Posted: Friday, April 23, 2004
Reflections on the Brain-Rotting Properties of Privilege
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By Tim Wise
April 20, 2004, www.zmag.org
To truly understand a nation, a culture, or its people, it helps to know what they take for granted.
After all, sometimes the things that go unspoken are more powerful than the spoken word, if for no other reason than the tendency of unspoken assumptions to reinforce core ways of thinking, feeling and acting, without ever having to be verbalized (and thus subjected to challenge) at all.
What's more, when people take certain things for granted, anything that goes against the grain of what they perceive as "normal" will tend to stand out like a sore thumb, and invite a hostility that seems reasonable, at least to those dispensing it, precisely because their unspoken assumptions have gone uninterrogated for so long.
Thus, every February I encounter people who are apoplectic at the thought of Black History Month, and who insist with no sense of irony or misgiving that there should be no such thing, since, after all, there is no White History Month--a position to which they can only adhere because they have taken for granted that "American history" as told to them previously was comprehensive and accurate, as opposed to being largely the particular history of the dominant group.
In other words, the normalcy of the white narrative, which has rendered every month since they popped out of their momma's wombs White History Month, escapes them, and makes the efforts of multiculturalists seem to be the unique break with an otherwise neutral color-blindness.
Sorta' like those who e-mail me on a semi-regular basis to insist, as if they have just stumbled upon a truth of unparalleled profundity, that there should be an Ivory Magazine to balance out Ebony, or that we need a White Entertainment Television network to balance out BET, or a NAAWP to balance out the NAACP.
Again, these dear souls ignore what is obvious to virtually all persons of color but which remains unseen by those whose reality gets to be viewed as the norm: namely, that there are already two Ivory Magazines--Vogue and Cosmopolitan; that there are several WETs, which just so happen to go by the names of CBS, NBC and ABC; and that the Fortune 500, U.S. Congress and Fraternal Orders of Police are all doing a pretty good job holding it down for us white folks on the organizational front. Just because the norm is not racially-named, doesn't mean it isn't racialized.
Likewise the ongoing backlash against affirmative action, by those who seem to believe that opportunity would truly be equal in the absence of these presumably unjust efforts to ensure access to jobs and higher education for persons of color.
We are to believe that before affirmative action things were fine, and that were such efforts abolished now, things would return to this utopic state of affairs: to hell with the persistent evidence that people of color continue to face discrimination in employment, housing, education and all other institutional settings in the U.S.
So if the University of Michigan gives applicants of color twenty points on a 150-point admission scale, so as to promote racial diversity and balance out the disadvantages to which such students are often subjected in their K-12 schooling experience, that is seen as unfair racial preference.
But when the same school gives out 16 points to kids from the lily-white Upper Peninsula, or four points for children of overwhelmingly white alumni, or ten points for students who went to the state's "top" schools (who will be disproportionately white), or 8 points for those who took a full slate of Advanced Placement classes in high schools (which classes are far less available in schools serving students of color), this is seen as perfectly fair, and not at all racially preferential.
What's more, the whites who received all those bonus points due to their racial and class position will not be thought of by anyone as having received unearned advantages, in spite of the almost entirely ascriptive nature of the categories into which they fell that qualified them for such bonuses. No matter their "qualifications," it will be taken for granted that any white student at a college or University belongs there.
This is why Jennifer Gratz, the lead plaintiff in the successful "reverse discrimination" suit against Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action policy, found it a supreme injustice that a few dozen black, Latino and American Indian students were admitted ahead of her, despite having lower SATs and grades; but she thought nothing of the fact that more than 1400 other white students also were admitted ahead of her and her co-plaintiffs, despite having lower scores and grades.
"Lesser qualified" whites are acceptable, you see, while "lesser qualified" people of color must be eliminated from their unearned perches of opportunity. This is the kind of racist logic that people like Gratz, who now heads up the state's anti-affirmative action initiative with the financial backing of Ward Connerly, find acceptable.
This kind of logic also explains the effort of whites at Roger Williams University to start a "white scholarship fund," on the pretense that scholarships for students of color are unfair and place whites at a disadvantage.
This, despite the unmentioned fact that about 93 percent of all college scholarship money goes to whites; despite the fact that students of color at elite and expensive colleges come from families with about half the average income of whites; despite the fact that there are scholarships for pretty much every kind of student under the sun, including children of Tupperware dealers, kids whose parents raise horses, kids who are left-handed, kids whose families descend from the founding fathers: you name it, and there's money available for it.
While there are plenty of whites unable to afford college, the fault for this unhappy reality lies not with minority scholarships, but rather with the decisions of almost exclusively white University elites to raise the price of higher education into the stratosphere, to the detriment of most everyone.
But to place blame where it really belongs, on rich white people, would be illogical. After all, we take it for granted that one day we too might be wealthy, and we wouldn't want others to question our decisions and prerogatives come that day either.
Better to blame the dark-skinned for our hardship, since we can take it for granted that they're powerless to do anything about it.
Whites, as it turns out, take most everything for granted in this country; which makes perfect sense, because dominant groups usually have that privilege.
We take for granted that we won't be racially profiled even when members of our group engage in criminality at a disproportionate rate, whether the crime is corporate fraud, serial killing, child molestation, abortion clinic bombings or drunk driving. And indeed we won't be.
