Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What's the point of talking about "white privilege"?

John McWhorter writes:

[T]he idea is supposedly that we need to disseminate this awareness of White Privilege before we can start on the political part of the project. But the case for White Privilege as a necessary prelude to change relies on a premise that America is a nation “in denial” about racism past and present. That premise has rhetorical punch, but doesn’t comport with reality.

Take the usual phrasing that America needs a “conversation” on race. Our country engages in an endless “conversation” about race year round, in the media, academia, and barstool talk, while schools, museums, the media, the publishing industry, and government organizations treat coverage, exploration and deploring of, as well as apology for, racism as ingrained aspects of their mission.

Many foreign observers would be baffled by the notion that this is a nation that refuses a “conversation” about race or even racism—just last year involved fervent discussions of not only police brutality, but microaggression, gentrification, the N-word, reparations, and much more. The fact that this conversation doesn’t lead to all whites bowing down to all black complaints, an outcome tacitly desired by a certain cadre of academics and journalists, does not disqualify it as a conversation.

The question, then, becomes: Precisely what benefit do White Privilege 101 lessons add to all of what there already is? (Again, “knowing about White Privilege” is not an answer.) What are we hoping will happen in the wake of these lessons that hasn’t been happening before, and crucially, upon what evidence has that hope been founded?

America is by no means post-racial, but it is not 1960 either; change happens. Example: The U.S. Justice Department has officially faulted the Ferguson police department for discriminatory ticketing and could even shut it down. I cheer that development, but the protests over the Michael Brown verdict, magnified by social media, are what created this attention. The White Privilege lessons the DOJ’s outreach body imposed just made local whites angry. What popped the lock was good Old-Fashioned Civil Rights law. What’s the gain from White Privilege rhetoric? . . .

White Privilege 101 lessons require endless reiteration of key principles to retain. In many ways, taking them from words to action is such a logically fragile proposition that it must be billed as endlessly “subtle” (or “messy”)—a strange kind of pitch for something supposedly so urgent. And those questioning the whole affair are heatedly dismissed as “not getting it.” It all sounds familiar—but less as politics than as religion. . . .

In a society where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia, what whites are seeking is the sweet relief of moral absolution. Inside they are pleading, “Please don’t hate me!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an accompanying feeling of purification (redemption, even) that comes with such consultant-given absolution. I can honestly say that I would be engaging in exactly this kind of moral self-flagellation about racism if I were white in today’s America.

However, not being white, I can’t help but see it from a different perspective.

If “I know that I’m privileged!” is a statement made largely for one’s own sense of security, then it’s unclear to me how, say, the private school programs’ White Privilege sessions are “challenging” White Privilege, as the Times story’s headline put it. Semi-coerced self-interest rather than genuine enlightenment or understanding seems to be the vehicle for this racial revelation. . . .

So let’s start this stage of our “dialogue on race” with a simple question: When our mandated diversity director says, “This is messy work, but these conversations are necessary,” we have every right, as moral persons, to ask: Why, and for whose benefit?