News & Politics

White Liberals Have White Privilege Too!

Ten misunderstandings white liberals have about race.
It often seems that the only way liberals can talk about race is to encircle the "racists" and point at them -- either for a laugh or a morality tale. The former is one of the many tricks that faux news personality Stephen Colbert employs in his caricature of a conservative. His racist schtick makes fun of racists, and there's a comfortable distance between the satire and the show's mostly liberal viewers. The critique goes down easy because it represents something the viewer isn't.

On the other hand, the website www.blackpeopleloveus.com, featuring a liberal white couple, Johnny and Sally, enters murkier territory. Well-intentioned Johnny and Sally hang out with their black friends, who, as the namesake indicates, love them. Part of the site's subversion -- and subsequent confusion -- comes from the fact that its humor is not so separate from liberal Americana. We could meet a Johnny and Sally at a cocktail party, and maybe already have. One black "friend's" testimonial -- "Johnny is generous enough to remark upon how 'articulate' I am! That makes me feel good!" -- carries a zesty punch in light of Joe Biden's recent remarks on Barack Obama.

At these satires' roots is a distinction between challenging a Don Imus-type racism and the investment in something called white privilege. In the 1980s, a white feminist, Peggy McIntosh, came up with the metaphor of an "invisible knapsack" to analyze white privilege. It's unconscious, elusive, pervasive, and white liberals have as much of it as white conservatives do. McIntosh listed some ways she has white privilege. Her list ranges from the broad: "I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time," to the supposedly trivial: "I can choose ... bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin."

Jonah Peretti, co-creator of blackpeopelloveus.com (and also of Nike Sweatshop E-mail fame) said that the Web site's purpose was to "draw attention to the unintentionally offensive comments made by well-meaning white folks."

I've met Johnnys and Sallys at political events, house parties, and through friends of friends, who have an unnerving belief in their own righteousness -- their "downness" with the cause. The issue, though, is not the occasional off-color remark, but rather the framework that comment stems from.

Growing up in the company of white people, I was unaware of systems of whiteness. I knew that, as an Asian American, I looked different (and was unhappy about that), and that my parents faced linguistic and financial barriers (which I blamed them for). I did what "good" Americans did, and I individualized my struggles, believing that if I had enough gumption and know-how, I could rise to the pinnacle of society regardless of my starting point. I was an acolyte of the Temple of Ayn Rand. I didn't connect my experiences, or those of my parents, with larger institutions (i.e., capitalism) or cultural biases (i.e., white is right!), and blamed myself for failing to meet those standards rather than critique the systems that generated those standards. I had internalized whiteness, and if I had, then white people certainly had. As I began to develop what W.E.B. Du Bois called a "double consciousness" -- the perspective of "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others," I could not stop looking. Race (which in its fullness includes gender and class) was impossible to ignore, and I could not believe I had perpetuated racial hierarchy as much as I had.

Moving out of a parochial town in Florida to the cosmopolitan mecca of New York City, I did not experience the radical shift in racial awareness that I had expected. Contending with the racial bias of liberals proved to be more difficult because these urban sophisticates sheathed themselves in worldliness and benevolence rather than outright ignorance. Critiques of whiteness slid off their backs as though they were protected by a Teflon body armor. And so I offer the following list of misunderstandings that many white liberals have about race because I think they can do better -- and because we need to rethink our understanding of race and its relationship to U.S. democracy. The commentary does not encompass all white liberals nor does it solely apply to white people. But the frequency with which I encounter these misunderstandings makes the posture of liberal enlightenment seem halfway farcical and all the more crucial to confront. A critique of whiteness should extend beyond electoral politics and cut through every "issue" area because it's not just about how we vote, but rather about who we are.

1. White supremacy? You mean white men in white sheets?

Contemporary images suggest that white supremacy is a white man driving a pickup with a noose trailing from the back and a Confederate flag tattooed on his arm. Rather, it is simply the idea that white people, neighborhoods, concerns, beauty and self-worth are more important then nonwhite ones.

This system is one people of color imbibe as well, albeit to their detriment. For an extreme example, Michelle Malkin as a token Asian-American conservative hurts people of color despite being one. Even beyond conventional politics, internalized white supremacy often permeates communities of color, perpetuating whiteness as a desired standard. Those standards are the most visually arresting when they relate to expectations of beauty. It's not uncommon, for example, to see communities of color awash with lighter-skinned, rounder-eyed and thinner-haired images.

White supremacy gives white individuals a special racial privilege, be it through economic policies, law enforcement, schooling or magazine covers; consequently those people of color who seem whiter -- whether it is in appearance or action (the two often go hand-in-hand) -- receive special treats for their excellent performance.

