Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Honorable Deployment of White Privilege

Odd reality: on racial matters, I don't require allegiance from friends or family. My relations - both kith and kin - span the racial and political gamut, so if I expect to stay in relation, there are several from whom I simply don't hope for much. That having been said, while there are some for whom tough racial conversations are too much, there are others with whom I am impressed and to whom I am grateful. I speak especially of white allies - folks who have every invitation to blissful, ignorant privilege, but who insist on moving through their privilege and into solidarity, understanding, voice and action. 

Over the last months I have been commenting on the neighborhood treatment of black male youth. My commentaries were inspired by incidents with my own son - incidents that were infinitely less horrific than the current tragic circumstance surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin. All the time that I have spoken up and spoken out, I have been encouraged by an overwhelming majority of my neighbors of various backgrounds. White neighbors who step into difficult conversations and are open to the possibility that racial biases are still present, powerful and dangerous are especially important. The reality is that they enjoy more space to call it like it is and yet be heard without suspicion or resentment.

The greatest U.S. example of this is, of course, that of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her classic Uncle Tom's Cabin. The serial story turned novel wasn't perfect, but it was critically important. Near immediately translated into dozens of languages, and second only to The Bible in sales, this book turned northern public sentiment against slavery. The engaging book drew northern Christian readers off the fence and invited them into to the fold of those actively and vocally opposing the enslavement of African descended people. Of course it could go without saying that Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas and other Blacks risked more and took bolder stands. But their white allies were critical as well. Even when putting less at risk, they likely had broader impact. It may seem perverse, but it is simply another odd aspect of our racial order.

Given all this, we can ask two questions of ourselves. The first is this:  "What privileges - even if often unacknowledged - do you benefit from?" In my case, I am a light skinned, educated, heterosexual, African American male who was born a citizen of the United States. This embodiment and identity carries great privilege as well as leaves me open to some expressions of intended or unintended prejudice. The second question is: "what do you do with your privilege?" In the last months, many of my neighbors having taken the opportunity to stand for nurturing neighborhoods instead of creepy surveillance neighborhoods - and to stand for kids generally. Many of them, white and richly privileged, have acknowledged that race and racial biases likely account for many of the surveillance patterns and assumptions that characterize our neighborhood message boards and Facebook pages. Importantly, when these white folk call out problems, they often have more credibility than me. They are assumed to be unbiased observers, unlike myself. Their whiteness has them viewed as neutral and unbiased; while my blackness has me read as biased. In short, their alliance is critical. Things that take me months to move forward, they can move forward with a single well placed utterance. So to my white allies, thank you. We'll call your work the honorable deployment of white privilege. Now please don't rest on these laurels. I now ask: "what more can you do?" Or better yet given your privilege, how about this: "what more should you do?"

This post is dedicated to the memory of Trayvon Benjamin Martin, to the hope for justice, and to the hope for whatever measure of solace is humanly possible for his mom and dad.


  1. A LICENSE TO HATE: It is becoming clear that too many in our society have reached a level of comfort with overt expressions of bias and racial discrimination towards non-whites by those who feel “outsiders” are taking over “their” country. This fear of invading foreigners — or things that are different or unknown — is rearing its ugly head in an increasing number of social and political venues.

    This form of xenophobia has manifested itself in a variety of ways involving attitudes and perceptions by members of a declining white “majority” towards “minority” groups that collectively are becoming the “new majority” in many areas of the USA. For many xenophobes the fear of losing their “majority” status and their historical entitlement of dominance that is motivating their behaviors. Their attitudes are frequently expressed by a variety of bumper sticker slogans: “We want our country back!” “America, love it or leave it!” The vehemence of such expressions are no longer associated solely with white extremist and supremacist groups.

    In spite of the many contributions made to the USA by citizens of all races, colors and creeds, these increasing overt expressions of hate and bigotry belie the principles of our form of democracy. For generations, U.S. Americans have supported these principles, many having paid the ultimate price to insure “liberty and justice for all.”

    The latest example of this growing public display of disrespect and prejudice was exhibited during a recent Kansas State University vs. Southern Mississippi University NCAA basketball tournament game. A chant, “Where’s your green card?” — a reference to immigrant status — was directed at K-State player Angel Rodriguez by members of the Southern Miss band. Ironically, Rodriguez, born in San Juan, Puerto Rico (a U.S. Territory since 1898), is a U.S. citizen — a fact most high school and college students should have already learned in their geography classes.

    Some consider such behaviors as “kids being kids” or “poking a little fun.” But, consider what their parents and other grown-ups are doing across our nation: the banning of ethnic studies in predominant ethnic schools, “English-only” requirements and the enactment of profiling-prone, anti-immigration laws in many states. The accidental shooting by a white neighborhood watch patrolman of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was returning from the store to his gated-community home. The ongoing questioning of our nation’s first black President’s proof of U.S. birth, his association with Muslim radicals and public disrespect by his elected colleagues — all rationalized as political differences and the right to free speech. These are but a few examples of the xenophobic frenzy and overt prejudice that has become too common in public discourse and social behavior.

    Actions like these have no redeeming value in a society that grows more diverse each day. A collective silence infers agreement with, and acceptance of, those whose hate is based on race or religion. As U.S. Americans, parents and adult role models, we must become better examples for the current and future generation. Our country is undergoing inevitable change. Now is the time for to us to revoke the license to hate.

    1. Thanks for bringing the threads together Jim. I agree that the instances of hate, abuse or intolerance that you brought up are not unrelated. I am, believe it or not, hopeful in this moment. I believe that the most recent horrific tragedy will wake some folk up, and will call others to action. Our nation's survival rests upon our ability to love and see the amazing benefits of our pluralism. Revoke the license to hate as you say, and give one another permission to embrace something much more beautiful, hopeful and reflective of our best selves.