A paper on White Privilege, Racism, and White Supremacy

Posted on February 23, 2012

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I wrote this a while ago (I think 2009 or 2010), just found it. Figured I might as well put it out there into the interwebs discourse:

 

The race debate.  “Does racism exist anymore?” has been a popular question in the media since Barack Obama ran for president.  While many people claim that we are currently in a “post-racial” America, effigies of the then-candidate for office turned up and accusations of fake birth certificates and “radical” religious beliefs (among various other things) flew.  Many other people claim that racism is pervasive and something they encounter everyday, yet people of color hold many job positions and we finally have a black president.  There is obviously a large gap between the two sides.  As a white person I grew up believing that people could do whatever they wanted in life as long as they worked hard for it.  The older I got the more I realized that women seemed to be excluded from this ideal.  Once I came to terms with my sexuality I began to realize that individuals who refuse to abide by the gender dichotomy and members of the LGBTQIA community also were excluded from this ideal.  Being a marginalized person I found myself drawn to others who felt marginalized or outside of the mainstream, and most of them were people of color.  Traveling in their circles and walking in their shoes I began to see the ways in which their various skin colors negatively impacted them on a daily basis, yet nobody from the world I was from (upper-middle class white and incredibly privileged) could admit any of this.  They didn’t see it the same way.

Earlier this year I saw author Tim Wise speak about white privilege and racism.  He highlighted numerous accounts of racism that occur.  He said a study had been done on job applications, and that an individual is fifty percent more likely to be hired for a job if their name sounds white.  He told us about discrimination in our justice system.  One example he gave is that a person of color is two to three times more likely to be searched for drugs while a white person is four times more likely to be guilty; about three fourths of drug users are white and only 10% of them are put in jail for it, while about one fourth of drug users are people of color and they make up ninety percent of people in jail for drug charges.  He explained how the idea that we expect people of color to “transcend” race is in itself a racist idea, and a lot more.  Finally I saw that there needed to be a way to bridge the gap, or at least explain the way in which racism has pervaded our country since it’s beginning yet nobody will admit it.  In this paper I will discuss why racism/white supremacy are a nothing new but are a huge problem, what the root cause of this problem is, and the way in which we can begin to solve it.

This country (present-day society) was born out of a drive for greed and consumption that led to setting up a society based on inequality.  I was taught that Christopher Columbus discovered this land and claimed it.  I was also taught that the Puritans came here seeking religious freedom and oppression, and that the Pilgrims and Indians got along and ate food together.  I know far too many people who have had this similar educational experience.  First, you cannot “discover” a land that already has inhabitants.  Europe had different ideas, the Europeans had a predatory ethic:

This predatory ethic encompassed the view that the land and labor of non-European peoples were fully available for european colonists to steal and to exploit economically…They built their new society with strategies of overt savagery and genocide directed at Native American peoples and a strategy of enslavement for the Native American peoples (for a short time) and for African peoples (for long centuries. (Feagin, 10).

 

European peoples came here and had no problem killing off hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples and building a society by enslaving people of color, most notably African peoples.  We are taught about slavery in school, but not very much.  For instance, we are not told how the federal government withheld wealth-generating resources from people of color even after segregation was ended, and that they gave out for free wealth-generating resources to white people alone to stimulate the economy: “The federal government distributed hundreds of millions of acres of land, billions of dollars in mineral and oil rights, major airline routes, major radio and television frequencies, and many other government controlled resources almost exclusively to white Americans” (Feagin, 3). Now, while this is basic knowledge, it is not what we are taught in our society.  We are not given an accurate historical representation of race relations in our country and thus we grow up with a distorted image: that all people start out on equal footing. But when everyone except for white people were severely limited from wealth generating resources for such a long period of time (and arguably still are), the people kept in control will inevitably be more white people with the same ideologies as those before them, including deeply imbedded ideas that white people are better equipped to be in power.  This is why Feagin argues that “from a systemic racism perspective, U.S. society is an organized racist whole with complex, interconnected, and interdependent social networks, organizations, and institutions that routinely imbed racial oppression” (16).  From the beginning white people have been in control of all forms of communication, media, politics, education – everything; and from the beginning they have held beliefs of superiority which they have instilled in all people: “Part of the comprehensive system of racism today as in the past, is an intense cultural imperialism that entails the imposition of many white values and vies on the those who are oppressed.  Whites have imposed the Eurocentric culture they inherited from their ancestors over many generations onto the everyday worlds of this society” (Feagin, 25). This is where we get to the bottom of racism today.  Racism is a manifestation of white supremacist ideologies, therefore talking about racism alone does not get to the bottom of the issues we face.