White supremacy more accurately describes racial hierarchy in a way that "racism" doesn't. Racism is generally individualized -- e.g., What Bill O'Reilly said was racist! -- and doesn't describe the institutionalized systems that engender those moments. Anyone can be a perpetrator or a victim of racism, but that leaves out the reality that people live in a world with unequal claims to power -- a racial epithet directed at a white man is not the same as its opposite because a nonwhite person does not have the institutional power to pack her verbal punch. Racism has a mutability that white supremacy doesn't.

2. I'm not racist, but ...

Nobody is racist anymore. Liberals are often scared of calling other white people racist. Even Frank Rich of the New York Times defended the Republican candidates' snubbing of a debate at a historically black university as not racist but, rather, as "out of touch" (then again, Rich admitted he was a frequent guest on Don Imus' radio show).

But perhaps instead of using "Am I racist?" as our cultural litmus test, a more provocative question would be: "Am I anti-racist?" as in, do my actions overturn racial hierarchy? Such a question is far more complex because an affirmative answer affects every area of life -- what your job is, what bars you go to, the neighborhood you live in, where you send your kids to school, and with whom you surround yourself. The personal is as crucial (if not more so) than the political. Developing an anti-racist consciousness means recognizing the individual privileges we have and the larger context in which they exist. Such an assessment can be as uncomplicated as paying attention to (1) who is at the table and (2) who takes up the most space at said table.

Too often, "not racist" is equated with not conservative and not Southern; by thinking in binaries, liberals excuse themselves from criticism by pointing to the greater evil. Rush Limbaugh is really just an overly medicated red herring to the privileges of white liberals. The liberal establishment -- everyone from the Democratic Party to Daily Kos -- fails the anti-racism test by merely paying lip service to racial oppression while maintaining a predominantly white constituency. They remain complicit with the belief that white men know better and therefore should talk louder and much more often.

3. Colorblind as a bat.

On Bloggingheads Video , the Nation columnist Eric Alterman whines about how talking about race is ruining liberalism (and of course, the Democratic Party). He tells the other talking head (who basically agrees with him): "Liberalism has paid an enormous price for bringing race to the fore, destroyed the Democratic party ... Everything in this country would be better, if we could leave race out of it."

Alterman's belief is a class-not-race argument, and from a generous perspective, he could be suggesting that racial subject matter is inherently divisive. But he's essentially spewing the same colorblind rhetoric as Justice John Roberts did with the Seattle/Louisville cases, when the conservative majority ruled that the schools' use of race to achieve desegregation was unconstitutional. Roberts said, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Alterman seems to believe that Jim Crow laws existed during a time when race was unavoidable. But how is racial oppression not a problem now? The continued xenophobia against immigrants, the racial profiling of black and Arab peoples, police brutality, soaring incarceration rates and vast educational inequities result from complex racial, class and gender structures. Moreover, even if there is no overt racial discrimination written into a certain law, that law's effects can still be discriminatory. For example, what editorialist Sylvester Brown Jr. calls the "walking with sagging pants while black" laws currently sweeping the nation, is according to the lawmakers, not about reigning in black masculinity, but rather about propriety. It is easy to make up laws that eschew the word "race" while only targeting one group. In the case of Alterman, it's not just about "class" as much as he yearns. (Couldn't I argue that slavery was just about class too? But more on that later.) It is a suspect attempt to excise race from class when they are inherently interwoven.

His desire to ignore race reinforces the dominant discourse. Alterman's vision of political discourse effectively invalidates people of color and prevents them from articulating their political concerns and personal experiences. In other words, who is this white man telling me how to talk about race?

4. Kumbaya, multiculturalism!

A popular perspective favored by many college admissions officers is the "It's a small world" multicultural approach. When celebrating "diversity," everything is positive, and nothing is unsavory. We can admire an African mask, hit a piñata with verve and gobble down a steamy bowl of pho -- all without political concerns. Stanley Fish calls it boutique multiculturalism. But it's just food. Or earrings. Or music. It reduces culture to benign, apolitical trinkets.

Boutique multiculturalism is most obviously inappropriate when it happens to domestic people of color, in the form of "ghetto fabulous" parties, where white college students -- or government officials -- don their favorite imitation of blackface. But the most uncriticized suspects are hipsters, hippies or other variants of alterna-whiteness. Their faddish diets often consist of keffiyehs (a symbol of Arab solidarity), dreadlocks (originally from Rastafarianism and black self-empowerment in Jamaica) and trips to Asia or Latin America -- all of which are part of their post-modern, post-cultural and post-political philosophy, where discrete cultures no longer exist, and everything is fair game. The consumer gains a "cool" credibility and some self-improvement, -discovery or -awareness.

