Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Pathology of White Privilege

Please go and watch this video of Tim Wise, author of White Like Me: Reflections of Race from a Privileged Son. It is very important. It's long but stick with it.

I grew up in America, poor and white. I now live in Southern Africa, still white but not so poor anymore. Though I could be thrown in the pile of "white liberal" I've always felt slightly uncomfortable. Of course there is guilt and then anger at why I must carry guilt when I got no benefits from racial oppression, my family was poor for generations. But is that true? Of course not. I benefit everyday from my white skin - even just in the fact that mentally I see no blocks ahead of me. I wouldn't be able to think like that if I was black.

I know- both in USA and here in Botswana- I have inherent advantage because of my skin colour. When it is made blatant, I shout about it, I have done it here on this blog. Wise makes so many very important points in this video, but one that I really only now truly understood is that I don't have to carry all white people on my back as people of colour do. My whiteness does not come with a package of racist stereotypes that will be applied to me the second I do anything wrong ("Well she IS white anyway, what would you expect?"). Not like people of colour. That alone makes my journey easier, even without purposefully built racist blocks in my road. This applies for all white people. We ALL benefit from our whiteness. Full stop.

In the video, Wise speaks of the pathology of being white, how it harms white Americans especially but I think something similar can be applied to Southern Africa, a place heavily affected by the politics of race. He explains how when the Europeans first went to America, both blacks and poor whites were indentured labourers. They began to collude against the rich white land owners and rebellions broke out. This was when the concept of whiteness was first established. The rich whites threw the crumbs of whiteness to the poor whites to divide them from the blacks. The rebellion was quelled. Now not only did the poor whites think they were more akin to the rich whites, which of course they weren't as their situation was much nearer to the poor blacks, they were willing to fight to defend their whiteness. They fought in the civil war to maintain slavery- not for themselves- but for the rich whites. Racism was used to destabilise the poor so there could be no rebellion. It worked out dandy for the rich whites- and still does, and does nothing to destabilise the status quo for the rich whites.

This white privileged position allows the whites the privilege of not caring what others think. People of colour must always know what white people are thinking if they are to survive. Whites don't have that burden. But, as Wise points out, that arrogance of disinterest is a pathology that has and will continue to harm the white people themselves. This is happening in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in white suburban schools, in the drug laden anxiety filled minds of white Americans.

Most white people (in America and in Southern Africa) feel no need to change their position of privilege, they don't want to pay a debt they did not make. Wise argues that that is not a smart position to take as the problem must be solved, and the debt must be paid, either now or later, and later he says it will be more difficult. He says it must be solved now- "not because we are guilty- but because we are here".

Watch the video and tell me what you think.


CA Heaven said...

I watched (most of) the video; good talk. There are many crazy things about America, that contribute directly or indirectly to the discrimination of the blacks. I have seen episodes myself. It happened in a bar in New Orleans in the 1990's. The bar was owned by some black guys. White policemen came to the bar and harassed the customers, to destroy the business (according to the owners). I guess black people weren't supposed to be business owners. When I was younger I read all the books by Andre Brink, and was shocked by his description of the apartheid system in South Africa. I guess it has improved a lot now?

Cold As Heaven

Lemang said...

"Before they were white, they were Germans, English, Irish, Welsh.."

Good post, at least a mile stone from your other comments on race and now class, which are to me, the greatest interconnections of American racial politics.

Lauri said...

Lemang- can you elaborate on this:
" least a mile stone from your other comments on race and now class..." Just curious what you mean?

Cold as Heaven: I thought his point about the "war on drugs" was spot on. In SA aparthied is over but the effects are not.

bonita said...

