If some whites don’t see racism, is that white privilege?

27 Sep
Originally published on July 15, 2010 by The Loop 21
On Monday night, Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell appeared on Countdown with Keith Olbermannto discuss the NAACP’s recent denouncement of racism within the Tea Party movement. For the first time, I witnessed a woman of color address white privilege on mainstream cable news. Years ago when I was a graduate student, I never thought I’d see the day when a notable scholar and pundit would be discussing white privilege in prime time and addressing racial gap divisions with nuance.  The idea of white privilege–a societal immunity granted to ‘white’-raced people (and at times, mixed-race people) who, in turn, benefit economically, culturally, and politically–was apparently something that only those within the Ivory Tower and grassroots could confront. As a woman of color, and soon-to-be doctoral student in the fall, I am inspired by Harris-Lacewell’s bravery to address such a painful and complex subject on cable news, and do so with accessible intellectualism and brevity.During her segment, Harris-Lacewell noted that “some whites honestly don’t see racism,” which suggests that white privilege operates under our radar. We don’t see racism because we don’t talk about white privilege and the effects of whiteness, but rather, when talking about race relations in the U.S., we fall back on what Harris-Lacewell describes as “rhetorical acts of racial inequality.” In other words, we fail to penetrate the proverbial surface of what racism actually means.To puncture this surface will likely open wounds that many of us would rather avoid all together. Surely it’s much easier to benefit from a perpetual system of subjugation, than to confront it openly and vulnerably.

An anecdote

During my last semester of graduate school, I sat down with my ‘white’-race father and handed him the book Learning To Be White by Thandeka. Coming off an emotionally draining two year women’s studies program, I thought it was finally time to talk with my father about whiteness and white privilege. It’s painful to write about that moment now because during that time my father was dying.

A little background: My father and I were extremely close. I was, and am, my father’s daughter completely. Growing up, I never saw my father as ‘white’. I noticed something was different about my family when he, my mother and I would walk into restaurants and confront glaring stares from people who couldn’t quite figure out how we all were related. Oh I get it!, I thought to myself, people think he’s my grandfather and mom is my sister. It was only after years of being called n*igger, Oreo, zebra, among other rich epithets, that I figured out that I wasn’t only ‘black’, but I was the brown girl with the ‘white’ daddy. For most of my adolescent and young adult life, I ignored the stares, the questions, and the name-calling because I didn’t want to be reminded that I was different from my father despite being apart of him.

So on that day when I approached my father, then 77 years old at the time, I was afraid. All of the intellectualizing in the world could not prepare me for what I said next: “Daddy, do you know what it means to be ‘white’?” He smiled at me as if to already know where the conversation was headed. He responded, “Tara, you are my daughter. That’s all that matters to me.” Then I handed him Thandeka’s book. I continued to ask questions and he simply responded by saying, “I understand.” Both of us were trying to push through a conversation that, at that point with my father nearing death, was pointless. I believe my father understood very well his place in society. Despite being elderly and on a fixed income, he knew and experienced (along with my mother) what racism meant to their family. Though neither my mother or father are African-American studies professors, both have experiential knowledge about how white privilege, whiteness, and to a larger degree, white supremacy, impact their lives and their children’s lives.

Given that my father chose not to engage me further about whiteness may very well be an example of his white privilege status. Since for me, despite being a ‘white’ man’s daughter, I will always have to contemplate how whiteness and white supremacy impact my life as a woman of color. On the other hand, perhaps his choice not to fully engage was motivated by an understanding that in reality he was dying. Instead of intellectualizing how ‘race’ separates us, he may have just wanted to enjoy my company through lighter moments of reflection.

On White Privilege

No matter how you look at it or who’s involved, white privilege, white supremacy, and whiteness hurt. As Tim Wise says, the lure of whiteness tricks everyone. More often than not, these systems perpetuate an impaired consciousness, an awareness sustained only through relative advantages and false comforts. Some of us bear the burden of superiority so to avoid losing what we think that superiority means. For others, these systems represent an invisible glass ceiling that can never be broken.

Like professor Harris-Lacewell, I too am a child of one ‘black’ parent and one ‘white’ parent and by default I also benefit from a colorist and racist system. At that moment when I looked at my ‘white’-raced father while attempting to confront difference, all I saw was my reflection. I believe also that my father saw himself through me.

To challenge white privilege, and all that it represents, we may need to look a little closer at others to better see ourselves.

Many thanks to professor Harris-Lacewell for reminding us to look at ourselves by seeing others.

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