Today’s Friday feature on resistance this week is Elon James White’s riff on white privilege.
I think you’ll agree, it’s 4 minutes and 59 seconds of awesome:
Today’s Friday feature on resistance this week is Elon James White’s riff on white privilege.
I think you’ll agree, it’s 4 minutes and 59 seconds of awesome:
Following the post here by Sharon Chang about racism in children’s toys, there was a whole conversation about that post on Twitter. Jen Jack Gieseking was kind enough to Storify the Tweets in this conversation (Storify is just a say of gathering Tweets and putting them in an easy-to-read order – when you get to the bottom, click where it says ‘read more’). Here’s how that conversation unfolded:
Have a racist encounter during the day? Chances are, if you were on the receiving end of that encounter, you’re not sleeping well tonight. New research suggests that experiences of racial discrimination are associated with an increased risk of problems sleeping. These problems may in turn have a negative impact on mental and physical health.
The study involved an analysis of data from the 2006 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which is administered by the CDC. The BRFSS is the largest, ongoing telephone health survey of American adults, administered annually to people selected by states and random-digit-dialing. Researchers analyzed responses from 7,093 people in Michigan and Wisconsin, which were the only states to collect data on both sleep and racism.
The results of the study show that there was a link between experiences with racism and self-reported problems with sleeping. Experiences of racism – which the health disparities literature insists on referring to as “perceived racism,” as if the problem is with perception – is assessed with the question: sorted into two cateogires as either “worse” or “same or better.” Respondents were classified as having problems with sleep if they reported having difficulty sleeping at least 6 nights in the past 2 weeks. Lead researcher and author Michael A. Grandner, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, is quoted in an interview saying:
“This study found that an environmental stressor that exists purely at the social level—perceived racial discrimination—had a hand in how likely a person was to experience disturbed sleep. The most surprising finding in this study was that individuals who perceived racial discrimination were more likely to experience sleep difficulties, and it did not matter if they were black or white, men or women, rich or poor, or even if they were otherwise depressed or not, since these were adjusted for in the statistical analysis.”
There are a couple of things to note about this research. First and foremost is the somatic, bodily impact of racism on those who experience it. Second, the overly cautious academic language of “perceived racism” undermines the voices and experiences of those in the studies who shared their experiences with researchers, relegating them to the realm of “perception,” the truth of which is to be determined later and by someone else, more removed, objective, and whiter.
Finally, what struck me about this research was that it’s framed within the language of health disparities in which the focus is always on African American, Latino, Asian and Native American folk. This is fine as far as it goes, as when it highlights the unequal burden placed on some when it comes to health.
What’s missing from this analysis is the unequal benefit that white people reap in all this. Encounters with racism are sometimes structural, sometimes personal. Over and over again in research like Living with Racism and The Myth of the Model Minority and Racism without Racists and Everyday Injustice and Racism in Indian Country, scholars have documented the experiences of Black, Asian, Latina/o and Native Americans with racist whites and with white power structures. Yet, the health disparities literature still frames these experiences as “perceptions” and white actors are rendered invisible through the academic use of the passive voice.
My guess is that most white folk are not losing sleep at night because of racism, and as a result of that, get an unearned benefit of greater physical and mental health.
This week the U.S. Senate voted on two landmark pieces of legislation: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) and the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young people who came to this country as children. The repeal of DADT succeeded, while the DREAM Act failed to pass. Gay and lesbian activists and their allies who fought for the repeal of DADT are understandably elated with the overturning of the 17-year-old ban. But, so far at least, white gay and lesbian progressives have failed to see the DREAM Act as part of the same struggle for human rights.
Don’t get me wrong, leading gay and lesbian organizations, such as NGLTF have mentioned both the DREAM Act and DADT – but as separate, single issues. In separate press releases this week, Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) came out in favor of the repeal of DADT and the DREAM Act. In contrast, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest (and predominantly white) gay rights organization, has had a lot to say on DADT, but has had very little to say about the DREAM Act. White gay bloggers like Dan Savage and Joe.My.God. have mentioned the DREAM Act along with DADT, as they have been updating their readers about the lame-duck session of Congress. The Advocate, a magazine popular with white gays and lesbians, has tons of coverage about the repeal of DADT, but has had only one piece about the immigration (in November) but nothing to date in the archive about the DREAM Act, except as the scheduling of that vote threatened to affect repeal of DADT. And, perhaps most disappointing for me to see personally as a church-going lesbian, the moderator for my denomination issued a press release that heralded the triumph of this single issue.