"He explains how when the Europeans first went to America, both blacks and poor whites were indentured labourers. They began to collude against the rich white land owners and rebellions broke out. This was when the concept of whiteness was first established."
I'm not willing to take this statement at face value. For centuries lightness of skin has been an advantage—light-skinned blond Italians were held in higher esteem than their dark-haired olive-skinned brethern. Darker, southern Germans are made fun of by lighter northern Germans. Even in the small state of Lithuania, 'Moorish' Lithuanians lived separate and apart from 'white' Lithuanians. The segregation often continues among Lithuanian immigrants. Rich and priveliged has been hand-in-hand with light skin for centuries.

Anonymous said...

I watched the whole thing. He is a very passionate speaker. I think much of what he says can be more or less applied to any country in the world where there is a large white population.

We are in the throes of a general election campaign in Australia at the moment and already I am sick of the white privilege card being played. Refugees who come to Australia by boat is an issue the right goes on and on about. Why? Because if we let them in they will take our jobs. And then we, the white people who do everything by the book, will be disadvantaged. There is no mention ever of offering a humanitarian hand to people escaping genocide. But maybe that's because they're black.

It saddened me about the million black people dying in the US due to lack of health care. There would have been children and grandmothers and brothers and sisters in that mix. I feel sick thinking about it.

I also feel sick with the realisation that it is unlikely anything will ever be done about white privilege because, in essence, white people don't want to do anything about it. Sometimes, Lauri, I truly fear for our future.

Lauri said...

Selma, I think the issue of overprivilege and underprivilege is an important one and one that made ME fear for our survival. There must be poor to carry the rich in the system the world seems almost unanimous in choosing. there is no other way. This is scary. Will the overprivileged ever say- okay I'm giving this up to make a saner world? Doubtful.

Anonymous said...

i just learned about this in dept in english class. people do not want to believe this, but i know that it is true.nice to see that i am not the only one to think this. thx for your honesty.

bruce said...

White privilege no longer works as a sensible term for me. When you look at statistics it's clear that Asians in America enjoy more success - higher average incomes, longer lifespans and better availability of health care than white people. So the system is not one of "white privilege" but black disadvantage.

What do you think about this fact? It's something I don't see addressed at all by people like Tim Wise. If institutions are set up to benefit "white" people why does a Korean American like me succeed so easily?

Furthermore I must say the video is off putting to me, even though race is not a major focus for me I think the fundamental thing holding black people back is very simple: Education. Asians, like my mother, value education highly and for that reason Asians pull ahead of their white counterparts in America. Black people however are attending poor schools in a culture which often detests education. From that poor basis in child hood, even assuming society is otherwise free of racism, black people will always trail behind.

I also reject the notion that white people don't care about this, they do. But educational reform is an extremely difficult problem and not one of funding, Obama discovered that when he helped run the Annenberg Challenge in Chicago. US schools, even urban ones, are very well funded compared to other countries, but they're bloated with too many administrators, too short school days, under-qualified teachers, gang culture and so forth. But white people are concerned by this, you see it in the promotion of things like KIPP academies and school choice, so parents have an option of removing their children from failing institutions.

Unfortunately, the momentum against real reform is massive. School choice is a non starter - even when a program only allows students to use vouchers at secular institutions, like D.C, Democrats act in a block against it. I must give Al Sharpton credit for coming out for it most recently though.

Trying to reform existing public schools is a nightmare. Even something as simple as requiring free school uniforms in poor gang areas is blocked by the ACLU. Merit based pay to attract better qualified teachers? Teachers unions will kill it. Its very frustrating because we know things like KIPP work and we can look at other countries systems. Instead we get the standard refrain that inner city schools are under funded, which at best results in money being thrown at the problem which fails every single time.

In my opinion, until black people, their representatives and people concerned about "white privilege" really focus on the education problem and push for real reforms that are known to work like merit based pay to attract better teachers, longer school days, longer school years or even free school choice. After all, racism is a Heuristic, and if black people on average are more poorly educated, then people will tend to think of black people poorly.

Asians used to be considered inferior in America, but that's changed with the rise of Asian success in America. If Black people make a similar rise than by in large perceptions will change automatically, as they did for Asians.