Take New Age orientalist guru, Deepak Chopra. In the book Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad, writing in the legacy of Edward Said, says Chopra is "a complete stereotype willed upon India by U.S. orientalism, for he delivers just what is expected of a seer from the East."

Multiculturalism, according to Prashad:
Each cultural community is accorded the right to determine its destiny, as long as it does not clash in some fundamental way with the social construct of the state and its citizens ... The problem with U.S. multiculturalism as it stands is that it pretends to be the solution to chauvinism rather than the means for a struggle against white supremacy.
So it's easy to adopt Chopra's philosophy because he is Ayn Rand lite. And it's easy for white hippie-hipsters to wear keffiyehs, because they would never be mistaken as a terrorist. Or groove to Tupac's music without ever fighting against poverty or the prison system. But what, both literally and figuratively, are we buying into?

5. It's not a "[insert racial group here]" issue as much as it is a "human" issue.

Last year, the outreach program Keep a Child Alive ran an AIDS awareness campaign featuring headshots of Western celebrities adorned with facepaint and large block letters proclaiming, "I Am African." The high-profile roster included such human rights luminaries as Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and only one person who could actually claim to be African: supermodel Iman. There was a rapid backlash to the campaign and its asserted motives: "Each and every one of us contains DNA that can be traced back to our African ancestors ... Now they need our help." Its flaws were easily exposed by a deft parody that reversed the roles portraying an African woman with the tagline, "I am Gwyneth Paltrow."

The campaign fit neatly into a framework of universal humanism, where a Westerner, with enough knowledge and/or empathy, could speak for another. Universalism, as it has existed, has refused to allow nonwhiteness to exist in any real or multifaceted way, and while Gwynnie can stand in for Africa, a nameless African woman could never replace her, or the "West" for that matter. This is yet another permutation of colorblindness that denies those who most experience racial oppression the right to speak to it. In the introduction to Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin writes, "When we talk about color, we are not merely speaking about phenotype, but experience, oppression, and livelihoods -- things that inform our humanity."

Even Toni Morrison (and she's not the only person who said this) made an egregious error when, in a New Yorker article, she said Bill Clinton was the first "black president." She said his background and the potshots directed at his sex life were indicative of the black experience. Not really. Nothing can stand in for having dark skin. It's also especially ironic because policies he espoused resulted in higher incarceration rates for black people.

6. One of my best friends is [insert nonwhite group here]!

Earlier this year, I was at a bar in the liberal bastion of Berkeley with a group of Asian-American girls. A white male sidled next to us and offered to buy us a round of drinks. Not the types who refuse free drinks, we accepted (of course, I forgot my mother's warning that nothing in life is free) and began chatting with our new friend, and self-identified liberal, "Sam."

Everything was dandy until Sam made a derogatory remark about Asian-Americans. Our irritated expression elicited a swift defense: "No, no! It's OK! I dated a Chinese girl."

In Thinking Orientals, historian Henry Yu discusses the Chicago sociologists and their work on Asian Americans. Robert Park, among others, wanted to measure "social distance," which was "whether a person cared about another or could imagine the other's point of view." Park quantified empathic ability on a scale from zero to five, where zero represented marriage (and sex, naturally) and five a desire for a group to leave the country. But Yu wonders, "Why was sex and intermarriage to be the ground zero of social distance?" For Park, the "possibility that someone could at the same moment abhor and desire a person of another race was counted an impossibility."

But how does a white person having sex with a nonwhite person -- or having a nonwhite "best friend" for that matter -- necessarily make her less racist? Strom Thurmond managed the contradiction fairly well. For example, analyzing Asian-white sexual relationships, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Asian females are twice as likely to marry a white male, than if the racial roles were reversed. The disparity fits neatly into a narrative that has belittled and desexualized Asian-American men (note that the most famous Asian-American American Idol contestants were William Hung and Sanjaya Malakar) and eroticized Asian-American women (in contrast, look at American Apparel ads or take a trip to the "adult" section of the video store). Private bedroom acts are, in this way, as political as declaring which candidate we champion in an election.

7. How could I have white privilege? I'm poor/female/gay/Polish/disabled!

Another liberal technique is to eschew a discussion of race in favor of one of "class." The implicit, and sometimes explicit, argument is that race (or "identity politics") holds the Left back from what actually oppresses people and furthermore assumes that constructions of class and race are separate, rather than dynamically intertwined. Historian Robin Kelley critiques such an either-class-or-race construction in Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America:
The idea that race, gender and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race- and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender or sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.
Race determines how class (and gender) is experienced and vice versa. (Isn't that what this conversation about immigration and a "guest workers" program is about?) Furthermore, there is a failure to integrate racial analysis on the parts of mainstream feminist and gay rights organizations. A cursory look at mainstream gay and lesbian and feminist commentators reveals that while a gender analysis might be a part of their ethos, anti-racism is not. Arguing for primacy of dismantling one hierarchy over another, or simply leaving one out, is a limited and ultimately doomed strategy for liberation.

