personal, politics

My Own Trajectory with Anti-Racism and White Privilege

When I bring up issues of white privilege, racial inequality, and discrimination, I often get negative responses, no matter how humble, specific or on-topic I try to be. This can be tough. It can lead all of us on all sides to be more arrogant than is justified. But as much as I do think these are matters of injustice, and as insensitive as people can get, I do get the negativity and the skepticism.

The average person who reads a lot of statistics that seem to undermine their worldview is likely to get angry. They’re worried that they may be being hoodwinked. They worry that some activist is trying to get their vote or try to make them support some kind of electoral politics that might harm their own interests by using guilt. They worry that they’re being insulted or attacked for things they had nothing to do with that happened decades before they were born. They’re afraid that their country and the people they love are being spat upon, even though every country has had its problems.

I understand that. It can be tough to keep track of the truth. It can be tough to sort out which statistics are relevant and which aren’t. It can be tough to listen to someone else who says something that is totally alien to your experience. I realize that, with all the writing I’ve done on this topic, I still haven’t discussed in one place my own history with this topic. I want to share this because I feel that I should be accountable to it. There was a time where I didn’t believe in white privilege or in racism as being a dominant social institution.

When I was in middle school and high school, I was pretty politically informed. My parents listened to NPR. I read lots of history books and political science books. As my friends started to get into Mumia abu-Jamal, Rage Against the Machine, the Seattle protests, and the other left strands in the 1990s, I found a lot of their arguments to be perhaps a little specious. They would point to the disproportions of black men in jail, for example, or disadvantages of sentencing. They would point to the poverty in ghettos and the ongoing residential segregation. My position until late into high school was that racism per se was of declining importance in America. (Growing up in a mostly white town and spending most of my time with people of left-leaning hippie persuasions, I was able to be unaware of black perspectives on this problem and how much people of color by and large report experiencing widespread discrimination). I viewed the state and corporations as being the dominant institutions, and saw that formal apartheid had been rolled back for what I believed to be long enough to have made it so that racist bias in particular was less important than usual. I viewed the problems that people of color faced in the U.S. as being primarily caused by an admixture of factors: Poverty due to prior inequality in the United States, the worsening of neo-liberal institutions that slammed the already poor, and individual acts of discrimination that, though only done by the minority of whites, still could block opportunities just enough times to lead all else held equal to people suffering disproportionately. After all, it only takes one racist DA to send a lot of people to prison.

So think about how poverty alone could explain a lot of the racial gaps that we seem to see if you don’t look carefully. Sure, a lot of African-American men are jailed, but being poor means you are less likely to have top-flight legal representation and that you are less likely to have political clout. Seeing the OJ trial, I found it quite clear that there was racialized resentment at play throughout the trial, especially with Mark Fuhrman. But OJ’s victory seemed to show that a black man with enough money and clout could indeed get away with murder, just like a white man with enough money. Because of my understanding of history and society, I could hold onto the idea that race per se was of declining importance and view race as secondary to resolving income inequality, brutal capitalism, and the damage being done by investor’s rights treaties like NAFTA.

In fact, a Chomsky book even helped contribute to this idea. Chomsky pointed out that a lot of sociology in the West takes into account race, but then cited a researcher, Vicente Navarro, who looked at class as a predictor of health and found it to be much more serious. (I should note Chomsky went on to make a very important point that stuck with me: “On the other hand, it’s certainly worth overcoming the other forms of oppression. For people’s lives, racism and sexism may be much worse than class oppression. When a kid was lynched in the South, that was worse than being paid low wages. So when we talk about the roots of the system of oppression, that can’t be spelled out simply in terms of suffering. Suffering is an independent dimension, and you want to overcome suffering”).

I should note that I never gave much credence to the idea that black poverty was a cultural failing. Even in middle school, I recognized that, if a group of people are doing worse in a broadly sociological sense, it just can’t be due to some characteristic they share as a group. Sure, rappers singing homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, or people wanting to be on welfare rolls instead of working, or people resenting whites instead of working on their own problems, do exist. But while individual people can be lazy, or ignorant, or unintelligent, or criminal, people as a group aren’t any of those things. If a people with a cross-section of skills and backgrounds are encountering barriers, it’s not because of them but because of the society they live in. After all, plenty of white folks also listen to music with destructive messages, abuse welfare, commit crime, or blame others for their problems. But these people just never seem to have it as bad.

