Last week, two of these people did the seemingly impossible. They apparently walked into an exclusive party at the White House, without having been invited.
That's Tareq and Michaele Salahi, posing at the party with Vice President Biden. That same night, they also got just as close to President Obama.
I like to think that I've become more aware than the average white American of all things racially "white." And yet, it wasn't until I read some observations of these two gate-crashers by non-white writers that I even thought about the significance of the whiteness of the Salahis. Now it seems obvious -- if entering a White House event without being invited was a crime, then that crime was simply easier for the Salahis to commit because they're white.
American media outlets are now giving voice to a lot of concern about how this "security breach" could have possibly happened -- how could two people just waltz right into the White House and right up to the president like that? Again, here's one answer that I'm not hearing much at all: one way they did it was by wearing "white" skin.
At examiner.com, a black writer named Rose Conley asks a series of interesting questions about the Salahi debacle. She then ties it to "Balloon Boy," another recent, publicity-seeking event/crime, involving a boy whose parents pretended he was trapped in a runaway balloon. Conley asks, "Some say only 'white people' would have the audacity to pull off either one of these stunts. Would you agree?"
I have no idea how to answer that question. Conley did get me thinking, though, about the whiteness of the Salahis. (Update: as some readers of this post note in the comments, the whiteness of Tareq Salahi, a Palestinian American, is complicated.)
"Oh," I suddenly thought. "Of course. Surely what the Salahis did was easier to do, just because they're white."
I think that because I too am white, it took me awhile to realize that. In fact, it took someone non-white to point out their whiteness for me to even realize that at all.
And then, a few Google-minutes later, I happened across Comedian Margaret Cho's brief blog entry on the Salahis, and on her own, non-white experience with White House security:
I am convinced those people got into that white house state dinner because they are white. I attended a state dinner during the Clinton administration and they did such a thorough background check before I was even allowed to RSVP that I was coming I thought they were going to ask me for a stool sample -- we are talking DEEP BACKGROUND -- and I am fucking famous. And I was fucking famous then. White people always look more INVITED than non white people.
Yes, white people look "more invited" to such an event. What a great way to put it.
By the way, for anyone who might somehow be unacquainted with the famous Margaret Cho, she's a Korean American. I think it's fair to say that that racial status, and the lifetime of race-related moments it causes, gives her more insight into how race works in America than most white Americans have.
At any rate, I also think that Cho must be right about this White House security breach. We may never know for certain, but surely the Salahis would have had more trouble slipping past security if they didn't looked the part of "invited White House guest." Looking that part means dressing and acting properly, of course, but it also means looking "white," no matter how many non-white people also visit the White House. No matter how black the current residents of the White House themselves are.
Simply put, it seems self-evident that security personnel often perceive non-white skin as a security threat, and that they probably never perceive white skin that way.
It's also worth pointing out that ordinary white people perceive differently colored skin that way too, and furthermore, that they often respond by functioning as de facto security personnel. For any doubters of the presence, and the destructive power, of the incredible disparities between common white surveillance of white versus non-white criminality, here's some convincing evidence.
The following two videos, from ABC's program "20/20," take about thirteen minutes to watch, but they're well worth it. This "20/20" segment demonstrate so much about the unconscious associations deeply embedded within most white Americans, associations and messages about the supposed threat of black skin, and the supposed non-threat of white skin.
Here's the basic set-up: in a suburban New Jersey park, three young white male actors openly vandalize a car. Few white people passing by bother to intervene, and only one of them calls the police. Later, three black male actors do the same thing -- you can probably imagine how different the response is from the white users of this park. Even black teenagers merely sleeping in a car provoke more 911 calls than the three white teenagers beating the crap out of someone else's car.
Watching this contrast, and thinking about what it says about common American perceptions of a "criminal" profile, should be instructive for most white people. On the other hand, I don't imagine it reveals much of anything new at all for most black people.
As a person who's classified as "white" in America, I sometimes forget how much easier that makes my life. For one thing, I never have to worry that my race alone marks me as a potential criminal; that makes moving throughout my daily life a lot less stressful, and a lot less dangerous.
I also sometimes forget, as I did with the gate-crashing Salahis, that being white can make it much easier for white criminals to commit their crimes. Not only do white people overestimate the criminal threat from black and other non-white people; they also underestimate, to their potential detriment, injury, and even death, the criminal threat from white people.
h/t: Jessie Daniels @ Racism Review