Tuesday, August 21, 2018
White Privilege, or How I Wasn't Arrested
I finished "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race," the summer community read for faculty and staff at the school where I work. Despite the stark title, Reni Eddo-Lodge's book is essentially one long attempt to talk to white people about race. I found it refreshingly candid, compelling and honest. Although the author (perhaps obviously, a black woman) said she is often met with defensiveness when she raises issues of white privilege, I couldn't find much to argue with in her assertions about the way race pervades so many areas of all our lives, with white people being mostly blind to it and blacks being all too aware.
The book is focused on black life in Britain --- which was also a fascinating perspective, since so much that I've read about race focuses on the black experience in America. But of course it still made me consider my own life as an American and the opportunities I've had as a white man.
Undoubtedly there have been occasions when I've had it easier than someone of color. The most obvious example, to me, involves an escapade when I was in college, back in the 1980s. I've thought about it often in recent years following the birth of "Black Lives Matter." I and some friends drank a little too much beer one night and teepeed the house of a university administrator in a Tampa suburb. We also soaped his car. Then we stupidly and drunkenly drove to a nearby park and played on the swingset until the police pulled up. One of my friends lived in this small suburb, and the police -- who had been called by one of the administrator's neighbors -- made us return to the administrator's house and clean everything up, and then escorted us home. We were not arrested; I honestly have no idea whether a report was even made. Can you imagine how that would have been handled if we'd been four black kids, especially if none of us had lived in that small suburb? I'm betting we'd have all been in jail -- at best.
I'm sure I've benefitted in other ways, personally and professionally, from white privilege. For example, when I was a reporter, how many of my sources felt more comfortable with me because I was white? How often have I walked down city streets or around department stores or into fine restaurants and subconsciously felt the security of belonging, rather than the skeptical eye of others who felt I didn't belong? One of the nagging truths about white privilege is that those of us who enjoy it don't even see it. To us, it's simply the way the world works. We neglect to consider that not everyone shares the same reality.
Eddo-Lodge addresses the tendency of some to dismiss the barriers of race as issues of income or upbringing or opportunity. Class and race, she argues, are indelibly intertwined, in our world in which the "haves" -- and especially the elite leaders of the "haves" -- are still overwhelmingly so much whiter than the "have nots."
She also takes on feminism for failing to adequately address the needs of black women, or even properly listen to their concerns about the "intersectionality" of racism and sexism. I thought she was a bit hard on feminists, frankly, but then I spoke to one of my colleagues -- a white woman who counts herself a feminist and has studied feminism -- who said she believes Eddo-Lodge is absolutely right.
So, what do I know? I'm a white guy. I try to be woke, but I'm sure my life is padded in countless ways I haven't even considered, in addition to the many that I have. Eddo-Lodge says she's not trying to insinuate that every white person has it easy -- but the playing field is certainly not level.
I do know that, as I said, I could find very little to argue with in this book. I found it a fascinating read, and a good starting place for considering ways to take action, which I suppose means (in addition to voting responsibly) addressing inequalities as they arise both in our immediate environment and the wider world, and considering every opportunity to be more inclusive and aware.
(Photo: Completely unrelated to the text, a chip shop in Kilburn, northwest London.)
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I've been hearing a lot about this book and have delved into similar writing by African-American women. I also took an online seminar one afternoon led by two black women specifically "for" white women. It was an odd experience as many of the women were literally berated when they asked questions. There was a lot of talk of "doing the work" --of intersectionality and feminism and racism. I felt uncomfortable throughout, which was the goal. It's something that I think about constantly these days.
That book has clearly stirred a lot of thinking. Thank you for your honest reflections Steve. I reflect upon the fact that there are many downtrodden all-white ghettos in the north of England where poverty in all its forms is endemic. Nobody ever seems to speak up for those forgotten people. As for God's Plaice - that's certainly a different kind of church.
Much to consider here. As for privileged white people (me), addressing inequality in my immediate environment is a good starting point.
Have you posted about teepeeing that house before? It seems a familiar story.
Elizabeth: Interesting. It IS uncomfortable to realize how disconnected we can be from the experience of people we mean to support. I often feel that way when I hear women or black people speak their politics, and I definitely had that experience reading this book.
