American Exceptionalism, Bigotry, Black Reconstruction (1935), Central Park, Colorblindness, Egalitarianism, Homelessness, Privileged Whites, Psychological Wages, Public Wages, Race, Racism, Socioeconomic Status, W. E. B. Du Bois, Wages of Whiteness, White Privilege, Whiteness
It is hard to discuss race. It is definitely so in the US, where virtually everyone believes that their individual good intentions mean more than systemic oppression and ugly truths. And it is really hard on people of color when they/we discuss race with most Whites and some people of color (e.g., Black conservatives, the elite of color, those with internalized racism issues), as their belief in American exceptionalism and individualism is so strong that any evidence to the contrary must be wrong. Especially if the person providing the evidence is Black, Latino, Native American or Asian, and even more so if they are women of color.
One thing that’s been on my mind lately is the lazy use of terms by the media around race. And their laziness is our collective and individual laziness as well. So much so that most Americans use the terms for discussing race about the same way most Americans eat — they say “gimme lots of fat” while refusing the vegetables and healthy, but “put everything on it” at the same time.
For example, most Whites see the terms White privilege and privileged Whites and assume they mean the same thing. They don’t and can’t. White privilege refers to both systemic and individual racial discrimination and disparities that almost no one White would ever have to deal with in most circumstances. It has little to do with socioeconomic standing, level of education, social networks, or any other variable to which most Americans who play devil’s advocate often refer. Privileged Whites, though, refers to the fact that this socioeconomic group is either upper middle class or wealthy, often with high education levels. The latter can also refer to White privilege, but then again, that’s already assumed in America’s racial construction of itself.
Anyone who is White and poor and also assumes that White privilege (or, to use W.E.B. Du Bois’ term, Whiteness) is ascribing to them a socioeconomic status that they do not possess, that’s just incorrect. As Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction (1935), even the poorest Whites received societal compensation, at least in part, through a “public and psychological wage.” In Jim Crow times, it was one in which poor Whites “were given public deference…were admitted freely…to public functions and public parks.” At the same time, the “police were drawn from their ranks and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with leniency” (pp. 700-01). Come to think of it, much of this still applies in 2015, even though the Civil Rights Movement dismantled Jim Crow, no?
But it’s not just terms like White privilege and privileged Whites that throws off all but a small minority of Americans. Most use terms like race, racism and bigotry interchangeably, as if they work at an Apple factory in the Longhua Subdivision of Shenzhen, in Guangdong Province, China (it’s outside Hong Kong) making iPhones and iPads. Race is a construct and not a biological fact in the case of Homo sapiens, since humans are all part of one species, albeit with some rather interesting surface variations. Racism is the result of a construct to justify social and economic advantages in the US and all over the globe, as well as the systemic construction and maintenance of such advantages. Bigotry, though, is something we as individuals all possess, regardless of race, gender, ideology, religion, atheism, or any other variable. There’s more, but I’ve already written a post about this.
And there’s this whole notion of color blindness, the idea that millions of Americans who see everything in color can claim that they’re colorblind to race. “I don’t care if you’re white, black, red, green or purple. It doesn’t matter to me,” most Americans often say. There’s two problems with this statement and these phrases. One is that unless someone is actually, physically and neurologically colorblind, what one is doing is choosing to ignore differences, which is completely different from tolerating, accepting or embracing difference. One might as well say that they don’t see the homeless in the middle of Central Park in New York, that’s how ridiculous — maybe even tone-deaf and callous — this idea is.
Two is that there aren’t any green, purple, blue or other weird hues of humanity anywhere on this planet. Heck, technically, Whites are pink, Blacks are varying shades of brown, Native Americans have reddish undertones (and then only some), and so on. The point is, this idea of color blindness to race is straight horse manure, allowing many Americans to feel good about their views on race, racism and bigotry without any serious thought about their country or the people in it at all.
And that is why conversations on race in the US remain a pipe dream for some, and raise the fear of the specter of Judgment Day for others.