We take it for granted that our terrorism won't result in whites as a group being viewed with generalized suspicion. So Tim McVeigh represents only Tim McVeigh, while Mohammed Atta gets to serve as a proxy for every other person who either has his name or follows a prophet of that name.
We take it for granted that our dishonesty will be viewed in purely individualistic terms, while the dishonesty of others will result in aspersions being cast upon the entire group from which they come.
Thus, Jayson Blair's deceptions at the New York Times provoke howls of indignation at any effort to provide opportunity to journalists of color--because after all, diversity and quality are proven by this one man's exploits to be incompatible--but Jack Kelley's equally egregious fabrications and fraud at USA Today fails to prompt calls for an end to hiring white guys as reporters, or for scrutinizing them more carefully, or for closing down whatever avenues of opportunity have helped keep the profession so white for so long.
We take it for granted that we will never be viewed as one of those dreaded "special interest" groups, precisely because whatever serves our interests is presumed universal.
So, for example, while politicians who pursue the support of black, Latino, gay or other "minority" voters are said to be pandering to special interests, those who bend over backwards to secure the backing of NASCAR dads and soccer moms, whose racial composition is as self-evident as it is unmentioned, are said to be politically savvy and merely trying to connect with "normal folks."
We take it for granted that "classical music" is a perfectly legitimate term for what really amounts to one particular classical form (mostly European orchestral and piano concerto music), ignoring that there are, indeed, classical forms of all musical styles, as well as their more contemporary versions.
We take it for granted that the only controversy regarding Jesus is whether or not he was killed by Jews or Romans; or whether the depiction of his execution by Mel Gibson is too violent for children, all the while ignoring a much larger issue, which is why does Gibson (and for that matter every other white filmmaker or artist in the history of the faith) feel the need to make Jesus white: something he surely could not have been and was not, with all due apology to Michelangelo, Constantine, Pat Robertson, and the producers of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
That the only physical descriptions of Jesus in the Bible indicate that he had feet the color of burnt brass, and hair like wool, poses a slight problem for Gibson and other followers of the white Jesus hanging in their churches, adorning their crucifixes (if Catholic), and gracing the Christmas cards they send each December.
It is the same problem posed by the anthropological evidence concerning the physical appearance of first century Jews from that part of Northern Africa we prefer to call the "Middle East" (and why is that I wonder?). Namely, Jesus did not look like a long-haired version of my Ashkenazi Jewish, Eastern European great-grandfather in his prime.
But to even bring this up is to send most white Christians (and sadly, even many of color) into fits, replete with assurances that "it doesn't matter what Jesus looked like, it only matters what he did."
Which is all fine and good, until you realize that indeed it must matter to them what Jesus looked like; otherwise, they wouldn't be so averse to presenting him as the man of color he most assuredly was: a man dark enough to guarantee that were he to come back tomorrow, and find himself on the wrong side of New York City at the wrong time of night, reaching for his keys or his wallet in the presence of the Street Crimes Unit, he'd be dispatched far more expeditiously than was done at Golgotha 2000 years ago.
But never fear: we needn't grapple with that because we can merely take it for granted that Jesus had to look like us, as did Adam and Eve, and as does God himself. And indeed, most whites believe this to be true, as proven by every single picture Bible for kids made by a white person, all of which present these figures in such a way.
Consider the classic and widely distributed Robert Maxwell Bible Series for children, popularly known as the "blue books," which are found in virtually every pediatrician and OBGYN's office in the U.S. In Volume I, readers learn (at least visually speaking) that the Garden of Eden was in Oslo: a little-known fact that will stun Biblical scholars to be sure.
It would all be quite funny were it not so incontestably insane, so pathological in terms of the scope of our nuttiness. What else, after all, can explain the fact that when a New Jersey theatre company put on a passion play a few years ago with a black actor in the lead role, they received hundreds of hateful phone calls and even death threats for daring to portray Jesus as anyone darker than, say, Shaun Cassidy?
What else but a tenuous (at best) grip on reality can explain the quickness with which many white Americans ran around after 9/11 saying truly stupid shit like "now we know what it means to be attacked for who we are?"
Now we know? Hell, some folks always knew what that was like, though their pain and suffering never counted for much in the eyes of the majority.
What else but delusion on a scale necessitating medication could lead one to say--as two whites did on CNN in the wake of the first O.J. Simpson verdict--that they now realized everything they had been told about the American justice system being fair was a lie? Now they realized it! See the theme here?
That's what privilege is, for all those who constantly ask me what I mean when I speak of white privilege. It's the ability to presume that your reality is the reality; that your experiences, if white, are universal, and not particular to your racial identity.
It's the ability to assume that you belong and that others will presume that too; the ability to define reality for others, and expect that definition to stick (because you have the power to ensure that it becomes the dominant narrative).
And it's the ability to ignore all evidence to the contrary, claim that you yourself are the victim, and get everyone from the President to the Supreme Court to the average white guy on the street to believe it.
It is Times New Roman font, one inch margins, left hand justified. In other words, it is the default position on the computer of American life. And it has rendered vast numbers of its recipients utterly incapable of critical thought.
Only by rebelling against it, and insisting on our own freedom from the mental straightjacket into which we have been placed as whites by this system, can we hope to regain our full humanity, and be of any use as allies to people of color in their struggle against racism.
Tim Wise is an antiracist activist, essayist and father. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Death threats, while neither appreciated nor desired, will be graded for form, content and originality.
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