Tag Archives: whiteness

Whiteness 101: There’s no Get-out-of-Privilege-Free Card

Several times before on separate occasions, we have heard white anti-racists use this argument: “This isn’t about white people, this is about whiteness.” It’s not that only white anti-racists use this argument, but this post will only address those who do. The phenomenon of PoC making this argument or practicing whiteness does exist, but this is not something for white folks to fully expose or comment on. Our responsibility is to address the problematic actions, thoughts, and states of privilege of white folks, not to call out PoC. In terms of white folks who use the argument that white privilege or white supremacy is not about white people, but is exclusively about the concept of whiteness… we disagree. It is not the abstract concept of whiteness that benefits from white privilege, it is white people who benefit. It is not whiteness that commits lynchings, hate crimes, or shootings, it is white people who concretely carry out these acts of violence. Because white people and folks with white skin privilege are writing this blog, we won’t get the backlash PoC would get for “hating white people” with this entry. Even if we are speaking critically of whiteness, we maintain our privilege as people with white skin. Whiteness exists in us and in our skin color as much as it exists beyond these things. Owning this privilege and admitting its existence can’t be equated with “hating” ourselves or other white people.

Whiteness is a combination of social ideas, forces, systems, and actors—all of them inseparable and interconnected. Whiteness is where we have grown up, the privileges we have enjoyed, our media representation, our social and public security, our racial politics, wealth and comfort from prior generations, and it is all of us as people who can only truthfully identify as white or identify as biracial but have white skin privilege. When white anti-racists, or white folks in general, distance themselves from being white they place whiteness in an abstract state and make it seem as though, with enough education, we can escape it. This is not so. It is ridiculous for white folks to say things like “Ugh I HATE white people” or “This is only about whiteness,” because both statements suggest the speaker has somehow “moved on” and is no longer white. Our minds and hearts can change, we as people can change, but regardless of these possibilities, our skin will always be white and we will therefore always benefit from white supremacy/privilege as long as this system is still in tact.

This particular debate is why we said in a previous post on white privilege that Peggy McIntosh’s idea of the Invisible Knapsack isn’t a good place to stop in terms of critically examining whiteness. While her list is accurate and overall holds true in the contemporary moment, its central focus is on individual privilege and freedom, not on networks of oppression and the brutality of power. Whiteness is not just an experience, a social state, or a system of advantages, it is also an expression of violence. White folks thinking of and/or seeing PoC as less than human is violent, denying the experiences PoC have with racism and oppression is violent, refusing to admit we have privilege over PoC is violent, housing segregation is violent, hate crimes are violent, racial language is violent. Why are these events and structures violent? Because they cause material harm and damage to PoC. White folks might disagree or disapprove, but we aren’t any less powerful and we can’t claim to be victims.

The point is not to take every argument about white privilege personally, meaning finding ourselves individually guilty for every white aggression/atrocity ever committed, but to understand how we can’t logically claim to be completely separate from whiteness. White anti-racists should not feel the need to comfort white folks (and possibly themselves) by saying “this isn’t about us as people,” when whiteness undoubtedly involves white people and our actions—we are comforted enough by white privilege anyway. If a white person calls an Arab person a “sand n*gger,” do they get to turn around and say “oh, that wasn’t me it was just my whiteness”? If we’re being real about the situation, it’s both. It’s the person and the privilege, the racist and the racism, that are equally accountable. What about the white folks that marched and organized during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s? Sure they did good work with their politics in the right place, but their freedom to eat in segregated restaurants, their safety in going home to white neighborhoods, their ability to escape harassment outside of protest scenes, demonstrated the continued existence of their skin privilege. The system can’t exist without people to run it, people to reap rewards, and people to oppress.

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Lessons from Arguments with white Folks: The Difference Between Luxuries and Privilege

Having had many debates with self-proclaimed socialists or Marxists with white skin, there has been a noticeable trend to deflect from white privilege (or deny that it exists altogether) on the basis of class oppression.  Yes, working class whites do exist and they may struggle with certain forms of class barriers, but the point is that they will never struggle with racial oppression.  That’s part of what having white privilege means: not having to calculate and consider racism in every aspect of your life.  That is a social, political, institutional, and factual reality for white folks.  What is crucial for us to understand is this: class status can be changed, race cannot be changed.  A white person who has been university educated and holds a degree, who can’t find a decent job or lost the one they had, and finds themselves on the verge of homelessness still has more opportunities and racial advantages than a person of color who couldn’t afford to attend college in the first place.

Thinking critically about the idea of us whites experiencing class ‘oppression’ is also important.  Changes in class status are often expressed in “rags to riches” narratives, or what is also called the myth of meritocracy.  This is the idea that hard work can take anyone in the US anywhere in terms of social mobility, and once this upward mobility has been achieved they can say they ‘earned’ everything they have based on individual merit.  First of all, does someone who grew up in Watts or on a reservation really have the same opportunities as someone who grew up in say… Beverly Hills?  The proverbial playing field is not level, and anyone can see this obvious truth in such a small geographic example. Even if there are white folks born in the Ozarks instead of Beverly Hills, the promise of “rags to riches” was made for us.  It protects and comforts us.  How often does this narrative apply to POC?  If we see Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor through this lens we can see how limited this idea is: she is the first and only Latina to hold this title while also having this kind of story.