I also recognized that people’s traits don’t emerge in a vacuum. If a group of people are resentful of another group, there’s some kind of reason why that reason is taking hold, whether that’s due to internal elites in that group taking advantage of and blowing out of proportion simmering rivalries or due to an actual pattern of abuse. If a group of people are more likely to be criminal, it’s because the opportunities to join normative social life are limited. There’s a reason why people turn out the way they do, and it’s because of other people before them. That’s why it’s so myopic and destructive to blame them exclusively for their decisions and thereby refuse to extend help or second chances, like the universe only came into existence forty years ago. There are no perfect human beings, so we all owe each other some help and opportunity to do better and be better.

Still, I would reject those who pushed forward an idea of racism as being incomplete or looking only at a narrow slice of the problem. I won’t deny that there was great arrogance in that view, and that if I had bothered looking into it on my own, I might have come around much earlier.

It took not only the work of Tim Wise and other anti-racist scholars on the left (including actually reading Mumia’s work) but also taking sociology classes and seeing the sociological evidence to realize that I had been looking at only part of the picture. Specifically, my awakening to the idea that race matters was from Tim Wise’s careful decimation of David Horowitz in an e-mail debate. As a high school debater, I loved reading great debates. Tim carefully laid out source after source after source, referring to both conservative and liberal scholars… I highly recommend people read it, as it’s a good primer as to both conservative and leftist views on the topic of race.

But that fascination with watching a conservative blowhard get decimated didn’t last very long when I actually took multicultural studies classes and talked to other people. Sure, I was angry conceptually at the injustice that Tim discussed, that I subsequently read repeatedly in Z Magazine. But it’s one thing to be conceptually mad at racism in America and thereby attend a protest against Israeli occupation, and another thing to see the face of someone you like and know that they got hurt because they encountered something I read in a book. Then it became clear to me that, in fact, these issues really matter. I saw so many white participants in these multicultural studies come to deeply regret how they had lost so much of their culture over the years, from their language to their names. I saw Asian participants struggle with balancing their American identity with their Asian names and heritage. They literally had to choose whether to be Rex or Renjun, Amy or Chun.

Most importantly, I heard African-Americans talk about being pulled over by cops, watched in department stores, ignored in classrooms, treated one way on the phone and another way in person. I heard my black Professor talk about how a white girl assumed that he was a valet in a parking lot. And I kept seeing how angry white folks got when black folks said that. Like some other guy being a jerk said anything about them. I never felt defensive unless someone said, clearly, “All white folks are racists”, which I may have heard less than five times in ten years of engaging with people on these issues. It was obvious to me that some cop or security guard that was letting subconscious bias guide them didn’t say something about me.

See, when I try to figure out if a social institution exists, I see if there are pervasive influences. I can say that America is “capitalist”, whatever that specifically means, and thereby classist, because I can point to classist patterns in health care, electoral politics, employment, foreign and domestic policy, and everywhere else.

I can say the same thing about racism, discrimination and white privilege. The evidence does not just say that it’s better to be white if you’re pulled over by a cop, or go to a department store. The evidence is clear: Being white (whether that is specifically being perceived as white or actually being of a European racial background) gives a person demonstrable advantages in wealth and income, employment, the criminal justice system, health care, housing, media representation, banking, and virtually every other institution in life. I did not come to accept this because I read one author or one article. It is because I have looked at every part of American life and found conservative (and mainstream liberal) claims that racism, discrimination and white privilege are no longer operant or are of declining importance to be demonstrably false.

So let me again say that I understand skepticism. I understand why people might view American history differently than I do. I understand why people may reject academics. I understand why people might be afraid to be bludgeoned by statistics, or may be afraid of being guilt-tripped. I can understand why it can be frustrating to be corrected by people about what one calls another group or about an opinion one has. It is absolutely possible to be skeptical about the existence and validity of white privilege without being a racist, or a jerk, or an idiot, or misinformed.

But there is something I cannot abide. Those of us who dismiss snidely the idea of white privilege, as if it were obviously false, are being arrogant. And they are dismissing the experiences of black people, and they rarely have any reason to do so. If you want to say, “There is no such thing as white privilege, get over it”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. If you want to say, “Black people have no one to blame but themselves for their problems”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. Well-meaning (i.e. non-jerk) people can disagree. But the idea that it is absurd that racism still matters in American life when we have just now elected our first black President to a second term even after African-Americans being in this country since before it was a country and when segregation and formal apartheid was a part of this country in the lifespans of a lot of still-living people is insane. It’s possible that America managed to really change incredibly rapidly in fifty years. But it is not so obviously the case that it justifies viewing others as obviously dishonest political opportunists for insisting that racism still matters.

