate about. And it might also be such a barrier if I was a woman, too. I’d constantly have to make sure I was precisely navigating that line between assertiveness and calm, such that I came off neither as a doormat nor a bitch.

Now, let’s say that white me has a 30% chance of facing a challenge so serious it makes me give up or delay my work.

Would black me, or woman me, have a 40% chance? A 50% chance?

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the probability would be higher.

This is not a reason for me to be ashamed. It’s not a reason for me to doubt the hard work that I, or anyone else, put in. But it is a reason for empathy, which is the theme of Radical Empathy, a book I am working on.

Maybe the best example I’ve heard is an example from White Like Me.

Tim refers to a very hard-working, self-made businessman. This guy really did embody the Horatio Alger dream; he really did work from almost nothing.

And there was a point where this man was accused of rape in the South.

Now, while this man did of course endure some serious risks and threats as a result, if he were a black man he may have been dead or beaten to within an inch of his life.

So what I take this privilege idea as is a reason for me to work that much harder. I face less barriers, so I should be working harder to compensate.

And I recognize, when I interact with others, that they may not have had the advantages I have had, and so I try to cut them some slack. And that’s true if they are black, or struggled with depression or trauma, or if they just drew a short straw in the genetic lottery and got an illness.

I think we all can do the same, no matter our privileges.

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2 thoughts on “White Privilege and Erudition: How Black Me Might Be Doing

  1. I commend you for tackling a topic that a lot of people won’t attempt because of the taboo stigma implanted onto it by society and cold, closeminded interpersonal relations from all sides. Luckily, much warmth is still to be felt, my friend.

    • arekexcelsior says:

      It’s actually vital that we move past that stigma, precisely for the reasons that people think we shouldn’t.

      See, research has found that many white people think the best strategy is to avoid talking about race. They, with quite good intentions, think that the best way to avoid saying something that will offend someone is to not bring it up.

      The problem is that people of color, also quite naturally, assume that this dishonesty is more malicious. How can they trust someone unless they hear the bad?

      Moreover, I think that both sides are clearly assuming, again quite logically, that there’s subconscious bias on all sides, especially amongst whites. White people are afraid that they’ll say something that’s not skillful, which indicates a lack of expertise and engagement; and people of color are assuming that, if a white person talks for long enough, they’ll say something offensive.

      In fact, in almost all cases, getting everyone’s feelings out there are really important. When white people reflexively dismiss every claim of prejudice as “the race card”, it guarantees that no one who is remotely reasonable will view them as objective. Squashing that impulse is actually the best way to get at the situations where things are more complicated, where maybe there wasn’t discriminatory intent. Maybe the police officer really DID see someone doing something wrong, no matter their claims to the contrary.

      Admitting these things in public, to me, is wonderfully refreshing. It lets me think about my life and who I am. I think we are so afraid to admit that who we are and where we are is a product of society along with our personal choices, especially in a culture that values individual agency so much as America and many other European nations, that it leads us to take absurd positions. Of course who I am is a result of society: How could it not be? There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all different and that’s okay.

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