Racism does not accurately describe the way oppression operates.  Many people think of racism merely as overt acts by individual misguided people.  What we as a society fail to realize is the way in which what we have established as “normal” is actually oppressive.  The created norm is white supremacist ideology, and therefore it permeates our lives every day, even when we do not believe we are being racist.  White supremacy can explain: “When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and or do embody white-supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism and prejudice or recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they profess to wish to see eradicated” (hooks, “Overcoming White Supremacy”, 69-70). White supremacy also can explain the way in which people of color are made to assimilate in order to survive in our society.  Pride in one’s heritage is seen as detrimental to the overall good of the society, and thus to get ahead in our capitalistic society people of color must adopt behaviors, ways of dressing and communicating, and ways of relating to others that are in line with the white supremacist ideology. Hooks says: “Assimilation is…a strategy deeply rooted in the ideology of white supremacy and its advocates urge black people to negate blackness, to imitate racist white people so as to better absorb their values, their way of life” (“Overcoming White Supremacy, 70).  This is a powerful tool in a world where white people for the most part determine who gets which jobs, and thus who can support their family and thrive.  Sure, society will accept you if you have brown skin as you look, act, think, and behave like the top-dogs of society do.  White supremacy also explains the way in which people of color have internalized white supremacist values and perpetuate them and enforce them onto other people of color: “The term ‘white supremacy’ enables us to recognize not only that black people are socialized to embody the values and attitudes of white supremacy, but that we can exercise ‘white-supremacist control’ over other black people” (hooks, “Overcoming White Supremacy”, 70).  In this way racism falls short in describing the oppression people of color face. Many people in our society say they want to see racism ended; with heartfelt words they describe how acts of racial intolerance deeply hurt them.  I believe them.  I have been around these people for my entire life.  The truth of the matter is that they do not see the ways in which the “norm”, that which encompasses everything Universal, is actually white: “The assumption that ‘Whiteness’ encompasses that which is universal, and therefore for everybody, while ‘Blackness’ is specific and therefore ‘for colored only’ is white supremacist thought.  And yet many liberal people, along with their more conservative peers, think this way not because they are ‘bad’ people or are consciously choosing to be racist but because they have unconsciously learned to think in this manner” (hooks, “Talking Race and Racism”, 39).  In general I don’t believe that people are “bad” or are (for the most part) consciously choosing to be racist; I agree with hooks that this is the way we are taught to think.  It begins with inaccurate histories of people of color, continues by the absence of multi-cultural authors or material in our curriculums, is more reinforced by what we watch on television, and is solidified as normal and perpetuated day in and day out, throughout the generations by the fact that it goes unnamed.

Not only does discrimination go unnamed, but the privilege that goes with it does as well.   Millions of people in America alone are benefiting from having white skin, and instead of realizing that, it is taken as the standard mode of being. Peggy McIntosh breaks the silence on white privilege.  She gives a list of things she once took for granted as being normal, but through examination came to learn they were benefits of having white skin.  One of the main themes I saw was visibility in our society: “Whether through the curriculum or in the newspaper, the television, the economic system, or the general look of people in the streets, i received daily signals and indications that my people counted and that others either didn’t exist or must be trying, not very successfully, to be like people of my race” (McIntosh, 323).  Being a white person in our society her identity was constantly reaffirmed through visual representation of positive images she could identify with.  After realizing the privileges she received on a daily basis, she took it a step further and realized that if her racial group was dominant, others must be subordinate: “ In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated” (McIntosh, 323).  This is the other side of oppression stemming from racism/white supremacy: not only are certain people being kept down, others are being unnecessarily elevated.   Wildman and Davis say:

In spite of the pervasiveness of privilege, anti-discrimination practice and theory have generally not examined it and its role in perpetuating discrimination.  Anti-discrimination advocates focus only on one half of the power system dyad, the subordinate characteristics, rather than seeing the essential companionship between domination that accompanies subordination and privilege that accompanies discrimination. (661).

 

Examining oppression is merely one half of the equation.  People don’t oppress others just because it is ingrained into every system in our society; people have been trying to bring injustices to the forefront of people’s minds for a long time.  The majority doesn’t listen because of what is at stake if they do.  The perpetuation of oppression happens because of the silence and denial by white people around both racism/white supremacist ideals and white privilege.