8. The white savior complex.

Saving Africa is a hot trend, especially for consumers. U.S. shoppers can buy a (red) iPod Shuffle or (red) T-shirts from the Gap, which recently got caught employing child labor in India to manufacture its world-saving goodies. Celebrities like Madonna are taking some personal initiative and trailblazing the "save African babies" trend. But, maybe it's not actually about the babies.

Western countries perpetually exploit the people and resources of the Global South, which, in turn, conveniently places them in a prime position to be saved either economically or morally. (For example, on the issue of colonial Britain's attempt to illegalize "suttee," or widow-burning in India, scholar Gayatri Spivak called it an example of "white men saving brown women from brown men." This is not to collapse moral indignation with economic and colonial repression, but rather to suggest they have a complex relationship to each other.

The exploitation of domestic exotics is linked to human rights abuses abroad because the disregard for lives of color operates from the same logic. Furthermore, neighborhoods like Chinatown, the projects and barrios are considered the results of those people not being able to get it together or something regressive about their "culture," rather than something unequal about the "system." It creates a dynamic where the wealthy, and/or the well-intentioned can begrudgingly, condescendingly or magnanimously save the black, brown, and yellow people from themselves. It's the difference between social service and social justice, where the former works to alleviate hardship, while the latter aims to eradicate the root causes of that hardship.

9. "Good" people of color

At the beginning of Obama's candidacy for president, Joe Klein of Time observed that white people were "out of control" at a rally for Obama, while the black folks were decidedly reserved. Chris Matthews gushed that, with Obama, there was "no history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery. All the bad stuff in our history ain't there with this guy." Indeed, in a speech at Selma, Ala., commemorating the march in 1965, Obama himself stated that in the struggle for equality, the Civil Rights leaders had brought black people "90 percent of the way." Just 10 percent to go!

Obama is a portrait of calm amicability -- so much so that his own supporters have urged him to ramp up the heat. Walter Shapiro described Obama's debating style as "smooth jazz" for its mellowness (a racialized characterization for sure, but we'll leave it be). Gary Younge has noted that his cadences are also unlike the oratorical styles of black politicians like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. The New York Times has also had a recent orgy of articles calling Obama "post-racial," "post-feminist" and "post-polarization." White liberals have gleefully projected their fantasies (delusions?) of a post-race society on a man who looks black but doesn't "act" black. But what about those who do?

Any group of color -- Asian American, black, Latino -- is incredibly heterogeneous, but experiences a bifurcation of their community into "good" and "bad." And what happens when the "good" start misbehaving? Take Nina Simone: She rose to popularity in the late '50s with her hit I Loves You Porgy, and her music took a political turn in the mid-'60s. On a live recording of Simone singing "Mississippi Goddam," the predominantly white audience laughs initially at her introduction of the song but, listening to the lyrics, slowly grows quiet and uncomfortable. She quips, "Bet you thought I was kidding."

In "The Souls of White Folk," W.E.B. Du Bois, describes the separation:
So long, then, as humble black folk, voluble with thanks, receive barrels of old clothes from lordly and generous whites, there is much mental peace and moral satisfaction. But when the black man begins to dispute the white man's title to certain alleged bequests of the Fathers in wage and position, authority and training; and when his attitude toward charity is sullen anger rather than humble jollity ... then the spell is suddenly broken, and the philanthropist is ready to believe that Negroes are impudent, that the South is right, and that Japan wants to fight America.
"Good" and "bad" come down to the extent to which a person challenges the hierarchy, whether it is through action or style. I wonder, if Obama started sporting an afro and talking about black empowerment, would white liberals suddenly lose their affection for him? And if Bill Richardson's last name were in the Spanish style of taking both parents' last names, with his mother's maiden name following his father's surname, would he be as successful as Bill Richardson López?

10. All that guilt.

An attack on a white supremacist system is not a personal insult. Anti-racist critiques seek to dismantle a system that gives different groups unequal power. No one chooses her/his skin color, but people can change the values assigned to those differences.

This conversation about race is an easy one to ignore (Hi, Alterman!). Privilege, by its nature, can choose what it wishes to engage with. Being critical of white supremacy is not designed to make white people feel bad about being white and replace the knapsack of white privilege with one of white guilt. Rather, it is asking white people to take off the knapsack and chuck it down the river. White people not only need to acknowledge their individual advantages, but also build a resistant collective consciousness that privileges marginalized peoples. But the question remains, can they do it?
Alex Jung is an editorial intern at AlterNet.
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