What’s the matter with single issue politics? Isn’t this simply a pragmatic strategy for getting things done in the current political climate? I don’t think so. And, neither does Urvashi Vaid. In a recent speech at the CUNY Graduate Center, Vaid, a longtime activist working at the intersections of LGBT rights and racial justice articulated the dilemma of single-issue gay politics this way:
The key structural reason why neither branch of the LGBT movements has operationalized its stated intersectional politics, is quite simple: the default definition for what “Gay” means has been set by, and remains dominated by, the ideas and experiences of those in our communities who are white and this really has not changed in more than fifty years. Issues, identities, problems that are not “purely” gay – read as affecting white gay men and women – are always defined as not the concern of “our” LGBT movement – they are dismissed as “non-gay” issues, as divisive, as the issues that some ‘other movement’ is more suited to champion. We have our hands full we are told. We need to single-mindedly focus on one thing.
This is an argument that many LGBT liberationists and gay-equality focused activists have made to each other and bought wholesale for decade– without malice, without prejudice – just because there has been an unquestioned assumption that this narrow focus works, that we are getting results because we are making a “gay rights” argument, that this is smart and successful political strategy.
My contention is that it is exactly this narrow and limited focus that is not only causing us to stall in our progress towards formal equality, it is leading us to abandon or ignore large parts of our own communities, with the consequence of making us a weaker movement. The gay-rights focus was historically needed but is a vestigial burden we need to shed. It leads to an unsuccessful political strategy where we try to win on one issue at a time, it narrows our imagination and vision, it does not serve large numbers of our own people, and it feeds the perception that we are generally privileged and powerful, and not in need of civil equality.
What this means right now, at this critical juncture when the repeal of DADT has passed and the DREAM Act hasn’t, is that gay and lesbian activists should be calling for the passage of the DREAM Act and other (even broader) immigration reforms. I’ve yet to hear one white gay or lesbian activist stand up and say, “Let’s use this momentum from the DADT victory to see the passage of the DREAM Act.” Not one. As Vaid said, by focusing on one, single issue at a time, we’re narrowing our imagination and our vision.
Instead of this broadening of vision and building toward a common goal, among white gays and lesbians there’s a kind of collective “oh, well, the Brown people didn’t get their bill, quelle sad, but we got ours – so let’s celebrate!” What white gay and lesbian progressives fail to understand is that among those young people hoping to achieve citizenship through the (very restrictive) DREAM Act are gay and lesbian teens. It’s not that DADT and the DREAM Act are separate issues, they’re part of the same struggle. It’s just that white gays and lesbians don’t see that. I hope that changes.
There’s been some discussion in the comments section about what “white privilege” looks like. There is a documentary called Mirrors of Privilege (by Shakti Butler), available in five parts on YouTube (about 10 minutes each), that is something like a white privilege 101 course:
It’s worth watching all five parts, especially if you’re new to thinking about these concepts, as it includes interviews with experts and non-experts. Changeseeker has a good discussion of how these clips have been useful in her sociology class, at Why Am I Not Surprised?
[This post is a re-blog from here. It's a conversation among several scholars and activists about an urban encounter, each person was invited to respond. My contribution, along with several others, are included here. More after the jump. ~ Jessie]
We look to our children as promises for the future, to progress beyond previous generations’ limitations, failures and injustices. We recognize and dream about “their world” — the one we’ll live in when we are seniors, the one that embodies some of our wishes and the fruits of our labor and energy. But we also know that for these goals to be reached, there must be a context within which our young people can learn, grow and thrive. We agonize over how we can improve conditions for young Americans whose future is so instrumental to ours, and we worry about kids who seem to be heading in a direction that can undermine those aspirations. THIS WEEK, we have assembled a small panel of thoughtful folks who are thinkers, writers and social justice advocates to discuss a confrontation that Stephen had with three young men who were vandalizing a subway station on Tuesday evening. We offer these perspectives in the spirit (and with the hope) of instigating positive, thoughtful discussion. Stephen’s story is below, followed immediately by Charlton’s response and then the responses of our guests.
As a society, we have chosen to not uphold desegregation laws. We have chosen to allow low income children of color to receive a substandard education, simply because they live in a different zip code. We have chosen to not pay a living wage so that people can actually have the means to pursue life, liberty and happiness, so they can move out of dangerous neighborhoods if they see fit. And we have chosen to allow gangs and narcotic trafficking to run rampant, as long as it stays controlled on the “bad” side of town. As for having some sort of moral or spiritual “center” where today’s teens know not to beat one of their peers to death, that sort of center doesn’t just fall out of the sky and infect kids like Swine Flu. Yes, children and teens should know better, but we live in a do-whatever-you-wanna-do culture. Self-control is in no way a part of our world these days.
