Wednesday, June 18, 2008

rarely count their racial blessings


Peggy McIntosh


In Shakti Butler's documentary film, Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, Peggy McIntosh recalls the genesis of her groundbreaking essay on white privilege:

In 1980, I had read two essays by black women who had laid it out just like a given: "White women are oppressive to work with."

And I remember reading those two essays with astonishment. They were so factual about it: “White women are oppressive to work with. And I had two thoughts, in 1980, and I still remember them.

One was, “I don’t see how they can say that about us. I think we’re nice!”

And the second, which is outright racist, but this is where I was in 1980, “I especially think we're nice if we work with them.”

Then I thought, “Did we fill the reading lists, and the programs, and Women’s Studies, with white people’s stuff?”

And at first I said, “maybe,” and then I said, “yes.”

And then I asked myself, “If I have anything I didn’t earn, by contrast with my African American friends in this building, show me.”

And I had to pray on it, and I asked my unconscious mind to answer my question. And after three months, forty-six examples had swum up, most of them in the middle of the night.

And if I didn’t flick on a light and write them down, they’d be gone by morning, because I didn’t want to know them. They were messing up my view of myself as a person who’d earned everything I had.


I first read Peggy McIntosh’s essay about a dozen years ago, and I’ve been trying to keep my own white privilege in mind ever since. As McIntosh says in her essay, though, it’s a “fugitive and elusive subject,” and keeping an awareness of white privilege up front in one’s consciousness throughout the day can be difficult. White-majority environments discourage that kind of self-awareness.

I also find it difficult to remember specific examples of my own white privilege, and so like Peggy McIntosh, I write them down.

I’ll end this post with some examples from my recent life—from today, actually—and then with the trailer from Shakti Butler’s lucid and moving film.
  • As I walked around in several stores today, I never felt self-conscious about my race.
  • I never felt outnumbered by people of a different race.
  • As I drove down the highway at my usual ten miles per hour over the speed limit, I never worried that my race could make me a more likely target for a ticket.
  • As I drove through small towns on my lengthy commute to work, I never felt a need to remind myself that some of them were, until quite recently, sundown towns, and that most or all of them still weren’t exactly welcoming to people who are not the same color as me.
  • When I cut my finger while cooking tonight, the bandages that I’d hastily grabbed from a grocery store shelf pretty much matched the color of my skin.
  • When I spoke with a white colleague about the extra and excessive scrutiny that a recent black job candidate had received compared to the white ones, my claims were met with skepticism, but I never felt that my own race further discredited what I was saying. I realized that instead, it did the opposite.
  • As I thought about the conversation afterward, I realized that I have never faced the many stress-inducing trials that a successful black job candidate would face in my workplace—and that in fact, my whiteness continually paves a smoother, less stressful path before me as I navigate that workplace.
  • Throughout the day and into the evening, no negative incidents occurred that made me wonder if what happened had something to do with my race.
  • When I had dinner at a multiracial gathering, I never felt self-conscious in racial terms about which foods I should eat.
  • When I arrived late for that gathering, I didn’t worry about whether my lateness was a bad reflection on me in terms of my racial status.
  • As I conversed with my friends, I never worried if anything about my manner of speaking or the words and phrases that I used might reflect badly on me in terms of race.
  • As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, waiting for some friends to emerge from a house, I never worried that my race could make me a potential target for harassment by police.
  • As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, I realized that if I had encountered the police at any point during the day, the law enforcement official would probably have been a member of my own race. Even if he or she had not been, I would be likely to trust that person to deal with me fairly and respectfully, and I would not have worried in either case that my race would put me at risk in the encounter.
  • As I now head for bed, I realize that I’ll probably sleep better than I would if I were not white, having had that much less of a stressful day.







[Here's another video that combines McIntosh's interview, quoted above, with her list of forty-six examples of white privilege from her own life.]

15 comments:

  1. While not diminishing the importance that whiteness plays in our daily lives (I'm white), how many of those examples are actual whiteness and how many of them are because you are a member of the majority race in this country?

    Could you have repeated all of those examples if say, you lived in China? How would you clarify whiteness against this background of majority race? To me, that would be a much more interesting question.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have to raise questions on your first two points (although I agree with your general twist) - if you've never felt "self-concious about [your] race" or "outnumbered by people of a different race", I assume you've never been overseas (which is possible, sure). I think that spending an extended period of time in a non-white majority country is excellent for understanding how non-whites might feel, particularly if it's one where being a single white female (as I am) means you get singled out for extra attention.

    Also, what on earth do you mean by this: "When I had dinner at a multiracial gathering, I never felt self-conscious in racial terms about which foods I should eat."

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  3. Edit: I've just read your piece further on about travel and Indonesia, which is funny because it's exactly the country I was talking about.

    The concept of "I'm a traveler, not a tourist" is a interesting one, but do you think it is exclusive to whites? And do you separate American whites from "other" whites? Is there a different dynamic from country to country?

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  4. Hey Linden Branch,

    A lot of those things are true even if you are a white person living overseas. White people have the status they have in the US almost everywhere, and in China, it's even more so. White people are more likely to be hired for jobs, and the government is actually cracking down on that right now, because they want companies to hire more Chinese people who are equally qualified.

    I know that doesn't answer your whole question, but I just wanted to jump on that point.