Let me reassure you that plenty of scholars are very careful about what they say and don’t say. These issues are complicated. A lot of the people doing the work on this topic have no animosity towards whites; indeed, a lot are white. Researchers and activists in this field of all stripes struggle to find truth between the shifting sands of society. Those researchers who looked into subconscious bias using the Implicit Attitude Test, for example, were surprised and humbled to find out that decades of doing the work that they had done still didn’t make them less biased at a subconscious level.

And the reasons I have heard for why white privilege exists must be dismissed as laughably ignorant. They wouldn’t be offered by anyone with any intelligence, as they so often are, without a need to defend themselves. Like the claim, “It’s not a privilege to be white because there’s a lot of crime in my city”. (As if black-on-black crime didn’t exist). Or the claim, “Lots of black people are on welfare and don’t want to get off”. (As if white welfare abusers didn’t exist, and as if there weren’t plenty of middle-class black families that still lost their jobs in the 2008 recession or their houses and certainly weren’t welfare abusers prior to that while plenty of white middle-class families managed to weather the storm). Or the claim, “I see lots of white homeless people!” (As if there aren’t black homeless people, and as if a white homeless guy who cleaned up and dressed up wouldn’t find it easier to get an apartment or a job than a black homeless guy who did the same thing). In fact, I have yet to encounter a single claim against white privilege that passes muster. All of them were beating up a strawman.

So I ask that everyone, myself included, be a lot more willing to listen to other voices that they haven’t heard and be willing to do the research with an open mind to see if there’s anything to those voices. I hope that as many people as possible will pop over to Google Books or Google Scholar and look up “anti-black discrimination” or “racial discrimination in the United States”, and look at the bulk of the data. Don’t just cite the Heritage Foundation. (Or ignore it). Don’t just repeat memes you see on Tumblr. It is possible to look this data up and become informed. Because people who argue that white privilege exists don’t have to be totally right for it to matter to you. Maybe the only place that people of color still encounter discrimination is in housing markets. But if that’s the case, we should do something. Maybe schools and standardized tests are getting better about trying to deal with stereotype threat. But they should still be better about tracking blacks and Hispanics into remedial classes.

Living in a society that is striving to be free means we have to pay attention and learn. I fully suspect that in ten years I will have changed my opinions on a lot of topics, because I will have learned more and discovered more. Nothing stops you from being a conservative who recognizes that Hispanics aren’t all criminal parasites, or from being a liberal who recognizes that ostentatious consumption in the African-American community might be a pretty serious problem.

And let me close by pointing one thing out: However much of a problem we have with racism in America, it’s only us who can fix it, together. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American… We have to do a lot of work to forgive, to have truth and then reconciliation. And it matters. So I will hold everyone to the standard that they should care to make sure that, whatever they believe in, however widespread they view racism as being, they are sure that they are right beyond a doubt. I want people to have read the arguments, read the statistics, read the studies, and understood them. It’s just too important.

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4 thoughts on “My Own Trajectory with Anti-Racism and White Privilege

  1. In my opinion the reason you sometimes get negative responses is at least threefold (at least it is now, that I started thinking … when I’m done writing it might have turned into more and I will eventually have forgotten to change it up here before I post).

    My initial thought would be that people feel dismissed. Naturally most people view the world through their experiences. So if whatever I’m being told – no matter by how many people and from how many sources – stands in contrast to my own perception I’m of course wary.
    After all how can something be true if it isn’t true for me?

    And even if someone then is serene and open enough to accept that one person’s “truth” may not be a universal one then … what? Does that make it any less true for the individual? No, not at all. So the moment their perception is sort of “overwritten” by the Greater Truth, people feel dismissed. Their experiences and their personal experiences are being discarded. And that understandably leads to anger.

    Secondly, no matter how hard it may be for some people to admit it … nobody likes to be wrong. Being right about something, having one’s own world view confirmed by others, not being alone with something … those things give people a sense of security, a feeling of stability. It’s save and comfortable.