I’m not saying this to excuse what these teenagers did. But hello, didn’t you read Lord of the Flies as part of your education?
THIS is where race and class come in. Society has surely created an environment where anti-social behavior will fester in disenfranchised youth, including children of color and the poor. And because we broke it, it is our job to fix it. It is good that you intervened, Stephen–not as a white savior, but as a concerned adult. What most of us, including me, are far more likely to do is look away and say nothing, to tsk tsk about the kids and the mamas and daddies who are raising them, to give the children in question up for lost. We look away from the loud and aggressive behavior. We look away from the loitering. We look away from the vandalism. We look away…until a teenaged boy is beaten to death on camera…and then it seems people cannot look away. And we wonder how we got here.
With this election season (finally!) drawing to a close, people are starting to speculate that Obama will win. Every time I start getting hopeful, though, I remind myself not to get too comfortable. After all, this is still America, a country grounded in slavery, genocide, and freedom of opportunity, speech, and religion only for a few, not for the masses. Centuries after America’s beginning, we are still a nation profoundly shaped by racial inequality. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock’s metaphor for this: “if you’re playing a game with a white guy, and you have six and the white guy has five, the white guy wins.” Right now, Obama has six. But the white guy with five could still win.
Despite Obama’s superior ground game, campaign management, advantage as the challenger after eight years of Republican rule, record levels of dissatisfaction with the current president and direction of the country, and even the dramatic financial collapse that precipitated his lead in the polls, white privilege continues to shape this campaign and could determine the final outcome of this election. The last examples I gave of this considered whether Malia Obama could be an unmarried, pregnant teen and get the same response that Bristol Palin has, or whether Barack Obama could have left his wife (after she was critically injured in a near-fatal car accident) for a younger, wealthy heiress without facing constant criticism of his morals and ethics.
Here are some other examples:
Race has shaped this campaign since its onset, and it seems clear that it will play a role in its outcome. I hope that on Nov. 4, white privilege doesn’t determine the outcome of this election. I will be discussing this issue and more on the show Meet the Bloggers, which airs Friday, Oct. 24 at 1pm.
The current financial crisis turns out to be quite an opportunity for exposing the modus operandi of white privilege and white racism. In this short clip (3:05), Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-Minnesota), you can see and hear this white woman blame “blacks and other minorities” for the current financial crisis. Specifically, she refers to something known as “CRA,” the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977. The clip begins with a shot of the (rather empty) chamber, then the camera turns to her:
In fact, Rep. Bachmann is wrong and is simply re-iterating conservative talking points, as Think Progress notes. Bachmann’s assertion is based on a series of racist lies, nicely dissected here by Sara Robinson. Bachmann’s strategy of blaming black folks “and other minorities” is an old, racist trope that even mainstream news media types are beginning to recognize. (This speech earned Bachmann the dubious distinction of Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World” award on last night’s broadcast.) So, this is how white racism and white privilege are working together here. Economically privileged white men built, implemented and profited from this elaborate financial scheme, a good deal of it on the backs of people of color and their mortgages. Then, other privileged whites – like Michelle Bachmann – come along and do the ideological work of blaming the people at the bottom of several, interlocking social hierarchies (race, class, gender) for the economic collapse. Meanwhile, the 400 richest Americans continue to get even richer and can easily claim that “they’re not racist” and convince themselves that they are not implicated in this deeply unequal and unjust system.
Make no mistake, all the available evidence suggests that the American political economy is headed for a major crash. Some are even speculating that this is the end of American economic dominance in the world’s financial market. But don’t be deceived by the blame-the-victim rationalizing that’s being floated now. Let’s be clear about what policies and which people are behind the current financial crisis: neoliberal policies and the overwhelmingly majority of economically privileged white men (photo from same link) who created, implemented and benefited from those policies.
