3.18.2008

Consciousness of White Privilege Has Great Potential

I often take notice when white people say things in public that reflect their lack of self-awareness in terms of white privilege.


For example, Geraldine Ferraro, you know that lady from the Clinton campaign who basically reduced Obama to a token "blackie" of the public.

I was recently directed to a very insightful Los Angeles Times article by Gregory Rodriguez, who writes about a less-obvious racism that takes place when some whites feel threatened by "minorities" in power (such as Geraldine Ferraro):

Rodriguez writes,
Geraldine Ferraro's remark that "if [Barack] Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position" was not racist per se; it did not presume racial inferiority on the part of any person or group. But it was remarkably arrogant, ignorant and, unfortunately, reflective of an all too common and growing sentiment in the post-Civil Rights era.
...
In 1999, the Seattle Times commissioned a survey that found 75% of whites agreed with the statement that "unqualified minorities get hired over qualified whites" most or some of the time. Two-thirds felt the same when asked about promotions and college admissions. Whether white disadvantage is real or imagined, the poll showed that a considerable number of whites feel threatened not only by the means of ascent but by minority advancement itself. Clearly, most minorities who advance up the professional ladder are not unqualified. (If you think that last sentence is incorrect, you probably are a true-blue racist.)
...
Unlike so many -- often media-created -- black leaders, Obama doesn't use a parochial message of victimhood or the zero-sum logic of "us versus them." Rather than spend a lot of time talking about racism, historical or otherwise, he preaches a form of collective can-doism. He sells himself as a symbol of reconciliation and knows that at this point in history, cries of racism are the quickest way to turn off white voters who are tired of being made to feel guilty for racial injustice.

Geraldine's case is not a new one, nor is it very fascinating. Yet talking about this kind of thing is important, because racism is popularly interpreted as a one-way thing--it's something someone thinks of someone else. Yet as Rodriguez's article points out, racism is more about what one thinks of oneself.

As I like to reflect on issues of people of color, it often crosses my mind how valuable it is when white people are conscious of their whiteness. Not in a patronizing way, but in a natural way, like how black people naturally know from a very young age that they will always have a natural disadvantage in society because of their skin color. What I like about this article is that it touches upon the subtle racisms of today that are rooted in racist structures of society.

Simply saying that Obama, or any person of color with cultural capital, has what he has because he is black points to the enormously ignored reality that in fact the opposite of this has historically been true: throughout our country's history, it is white men whose power is acquired because they were who they were. When we look at someone in power, we must become aware of our prejudices: when we make a claim about one person in power, why don't we realize that we are conveniently opting out of making a claim about everyone else who is in power?

Some may look at Obama and reduce his popularity to his race, yet how is it that so many white men have gone unquestioned in their positions of popularity or power in our country?

I disagree that Obama's blackness is his ticket to the White House, but I will not hesitate in asserting that Bill Gates and George Bush are in the positions they are in largely in part of their white masculinity. Being a white man has always been, and remains to be, the greatest source of cultural capital in our world--let alone our country--today.

It is important to explain, however, that when I say such a thing, I am not asserting that white people cannot understand the implications of white/male cultural capital (and of course I'm just touching on the surface issues, because I could also talk about the cultural capital that comes with heterosexuality, class, education...etc). As much as I point out privileges that naturally come with whiteness, what matters is what a person decides to do with knowledge of such privileges. I firmly believe that consciousness of priviledge has a lot more potential of power than consciousness of disadvantage.

In other words, a lot more progress can be accomplished when more white and/or male people are aware of the advantages that come with being white and/or male. I know of several white people who are conscious in this way, but it's not enough.

The more white people conscious of privilege, the more power they have to make change for the better of all people. Privilege combined with consciousness equals great power, and so to end on a cheesy note, with great privilege comes great responsibility--use it!

2 comments:

GS said...

I couldn't have said it all better myself. Thanks!

Jack Stephens said...

Love the picture you used.