More thoughts on why system of white privilege is wrong

Bias: After being criticized for his article last year, the author ponders more deeply the realities of racism in America.

July 04, 1999|By Robert Jensen

LAST JULY, I wrote an article about white privilege for The Sun and every week since it appeared, I have received at least a dozen letters from people who want to talk about race.

A wire service carried the article and it was picked up by newspapers across the nation. More people found it on the Internet, where electronic copies wound up on discussion lists. And Ambrose Lane, who is black and hosts a talk radio show in Washington, D.C., discussed the article on the air and offered to send copies to anybody who requested one.

Since the article appeared on July 19, 1998, I have given a lot more thought to who I am, and I've learned a lot more about why many white people can't come to terms with my premise: whites, whether overtly racist or not, benefit from living in a mostly white-run world that has been built on the land and the backs of non-white people.

The reactions have varied from racist rantings, to deeply felt expressions of pain and anger, to declarations of solidarity. I'm white and I mentioned that in the article. Someone in Minnesota sent me a can of black shoe polish. I think I get the message.

But the most significant response I got was from non-white folks, predominantly African-Americans, who said something like this: "Of course there is white privilege. I've been pointing it out to my white friends and co-workers for years. Isn't it funny that almost no one listens to me, but everyone takes notice when a white guy says it."

Those comments forced me again to ponder the privilege I live with.

Who really knows more about white privilege, me or the people on the other side of that privilege?

Me, or a black inner-city teen-ager who is automatically labeled a gang member and feared by many white folks?

Me, or an American Indian on the streets of a U.S. city who is invisible to many white folks? Whose voices should we be paying attention to?

My voice gets heard in large part because I am a white man with a doctorate who holds a professional job with status.

In most settings, I speak with the assumption that people not only will listen, but will take me seriously. I speak with the assumption that my motives will not be challenged; I can rely on the perception of me as a neutral authority, someone whose observations can be trusted.

Every time I open my mouth, I draw on, and in some ways reinforce, my privilege, which is in large part tied to race.

Right now, I want to use that privilege to acknowledge the many non-white people who took the time to tell me about the enduring realities of racism in the United States. And, I want to talk to the white people who I think misread my essay and misunderstand what's at stake.

The responses of my white critics broke down into a few basic categories, around the following assertions:

1. White privilege doesn't exist because affirmative action has made being white a disadvantage. The simple response: Extremely limited attempts to combat racism, such as affirmative action, do virtually nothing to erase the white privilege built over 500 years that pervades our society. As a friend of mine says, the only real disadvantage to being white is that it so often prevents people from understanding racial issues.

2. White privilege exists, but it can't be changed because it is natural for any group to favor its own, and besides, the worst manifestations of racism are over. Response: This approach makes human choices appear outside of human control, which is a dodge to avoid moral and political responsibility for the injustice we continue to live with.

3. White privilege exists, and that's generally been a good thing because white Europeans have civilized the world. Along the way some bad things may have happened, and we should take care to be nice to non-whites to make up for that.

Response: These folks often argued the curiously contradictory position that non-whites and their cultures are not inferior and white/European culture is superior. As for the civilizing effect of Europe, we might consider five centuries of inhuman, brutal colonialism and World Wars I and II, and then ask what "civilized" means.

4.White privilege exists because whites are inherently superior, and I am a weakling and a traitor for suggesting otherwise. Response: The Klan isn't dead.

There is much to say beyond those short responses, but for now I am more interested in one common assumption that just about all these correspondents made -- that my comments on race and affirmative action were motivated by "white liberal guilt."

Well, they are wrong about a couple things. I am white -- but I'm not a liberal. I'm a radical; I don't think liberalism goes far enough to address problems based on race, gender, sexuality or class.

And I don't feel guilty. Guilt is appropriate when one has wronged another, when one has something to feel guilty about.

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