    So then having these world views challenged, maybe even shattered, by “some snot-nosed hippie wisenheimer” (as a friend [from the US] likes to put it) or some … puh, no idea how to translate this one appropriately … “bending-over shower-minion of a stall-pisser” (that’s a somewhat elaborate way of calling someone a pansy since apparently it’s considered to be quite masculine among men to urinate standing up in front of other men).

    Many people don’t like to be corrected. Because being corrected implies (says) that they’re wrong. And if they’re wrong that makes their perception irrelevant. Of course it doesn’t necessarily but that’s the way many people perceive it.

    I’ll also say that you have tendency to drop a sort of “evidence-bomb” on people. You point out how the study here-and-there from the university of so-and-so proved this-and-that and how this guy argued that and that guy argues this and … we’re had the same argument between the two of us as well.
    You may not intend to but people can feel like you’re discarding everything they say by simply wiping it away with all the science you’ve gathered. You may still be right of course but that no less dismisses the person you’re talking to quite harshly.

    I think one of the main reasons however is that by telling people things they simply don’t want to think about you hold them responsible for at least, through inaction, going along with whatever it is you’re debating (like, in this case, racism). It’s as you know of the reasons I started doing what I did – I didn’t want to allow people to just close their eyes and choose not to care.

    Because people know. In my experience it’s not even the majority of people who actually support racism for example. Most people just don’t care enough to at least do their small part in fighting it. Because they don’t have to care. As long as people are allowed to just forget about it because they’re not even exposed to the subject matter, they’re content. But if you don’t let them get away from the subject most people will admit that they’re aware and that they don’t think it’s alright.
    People need to be confronted but in doing so they sometimes can’t avoid taking a closer look at their own complacency and that makes people angry too.

    I think it’s very important to, as you did, take a look at oneself and realise where we come from, how we have evolved and how our opinions have evolved as well. Because that shows us how being exposed to experiences and opinions can indeed change our convictions, no matter how hard we may have held on to them at some point in the past. It can also help us understand why people may feel and think the way they do, no matter how misguided (in our opinion). It’s essential to growth.

    • arekexcelsior says:

      The reason why I have to have some skepticism about your characterization of the response I see is severalfold. I agree that you’re probably right, but I think it’s incomplete and in a crucial way (though your final points I think do probably tie most of it together). And while I may come across as defensive here, I hope that the fact that I wrote the original article shows that I’m trying to make this material as palatable as possible and mix up my strategy.

      First of all, when I saw the evidence for racial discrimination, the idea of “white privilege” became just obvious. Heck, I suppose I would have been willing to accept the idea from the beginning. So it’s possible to be white and to just read the history and see clearly that the position is talking about average advantage. And, while I do sometimes worry about specific instances of my own privilege, in general I never once thought that me being white meant I was a bad person or that my family didn’t work as hard. I just thought it was like saying “That guy dug a smaller hole than you did because he had a crappier shovel”. We both worked hard, he just got less because of some factor we both didn’t choose or control. (I just wrote a parable as a result of this response to you, so thanks!)

      Now, maybe I’m an outlier. Maybe I’m emotionally and politically shielded because of my beliefs in the decency of people, our shared battle against evil, forgiveness, and the belief in positive and heroic action. I’m willing to admit that. But the idea that white privilege is such a huge challenge to someone’s worldview is to me sort of conceding the whole point, which is that white privilege has its own immune response. People accept their privilege, don’t view it as privilege, view everything as fair, etc. and that’s PART of being white as a culture. The fact that it is obviously possible for people to see clearly as sociologists, whether they are white or black, “Oh, the fact that black folks have less political and economic clout by definition gives white people average advantages by the sheer virtue of math”, means to me that there’s more going on than you’re giving it credit.

      After all, the history of this country has slavery and Jim Crow in it. Is it really that hard to imagine that maybe that still matters? I think there’s a lot of entitlement and power being expressed, however subconsciously, by this aggressive response.

      I can’t of course deny that people get scared and worried when their worldview is threatened as a rule of thumb. But I think we have to hold people to a higher standard than that.

      As for the evidence bomb: I recognize that that’s a problem. But you can see the position I’m in. First of all, as an honest person, I want you to believe what I do because it has good basis in reality. I want you to see that I have done my homework. I want you to know that other people of a variety of opinions, backgrounds, personalities and values accept it.