White folks that go from “rags to riches” do not have to overcome racism to discard their rags, and they do not have to continue to confront racism once they’ve earned their riches.  If they don’t have riches, that doesn’t necessarily mean they experience class oppression.  During one particular debate about class oppression with a white socialist, her argument against her own white privilege was presented as follows: I don’t have a six-digit bank account balance, I don’t have a private yacht, I don’t have a ten bedroom mansion, I don’t get to take lavish vacations, I don’t have a “Cadillac health care” plan, I’m not a CEO of a major corporation, therefore I don’t have white privilege.  The items on this list are better understood as luxuries, not as parts that comprise the whole of privilege.  If you can also say: I have family and friends with money and a family home, I have a car/laptop/smart phone, I have a decent apartment in a decent neighborhood and grew up in a white neighborhood, I have the freedom to take road trips and flights out to conferences, I have been in safe environments away from constant pollution and can afford to feed myself well so I don’t have conditions that require “Cadillac” health insurance, and I am a leader in my social institutions who might find the search for gainful employment difficult but not impossible… then you have privilege.  White privilege is whites having more advantages, access, safety, protection, and comfort than POC even if we don’t possess the luxuries of the super rich.

Class barriers do not negate white privilege.  Not being able to pay the mortgage on a house is a financial barrier, not having a mortgage because you will never be able to qualify for a loan and afford a house is oppression.  And if we’re going to talk numbers with this shit, the actual percentage of whites living with class barriers is quite small.  Here are some statistics for thought from the National Poverty Center:

“The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for Blacks and [Latin@s] greatly exceed the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of Blacks and 26.6 percent of [Latin@s] were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.

That’s 9.9% of over 300 million people.  And that’s white folks living in poverty, not white folks living in “I have a car but I don’t have a yacht” land.  Not to mention, the economy was already falling apart two years before that data was compiled.  Breaking down white privilege involves being honest about what we have and getting perspective on what POC don’t have, it isn’t denying the existence of white privilege because wealthier white folks have more stuff.

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Race 101: Unpacking “Race is a Social Construction”

If you have ever taken a course in the discipline of Ethnic Studies, or communicate with people who just know this shit, this is the most basic fundamental you will learn.  So what does this mean?

  • Race is not biological, and there is no scientific evidence to support this idea.  Syracuse University created a US version of an exhibition investigating the alleged connections between race and biology, and no connections were found.  Skin color is only genetically significant in terms of melanin, migration patterns, and geography.  There are more genetic differences within ethnic groups than there are genetic differences between ethnic groups.  The excerpt below was taken from one of the exhibition panels:

    “Some of our physical differences give the impression that it is possible to divide us into races. But when these physical characteristics are subjected to detailed study, that cannot be concluded at all. Instead it becomes obvious that our physical diversity reflects continuous changes from one extreme to the other of the continents. To place any boundaries within this continuous diversity would be, therefore, completely arbitrary. Human diversity is in fact infinitely more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it. This is why attempts to make racial classifications don’t yield any coherent results; there is nothing scientific about “races”. The science of genetics teaches us that it is impossible to attribute physical resemblance to genetic resemblance.” [bold and italics added]

    There is some seriously problematic shit about that exhibition, and that website, in terms of how the ideas are presented and what doesn’t get addressed… which leads us to another bullet point.

  • This quote uses a seemingly neutral word that erases huge amounts of historical specifics: “… more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it.”  By “we” the author meant elite white European men during the Age of “Enlightenment.”  In 1735, Charles Linnaeus published The General System of Nature in which bogus ideas of racial hierarchies began to be theorized and formed.  By then Europeans and friends, who had colonized most of the planet, needed a justification for killing, raping, conquering, enslaving, and displacing Indigenous peoples.  The concepts of race, both the invented superiority of white Europeans and the invented inferiority of Indigenous non-white ‘others,’ were created to make such a justification possible.
  • These hundreds of years of history lead to these ideas being concretely rooted in institutional and social practices in the present day US (since we’re writing from the US, these are the race relations being discussed).  Some examples include, but are not limited to: genocide, slavery, segregation, boarding schools that “civilized” American Indian “savages,” Japanese internment camps, higher rates of imprisonment, lack of access to education/housing/healthcare for POC, and much more.  What these practices reveal is this: while race is an invention, an illusion, and something that cannot be scientifically proven, it is also a social fact.  It is something that has a function, something that is taught, learned, and enforced.  It is experienced and it is present.  It is, to this day, still used with its original intention of uplifting whiteness and oppressing POC.
  • Constructions of race have material consequences.  No one can biologically prove that white skin is superior to different skin colors, but this is how whiteness has been constructed socially—meaning white folks created this nonsense and we perpetuate it, which is reflected in all of the laws and movements that had to pass/occur in order for POC to gain some access to institutions that were exclusively reserved for white folks.  That is why all white folks and folks with skin privilege (moderators of this blog included) still benefit from this legacy of race; we still reap the rewards and consequences of slavery even if we don’t own slaves in the current moment in time.  Safety and privilege for white folks are the consequences of white supremacy, just as racism and oppression are the consequences of white supremacy for POC.  The meanings that are assigned to race are fiction, the social experiences of race and corresponding advantages or disadvantages are fact.
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