Hi Robert Lipshutz, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment with your thoughts; I appreciate it. Yes, you’re correct about it making obvious sense that white folks see ourselves as the default norm especially when we grew up in segregated communities. Besides, what more could we possibly think when many of us had never so much as seen a black person in “real life” — at least until a certain point in time? Of course we see ourselves as the default norm and it makes perfect sense why.
This was the case with my Mom and Dad, born in 1942/43 in the south. Both attended segregated schools and remember Jim Crow laws very well. In the early 70s, my two older sisters remember when racial integration was finally implemented in our public schools.
Being considerably younger than my sisters (born in 1974), and despite growing up in integrated schools myself, there was still always a pervasive undercurrent of “us vs. them.” An unspoken, universal truth.
Sure, several of us (Gen Xers) grew up with a few (or a lot of) black friends and certainly didn’t think of ourselves as “better than,” but most of us were also largely unaware of the ways in which systemic racism shaped our worlds so differently. We had no idea the type of reality our black peers grew up in, which was vastly different from our own — for any number of reasons. It simply didn’t occur to us to give it a thought.
Regarding the language… calling it ‘privilege’ to be among the majority, I agree with you — it’s a known fact that the word itself shuts down dialogue or debate and increases white racial animus. But I often wonder, what do white people think would be a better term? How else do we describe the fact that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory?
But moreover, why should us white folks get to be the gatekeepers of language in the first place?
These are just questions that run through my mind.
I also know that a lot of my fellow white people think the notion of privilege in any form is nothing but “PC culture run amok,” despite the fact that privilege in the social context is not a new concept or term by any stretch:
In the nineteen-thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “psychological wage” that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor blacks; during the civil-rights era, activists talked about “white-skin privilege.” But the concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” which contained forty-six examples of white privilege. (№21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” №24: “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”)
— The Origins of “Privilege,” by Joshua Rothman for The New Yorker
Using the term ‘privilege’ to describe this makes perfect sense to me, even though I can understand why it’s so off-putting to others.
But that was exactly my point… why are so many white people “triggered” — for lack of a better word — by the term in the first place, especially when they don’t understand what it means? That reaction, to me, is a big red flag signalling something more dangerous: a white person who
- would do well learning to listen more than they talk, and
- might benefit from considering why they’re so opposed to learning new concepts.
What I’m ultimately interested in, always, is the why underlying people’s tendency to shut down. The root cause. Why the anger? Because the word “sounds” offensive? Why not look into it and try to understand deeper?
I don’t think it can be stressed enough that no white person needs to feel bad, guilty, jaded, or angry about any of this. This is exactly how society conditioned us to think. If anything, get angry over the fact that, despite believing otherwise, we are vulnerable enough to be so easily manipulated. And then strive to learn and do better.
Like Dr. Maya Angelou’s quote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think that kinda says it all.