      More importantly, though, I’ve tried just leading with the argument from pathos or ethos. I’ve tried just opening a dialog based on what I feel, or based on a vignette or an anecdote.

      The MOMENT I do, without fail, the apologists show up with Wikipedia articles, articles from The Economist or Forbes, etc. THEY cite statistics. THEY cite “scholars”. THEY make empirical claims.

      So it’s clearly NOT that they reject the idea of empirical claims. They reject the idea of being disagreed with.

      As an activist, it’s tough to pair the studies with the personal insight, to pair the pathos, ethos or logos, when you’re discussing a position that deals with people’s privilege or work. But the problem is that it’s not just a passive debate from the beginning. It’s not like white privilege scholars came along and dropped a bomb on people who otherwise wouldn’t mention race. Conservatives mention race all the time. People mention how they don’t like listening to those ghetto thugs, or that rap music, or complain about black culture. The debate was already racist long before people arrived.

      When someone cites a statistic about income or wealth inequality, for example, they are implicitly ignoring black reality if they don’t talk about how that inequality is in part a racial reality. That becomes double true when someone is trying to excuse or defend that inequality. Then we have to mention race, and gender, and able-bodied privilege.

      It’s a “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. When I haven’t given the evidence bomb, critics on Twitter have gone for the approach of just citing nitpicks, facts and studies I passed over in trying to make the point. When I do give the evidence bomb, it’s back to just repeating their opinion and personal experience.

      So I think there’s a lot of INSISTENCE on this worldview, INSISTENCE on the idea of meritocracy and American perfection, that I hope you admit is going on above and beyond just the general fact that it’s tough to be wrong. After all, I’m wrong about comic books or sports or other trivia all the time, but when someone corrects me, I just go, “Oh, I didn’t know that”. And most people I know can take those corrections.

      I think that you’re right that the inaction, the guilt, the implication, is the #2 factor. The other factors are secondary. And, yes, I agree totally that the hopelessness is the #1 factor, even more deeply. I think most people are decent. They want to believe in a world that will MINIMIZE the battles they have to fight because it seems so bad. When people get more hopeful, problems like white privilege become challenges to face with courage.

      That’s why my message keeps coming back to hope, and why I do think that my work is probably best when I don’t get involved in the politics and try to go for something deeper. The difficulty for me is sacrificing those parts of me that I love, anarchist and pareconist and white privilege advocate, on the altar of bringing hope to everyone. But I suppose that that’s the sacrifice that, if I have to make, I will.

      Still, my whole philosophy, my whole message, is about people struggling for truth, struggling to listen and love and understand. So I think that my message will always have to touch on politics.

  2. Well, I certainly didn’t mean for my reply to come across as aggressive – although I do know I sometimes to without intent. I just wanted to make it clear it wasn’t meant to be.
    You are right of course to point out white privilege since I think its existence is obvious and can’t be denied. Of course I’m also aware how many people simply shut their eyes entirely on purpose and need to be pursuaded by evidence on more than one occasion eventually.
    I suppose we both know as well how each side of a debate will always be able to present evidence of sorts to prove their point so I get the conundrum you’re facing in these arguments.

    And I agree that some aspects may be born from a specific American “problem” – that unshakable belief that America is perfect, at least as good as it gets, I’ve met Americans who can react quite explosively when confronted with imperfections of the US, especially ones such as fundamental as e.g. racism or white privilege, etc.

    In any such debate however we need to understand that things eventually blatantly obvious to one person may not be apparent at all to another. I agree, some issues, like white privilege for example should be but they’re still not. I’ve met many people who simply hadn’t seen enough of “that world” yet to realise some things I couldn’t believe they didn’t see clear as day.

    I know how hard any such debates can be, how emotional they can turn. So I’m not bashing on you. I was only trying to explain why people might give you such negative responses now and then since I’ve been on that end of the stick myself. 🙂

    • arekexcelsior says:

      It wasn’t aggressive at all! It was quite reasoned. That’s why I said up front that I hoped I didn’t come across as defensive, because I was carefully considering your points! I apologize if I implicitly communicated that.

      The evidence debate to me comes down to getting the other side to admit humility. I don’t need them to ignore their thirty sources. I just want them to see how my eighty make my position rational, and defensible, so we can get into the minutiae and collaborate. This is basically how all this work goes, in my mind. I’m not looking for “Gotchas!” or a political coup de grace. I’m looking for collaboration and coalition-building.

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