Neoliberalism refers to a set of policies that encourage “less government” and unfettered (and unregulated) capitalism. The key elements of neoliberalism include: 1) the rule of the market, 2) reducing government expenditures on social services, 3) deregulation, 4) privatization, and 5) gutting the notion of “the public good.” While this may strike some readers as sounding astonishingly similar to any recent Republican stump speech, neoliberalism has infected Democratic politics as well, and either Clinton’s policies (and way too many of Obama’s, for my tastes), fit neatly within the framework of neoliberalism. Remember, “welfare reform” was a large part of what got Bill Clinton elected, and that’s a quintessential neoliberal policy. Now, it seems self-evident to me what the connection is between neoliberalism and the current financial crisis, but allow me to connect a few of the dots here. As those in the White House and Congress, including John McCain, touted the benefits of deregulation (link opens video of interview with McCain) of the financial markets and passed legislation “freeing” up those industries from any sort of government oversight, whole new markets developed and a few people got very, very rich. Many of those who got very, very rich did so in financial services that are obtuse at best and an elaborate shell game at worse. Others got very, very rich by targeting minority communities for subprime mortgages, the new version of “redlining.” Now, those who conceived of, established and profited from these businesses have either cashed out or, if they’re still in the game, are looking to the U.S. tax-payers (some of the same people who’ve been fleeced by these schemes) for a $700 billion bailout, making the U.S. government the insurer-of-last-resort for these highly risky capitalist ventures. The end result of neoliberal policies is that while a handful of people get very, very rich, these policies simultaneously exacerbate the suffering of just about everyone else and increase domestic and international instability. So, what we’re seeing now is just the logical, perhaps inevitable, result of these policies.
Economically privileged white men have had a disproportionate level of involvement in the development, administration and profit from neoliberalism. If you look at the roster of those in power on Wall Street and in the financial services sector more broadly in the U.S., what you will see is overwhelmingly white men who have gone to elite schools and, for the most part, come from upper-middle class and upper-class backgrounds. Granted, there are token women (usually white) and people of color (some African American men), but these exceptions highlight the prevailing demographic fact about the industry. While the “secret societies” of the wealthy occasionally make the news, the fact is, the power elite has been a feature of American life since before C. Wright Mills wrote about it in the 1950s, yet it rarely gets discussed in any meaningful way in the mainstream news. Instead, we get a lot of reporting about how the bailout failure was the result of partisanship – certainly part of the story, but doesn’t explain why conservative republicans and democrats rejected the plan. Instead, what we need is more reporting, more information about how the state is working to protect the interests of the power elite.
Fortunately, critics on the left have pointed out the elite interests behind this crisis and the proposed bailout. The reality is that bailout or not, the worsening economic landscape is not going to affect everyone in the U.S. – and the world – evenly. Instead, people of color, women, and particularly women of color, are going to get laid off, not have health care, lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy, while privileged white men may have to sell one of their vacation homes. It’s time to shift this burden back onto the shoulders of the people who created it.
Earlier this year, Gloria Steinem wrote a provocative and controversial op-ed piece where she asked readers to imagine an African American woman, trained as a lawyer, who spent two years in the Senate and then went on to run for the Presidency. Steinem’s point was that that “gender is probably the most restrictive force in American life,” and that a Black woman could never hope to achieve such lofty heights, while a Black man is currently doing so and may in fact be elected President.
I took exception to Steinem’s premise, but now I find myself wishing she would update it. Specifically, I’d like Americans to examine a few scenarios and imagine how these would play out.
Let’s start with this one. Imagine that Michelle Obama were not Barack’s first wife, but his second one. Imagine that Obama had been separated from his first wife due to some horrible trauma, and when they finally reunited, he learned that she had been disfigured by a car accident. Imagine then that Barack met Michelle Robinson, a much younger, wealthier woman, began an affair with her while still married to his first wife. And to put the finishing touch on it, imagine that Barack eventually left his first wife for Michelle and used her father’s wealth to launch his political career. Would he be the Democratic nominee today? Or would conservatives tear him apart for his multiple marriages, infidelity, and “moral failures”? Would he generate the same support from Democratic elites, or would he be a lesser version of Kwame Kilpatrick–another black male politician for whom a sex scandal proved his undoing?
Here’s another one. Imagine that Barack Obama ran for president when Malia and Sasha were 17 and 14 instead of 10 and 7. Imagine that in the early stages of his candidacy, news surfaced that Malia was pregnant by her boyfriend, but that they planned to wed. Would Democratic leaders and left-leaning news commentators rally around Obama and insist that his family’s lives are private and not for public consumption? Or would Malia immediately become used as a symbol of irresponsible teen mothers who are a drain on society?
Let’s keep going. Imagine that Barack Obama, in the early stages of his candidacy, simply decided that all the questions and innuendo about him being Muslim, tied to a member of the Weather Underground, and a secret terrorist plant were just too much, and opted not to talk to the media any more on the grounds that they were racist. Would anyone, anyone at all, consider this defensible behavior? Would he even have a candidacy if he did this?
I’m not suggesting that Obama should want to strive for these things, or that these are behaviors to be glorified. But I don’t believe that he could have McCain’s sordid marital history, Palin’s familial dynamics, or her arrogant hostility towards the press with the same consequences. The double standard has a name, and that name is white privilege. John Ridley writing at Huffington Post has even more examples of this sort of thing in his recent column.