YP: Indeed, there are many people of many races suffering the effects of poverty. I think the author would argue (and god forbid I argue for her, because she could do it better) that white poverty is not the same as black poverty, because blacks experience it through added layers of oppression and inopportunity. (Is that a word?) Have you read Owen Jones' book "Chavs"? That is very much about the demonization and exploitation of the British working class by those in power.
Alphie: Wow, you have a good memory! I DID write about it before, and I completely forgot!
Thanks for writing about this book. It is one I'm going to read. I do vaguely remember reading about the incident you describe. How fortunate you were.
I think I've always been hyper aware of my white privilege. Of course in my life that has meant a constant feeling of guilt about it. I'm quite certain that I have not considered many, many of the issues related to that privilege but I certainly know it exists and quite frankly, it infuriates me when I hear other white people deny the reality of it. I read something the other day which says it well. It was something along the lines of "White privilege doesn't mean that white people never have hard lives or difficulties. It just means that skin color isn't one of them."
LOL. That's a relief... I was so sure I'd read it somewhere before. It helps to know I'm not going completely ga-ga. :)
I think about white privilege quite often these days. Growing up a brown-skinned girl in White America has been an interesting experience, and yet I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to be black.
Sounds like a good read and you gave a summary of main point she was trying to make.
so many white people don't want to accept that white privilege exists. I try to be aware...woke. I know I am sitting pretty because of my white skin and also having been born in an upper middle class household, never wanted for anything. my 'new' neighbor not too long after they moved in, during a conversation that I don't even recall what it was about but she remarked in a sort of snide way, 'don't you feel privileged?'. I told her yes, I do, as a matter of fact. that pretty much ended the conversation. now that I live out in this small town I don't encounter overt racism (it's here believe me, I just don't encounter it) like I would in the city. Mostly cause I hardly leave the property but also because country life is a little different.
That book sounds very interesting and something that would be valuable to discuss among those who read it. I do recognize the advantages I've had because I am white and I see subtle forms of discrimination all the time. The career I retired from was banking where I used to see race as an issue in so many ways. At one time back in the 80's, I had a manager who was openly racist. I moved to another branch soon after that so I didn't have to deal with him any longer.
I like that fish and chips "plaice"! I thought it was a misspelling but I looked it up.
Cod's Plaice - hahaha! Very punny.
Earlier this year I read "Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race" by Debby Irving. It really opened my eyes too, but after the initial "oh man, white privilege exists, now what do I do?" reaction by the author, the rest of the book seemed to be a rehashing. I was left with enormous guilt & not many action steps. Maybe I'll check out Ms. Eddo-Lodge's book.
White male privilege dominates, a given, your saving grace is that you are gay. That gives you a humanitarian edge in the scheme of things,better vision, don't you think?. You are kind and love dogs- so there's that going for you as well. The women folk take a back seat, the black women folk aren't even in the car. I am pleased that the white race is evolving to be browner as time goes by, but it is always something- the pecking order- humans are cursed.
See Blackkklansman when it hits the theaters there, no news but very well done, I think. Also, "GET OUT" which I have watch five times, seeing something new every time - I am slow, tending to focus on one aspect at a time, I suppose. Thanks for the book review, looks like I will be picking that one up.
How will we get over our innate suspicions of people who "don't look like us"? Will it ever change? Questions that seem to have no answers, at least in our lifetimes.
Steve, this post is one of the ways you take action, by publicly acknowledging the reality of white privilege. It's a truth that many white people will only be able to hear from other white people, which makes this post an important contribution to the goal of, at the very least, awareness. Thank you for this thoughtful review.
This is a book I'd like to read. Thank you for the glimpse inside.
yes, I'll look for this book. I have had so much push back from white friends when I talk about racism in the US. And, I get it. I used to be a white person who felt attacked whenever the subject arose. I got defensive, which created a wall between myself and the issue. Know what turned me around? Listening to more black people. Really hearing their stories without needing to defend or explain. Their stories are not mine. I just need to believe them. And now, even though I get push back, I keep speaking. Its the only way we're going to move forward.
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