13 Ways of Looking at White Privilege

(I am not actually going to list 13 ways. The title is just a riff on the Wallace Stevens poem, and a suggestion that there are an endless number of angles and perspectives on this issue.)

I know that my angry rumination on yet another shameful episode at my alma mater is not entirely healthy. But it has lead me to a new way to conceptualize white privilege.

The five white football players accused of kidnapping, assaulting, and attempting to rape a teammate have had arrest warrants issued for them listing multiple felony charges. They have been “asked” to turn themselves in within a week. ASKED. GIVEN A WEEK. And I can’t help but contrast that incredibly privileged scenario with all of the incidents of black men being executed on the street for crimes like jaywalking, or informing a police officer that they are carrying a gun for which they have a license.

I have already seen the predictable “blame the victim” comments and posts. (The victim has fabricated these accusations in an effort to get money.) And it is only a matter of time before we hear the inevitable excuses and explanations from the accused. Repentance, pleas for forgiveness, vows to be better people. And almost certainly something like this: “I made a mistake. That’s not who I am.” I mean, one of them, at least, will say those very words. “That’s not who I am.” This echoes many articles and blog posts I have seen in recent months, responding to events like the White Supremacist/Nazi rally in Charlottesville (or the 2016 election, for that matter) with reassurances that “this is not America. This is not who we are.” I understand those claims, and in some ways I agree with them. Of course “America” is a patchwork quilt of the beautiful and the terrible, and the White Nationalists do not represent all of the nation. But — thinking about the ways that the “that’s not me” defense is put in practice by individuals has helped me see yet another way to describe white privilege:

White people get to have more than one identity, more than one self — one white man, for example, might have the self who thinks it would be hilarious to bind a teammate’s hands and feet with duct tape, kidnap him, and attempt to insert objects into his rectum, and the other self who is a humble kid who just wants to be a servant “for Christ and His Kingdom.” Two selves. One to spare. One to throw away on violent, abusive behavior, and an entire other self (or many) in reserve to go on collecting the advantages of being white. And yes, I am angry right now, at this specific instance at my alma mater, but this is a dynamic I have witnessed again and again. And my anger and grief are directed at the entire system, not just these individuals or others who I have seen make the “that’s not me” claim. If these handy extra “selves” are a part of white privilege, then I carry that privilege, too, and hence the responsibility to examine it and develop ways to dismantle it.

And the thing that makes this dynamic a part of white privilege is that, in contrast, people of color aren’t just limited to ONE self, one identity per person. It seems to me that they are often allotted only a tiny slice of one collective self, and are held responsible for the “self” of an entire group or community. For example, any time a person of color presents an explanation for the purposes of Black Lives Matter, they are greeted with accusatory questions about “black on black crime.” Never mind that the violence BLM is fighting is state-sanctioned, often deadly, violence committed by public servants whose purpose is supposed to be to “serve and protect.” Never mind that almost all crime in this country takes place between people who fall into the same racial categories. (So “white on white” crime is actually significantly more prevalent than “black on black” crime.) A person who happens to be black is held to account for any negative action or perceived action by any black person anywhere. And the same could be said for members of any group that is viewed as “other” by white Americans.

I know this is nothing new or insightful. The above paragraph simply describes the way stereotypes work. But it is somewhat new to me to realize the depths to which white privilege defines our very claims on our identities. I suppose that is why I have been so angry all day today. This example pushes me to look at yet another layer of privilege and to wrestle, yet again, with my sense of uncertainty about how to deconstruct the system of privileges. I can advocate for laws and policies that might help curb blatant racial injustices. I can donate money to organizations that devote far more time and energy to the battle than I do. But how are we going to redistribute the “selves” so that everyone has one, and only one, and every person’s “self” is accorded the rights and respect we claim to provide for individuals in this patchwork quilt nation?

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One thought on “13 Ways of Looking at White Privilege

  1. Sara, Love the posting. Coates’s “The First White President” in this month’s Atlantic is related. It seems we, or many of us, are constantly asking ourselves and one another “Who is the real Trump?” I haven’t seen the football team episode you refer to in the news, but I’ll look for it. Don

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