Time Wise told us in his presentation that just as racism has a longstanding historical tradition in our society, so does white denial.  He told us that in every generation the white majority did not see a problem with the way their fellow citizens (people of color) were being treated: In the mid 1800s, right smack in the middle of slavery, white people did not understand why slaves were running away, so one doctor (Dr. Samuel Cartwright) came up with a medical diagnosis for such “psychotic” behavior; In 1962, when polled, eighty-seven percent of white people claimed that black children had equal educational opportunities – now we know they definitely did not back then and they still don’t; In 1963, when polled, about two thirds of white people proclaimed there was equality in their communities – now we know this is ridiculous.  In every generation we fail to see the ways in which people are being oppressed, what are we missing now? Nothing significant has ever changed as far as the way we deal with multiculturalism, so why do we assume racism has ended? The dominant discourse on racial issues has always been carried out by those in power, the dominant group, those inflicting oppression on others, and “privilege is rarely seen by the holder of privilege” (Wildman and Davis, (658). Yet we do not give credit to anyone else who discusses race.  Hooks explains, “Black folks/people of color who talk too much about race are often represented as ‘playing the race card’ (note how this very expression trivialized discussions of racism, implying it’s all just a game), or as simply insane.  White folks who talk about race, however, are often represented as patrons, as superior civilized beings” (“Talking Race and Racism).  We hear this phrase “playing the race card” a lot nowadays, especially since Obama began his presidential campaign.  Some people said they loved Obama because he “transcends race” and he “didn’t carry the baggage of the civil right’s movement”; basically he rarely brought up the issue of race, which keeps white people comfortable (Wise).  Any time race was brought up news pundits would cry out the question “Is he playing the race card?” This is the go-to question any time race is brought up in the political sphere.  It is an easy way for white people to get out of the accusations of oppression.  Once when bell hooks was giving a speech about racism and white supremacy she was accused of playing the race card: “By evaluating me (i.e., suggesting I was being false and ‘playing the race card’) he avoided having to present the fact-based and or experiential reasons he thought differently from me” (“Talking Race and Racism”, 31).  By saying someone is playing the race card you are delegitimizing what they have to say, thus assuming you don’t have to respond.  I believe the thought behind this is that their (people of color) claims are invalid because they’re just trying to pull a fast one on to get a leg up.  This is just one form of avoidance used to escape dealing with racial issues.  In general though white people don’t have to listen to people of color as truth-bearers: “I was given cultural permission not to hear voices of people of other races or a tepid cultural tolerance for hearing or acting on such voices.  I was also   raised not to suffer seriously from anything that darker-skinned people might say about my group” (McIntosh, 323).  This is one way which systemic racism/white supremacy works: “One of the manifestations of daily life in an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy is that the vast majority of white folks have little intimacy with b lack people and are rarely in situations where they must listen to a black person (particularly black women)” (Hooks, “Talking Race and Racism”, 30-31).  The only people in a true position to talk about oppression and inequality are those who are given the least authority to talk about such things, and those with the authority don’t.  In fact, those who exercise the most privilege and oppress others are often those who deny it the most: “One of the bitter ironies anti-racists face when working to end white-supremacist thinking and action is that the folks who most perpetuate it are the individuals who are usually the least willing to acknowledge that race matters” (hooks, “Talking Race and Racism”, 28).  Those who need to talk about it the most are often those who are the most hostile and unable to hear differing points of view.  Peggy McIntosh states, “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage… I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege as males are taught not to recognize male privilege” (McIntosh, 317). We are raised in a system described earlier, where the norm perpetuated oppresses many individuals in our society, where we are indoctrinated into a system, molded to fit into a structure that perpetuates hegemonic ideas.  As a white person, I went through school not questioning what I was being taught; I figured I was in school to learn, and they knew best.  Little did I know that I was being taught not to recognize racial differences or the ways in which white people are heavily favored.  My schooling was similar to what McIntosh describes: “My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture.  I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will” (319).  Thus we are taught the myth of meritocracy: that if you work hard you will be rewarded; that we all start out on equal footing and our failures and successes in life depend on our individual drive for success. This is one of the key tools in white denial: “White privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject.  The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it, I must give up the myth of meritocracy.  If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtue of their own” (McIntosh, 322).  This is one struggle I can relate to very well.  In coming to terms with oppression, I had to realize that many people were being treated unfairly while I was still living a secure life.  In coming to terms with white privilege I had to realize that one of the main reasons my family was able to be as successful as they are is because they are white.  Many job opportunities presented themselves to my father, through social capital or being at the right place at the right time.  He probably would not have been afforded such opportunities if he hadn’t been a well-groomed, friendly, “average” white man.  Another example that comes to mind is my own admission to Saint Mary’s College.  I was not the best student in high school, and SMC did not accept me right away; they waited to see my grades senior year to make sure I was SMC material, and I was worried I might be denied.  As it turns out my neighbors’ son went to Saint Mary’s some years ago, and a friend he graduated with still had close ties to the college (her parents donate to the school regularly). My neighbor encouraged me to talk to this woman, who taught at my high school.  She told me that if I were to be denied she would see what she could do to get me into the college anyways.  Luckily I got in on my own, but it brings up a valid point: a door was opened for me that would not have been opened for someone equally or more qualified because of my social location.  “Obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all” (McIntosh, 327).

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