    On the other hand, I'm still discriminated against for jobs because I'm black, maybe even more in China than I was in the states.

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  5. @smudge

    "When I had dinner at a multiracial gathering, I never felt self-conscious in racial terms about which foods I should eat."

    If I order foods associated with racial stereotypes will that impact the perception my colleagues have of me? Yes, some people may actually consider that before ordering.

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  6. I love this post. You understand.

    For your commenters who don't understand the way many of us have felt when eating with mixed groups, check out Dave Chappelle's hilarious videos on chicken and grape drink.

    Although they're funny, he gets the point the across.

    Another item I can add to Macon's list has to do with hairstyles.

    Applying for a job wearing braids or cornrows, no matter how beautifully and neatly designed, can guarantee you won't get it in many places, especially white collar and professional career jobs.

    So you straighten your hair if you're a woman and trim it low if you're a man, even though you may not want to. This is a shame because braids are the perfect hairtyle for many blacks.

    Now let's flip the situation.

    Imagine that as white person, you're the minority and live in a weird social environment where you know you have add chemicals to your hair to fluff it up and then wear braids to get hired because your usual style that flatters whites is seen as unacceptable?

    You wouldn't like that. You wouldn't like that at all.

    ReplyDelete
  7. omg kit,
    the point about hair can't be made enough! There are VERY few professional settings where black folks can get hired with an afro, braids or dreadlocks regardless of how well groomed they are. Do white folks really believe 95% of black women grow straight hair?!?!

    as for white folks overseas in non-white countries, whiteness is no longer an absolute privilege. It operates much like the "model minority" myth for asians here in the US--there are many positive attributes associated whiteness BUT there are also very apparent limitations because "white" is then synonymous with "other". Read some expat blogs of ESL teachers in Korea for a sample of the shock of losing white privilege. Boy are they cranky!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Macon,

    Are you from a background of upper-class wealth and/or racist parents? This is an honest question.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have to give you these:
    • When I arrived late for that gathering, I didn’t worry about whether my lateness was a bad reflection on me in terms of my racial status.
    • As I conversed with my friends, I never worried if anything about my manner of speaking or the words and phrases that I used might reflect badly on me in terms of race.
    • As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, waiting for some friends to emerge from a house, I never worried that my race could make me a potential target for harassment by police.
    • As I sat in my car alone on a quiet street at night, I realized that if I had encountered the police at any point during the day, the law enforcement official would probably have been a member of my own race. Even if he or she had not been, I would be likely to trust that person to deal with me fairly and respectfully, and I would not have worried in either case that my race would put me at risk in the encounter.
    • As I drove down the highway at my usual ten miles per hour over the speed limit, I never worried that my race could make me a more likely target for a ticket.
    • When I cut my finger while cooking tonight, the bandages that I’d hastily grabbed from a grocery store shelf pretty much matched the color of my skin.

    It’s true, stereotypes will make someone more conscious of what they are or aren’t doing around other races. It is also true that since “proper English” is the “standard”, people of other races will feel the need, if they don’t already on a regular basis, speak “properly” around “whites”---again to avoid stereotypes. Racial profiling is very common so there a defiant advantage to being “white” in this case. When I was a little girl, I used to get bruises and cuts a lot, and I remember thinking one day why the bandage was a beige color instead of a color more suitable to my skin tone (so I started wearing clear ones). The others you listed are kind of in question because it depends on where you are at the time. Quite a few dealt with the environment you were in (assuming it was mostly a “white” environment). However, if you assume it was a mostly “black or other” environment…you may feel differently about it.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @ Anonymous,

    Middle-class in American terms, upper-class in global terms.

    Parents--one liberal in terms of race, the other a bit less so. For example, my mother used to tsk-tsk and try to argue with my father when he would say, "I'm not a racist, but that word really does fit some black people." They both did do their best to be fair-minded and just, and they actively taught me to be that way, so I credit them both as big influences on my anti-racist/social justice leanings.

    Why do you ask?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Kit...
    Great add.

    ReplyDelete
  12. First anonymous,

    But as I looked over his bullets, I could see plenty of them not applying to me. I'm white, but I married a Korean woman and at least 90% of my non-work contacts are Korean. I have been conscious of being white, and have been asked questions that implied I was a spokesperson for whiteness. Now, some of those bullets would probably still operate even in a foreign environment, but I've seen plenty of them break down too when I am effectively the minority.

    The point, I guess, is that I am interested in exploring whiteness in a way that at least tries to disentangle it from being American, being affluent, being highly educated, being etc., etc. Do you know what I mean? I think Macon has a lot of good points, but I'm having a hard time distinguishing whiteness from all the other social background noise that typically accompanies it, and I'm expressing a desire to try and unravel the mess and expose white privilege and the racism that underlies it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Great point Kit.

    I am discontinuing the CFC = chemical fire cream after 35 years. For those who don't know that is a relaxer and it contains many of the same ingredients as Drano!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hey, I love your blog. Have you ever seen Belle du Jour? I thought it was a great film about white people's sexuality, even though it's French.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thanks Anonymous, and welcome aboard. I have seen that movie, though that was before I started "seeing" whiteness, so I hadn't thought of it in racial terms.

    Could you say anything more, please, about how you see its portrayal of sexuality as "white"?

    ReplyDelete

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