If you have sixteen strangers stranded on an island, and you really want them to kill each other, what do you do? The easiest thing is to give half of them headbands with the word privilege featured prominently on the front.
Words are so powerful, and that power is so easily overlooked. It is easier to fixate on gyrating flesh or cacophonous explosions. Words must now be even more powerful in a generation that clips their wings before they can ever fly.
There are and have always been those who know how to use words. The lyricism and dynamic figurative language of the “I Have a Dream” speech is compelling in giving a message and in slashing the stereotype of blacks as mentally inferior. King’s tone of reconciliation that does not excuse injustice, but rather demands ethical perseverance in the ugly face of it, marks the speech as a blisteringly beautiful and conscientiously caustic collection of wise words. Those words were accompanied by physical action that prized an end goal over bodily safety, and the specter of men and women attacked by German Shepherds for walking down the street accomplished more than a thousand bullets ever could. I am not hear with the end goal of memorializing Martin Luther King, Jr. (although I applaud those who have done so). I simply want to suggest that part of his genius was his passionate craftsmanship with words and understanding of their power. We cannot forget words or abandon them in any quest for justice or unification. We do so at our own peril.
White privilege. It actually seems like a motto for the KKK, does it not? They would be the first to say that it is a privilege to be white. The term galls me; it truly does. There is so much insidious connotation in those two little words. First, before even attempting a direct exposition, allow me to ask this question: by this time, the year 2017, have we not realized that creating racial terms and demanding their intended appellants accept them is a bad idea? The n- word for blacks, the s- word for Hispanics, and even the f- word for gays, did we not yet grasp that racial, and other, epithets are antithetical to healing, building bridges, and fomenting love? Sometimes, when I surf the culture, it feels a little bit like the “Twilight Zone”.
One portion of the population owned another portion of the population. This obviously creates lasting waves. But these waves are like sound waves; they bounce all over the place. They are nuance and terror. They are subtlety and hope. It is unrealistic to draw a line in the sand and lump all effects of our history onto a single race. But when we use the term privilege, we do that in the most ghastly of fashions. If whites are privileged, linguistics would suggest that everyone else must be underprivileged. That is a dangerous, not to mention chokingly racist, contention. Everything falls down and whites become the perpetually laughing carrot at the end of the cruel stick of America. Personal responsibility atrophies in the face of perceived societal inevitability. Privilege is not a word that invites conversation or mobility. What happened to the term experience: black, white, or brown? I though that worked pretty well. Or is there a reason we don’t want to acknowledge the commonality of humanity?
Dear Lord, what is white? I guess me, 100% European blood. But what about the white Cubans, Mexicans, Brazilians, and South Africans. What about the immigrants from Poland who got here on Tuesday? What about all the mixed race people and the fact that 17% of all new marriages identify as mixed race? Nigerian albinos? White? Must we contend with such a reaching word of fizzling ubiquity that sees its wavering, approximating, ball park definition unraveled each and every day. I remember my algebra. Power is good. “Black power” is good. “White power” is bad. Pride is good. “Black”,” Hispanic”, “gay pride” is good. “White pride” is bad. Do the math, as they say.
And what about the inimitable Peggy McIntosh? A lovely woman who engaged in some seriously humble and probing soul searching. When I read her list of white privilege examples, written in 1998, I almost laughed out loud. In my corner of the world, in this present time, the list seemed like a joke. But a friend recommended her Ted Talk, and out of deference to knowing him as one of the most kind human beings I have ever met, and in recognition of his extensive exploration of the subject, I decided to watch. That is when I saw the soul searching. Ms. McIntosh looked deeply at her own life. She realized her own perception cast men and whites as “knowers” and “doers” and minorities as something else. Within her psyche, she found deep rooted racism. The “white privilege” her journey brought into the lexicon of sociological discourse was really an accusal of her own prejudices. She believed in white privilege, and so for her it was a reality. The term appeared to be more of an instructive reminder to examine her own biases than an albatross for white folks to swallow or sling round their necks. In fact, my modern observation of white privilege is that it comes most often as a puree so sweet, produced when white guilt and white supremacy are crammed into a psychic blender and our collective unconscious falls on the button.
Racism is a word that comes forward with ugly expressiveness and judicious reflexivity. Its nonspecific indictment points to a malleable mold. The strong, insulating arms of racism reach out to us all, promising shelter but supplying only confinement. Allow me to make this discussion more personal and concrete: I work at a school that is roughly 70 per cent Hispanic, 20 per cent black, and 10 per cent white. I recently asked my students to define racism. The standard answer was not surprising: racism was slavery and white people being mean. (And yes, I submit that slavery was the true expression of institutional racism.) I followed this up with a question about personal experience with racism. The answers were surprising.
South Florida is an extremely varied area in terms of race, country and state of origin, and income level. The school where I teach is classified as Title 1 which signifies that the income level is on the lower side. This is not to suggest that I have not had students whose parents were doctors, or plumbers, and made significantly more than I do. But I digress. “I have never personally experienced racism” was an answer that appeared over and over. This assignment was written, and so this recording of absence of racism was not a question of being shy in front of the class. Now, there were sad stories. One student found out that his friend’s parents did not like to have people of his race over to the house. Another student driving to school was pulled over and searched for drugs based solely on her ethnicity. The officer unapologetically admitted this as he handcuffed her family and then found nothing illegal in the car. Her family was eventually able to sue and secure the firing of the offending officer. Another student was beat up based only on his race. Another student was ostracized for his imputed violent tendencies as a consequence of race and disposition. The first two examples were black students, and the second two were white. What?! Yes. Racism is a myriad way street.
It is such a preferred term. Racism. It is much more honest. I am racist. I went to an all white elementary school. Then, I got to middle school and was part of a racial mural. But, in all my advanced classes were the white kids, and in all the regular classes were the minorities. Without malice, I came to the conclusion that white people are smarter than blacks and Hispanics. As I tell my students, I have since had the good fortune of meeting many dumb white people and many erudite minorities. But I must continually check my bias, not my privilege. And we do not need to plot a course from the 1700’s to explain racial tension in modern America. We need only look in the mirror.