Friday, October 10, 2008

suffer from a privilege-induced lack of coping skills

Here's some theme music for this post:

Has Black Friday arrived in America? If so, are you prepared?

Actually, if you're a "white" American, there's a good chance that you're less prepared than other Americans. Emotionally that, is. And mentally. Maybe even physically.

As is so often the case, Tim Wise has explained well this common symptom of learning to be white:

Racism and white privilege/supremacy generates a mindset of entitlement among those in the dominant group. This entitlement mentality can prove dangerous, whenever the expectations of a member of the group are frustrated. Principally this is because such persons develop very weak coping skills as a result of never having to overcome the obstacles that oppressed folks deal with every day and MUST conquer in order to survive.

So, as a result, it is the privileged (the beneficiaries of racism, and also, it should be pointed out, the class system) who are ill-prepared for setback: the loss of a job, stocks taking a nose-dive (who were the folks jumping out the windows in the great depression–not poor folks and folks of color, but rich whites who couldn’t handle being broke!) Likewise, if you look at the various personal pathologies that tend to be disproportionate in the white community (and upper middle class for that matter), they are interesting in that they all are about control–controlling one’s anxiety, emotional pain, or controlling and dominating others–like suicide, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-injury/mutilation, serial killing and mass murder (as opposed to just regular one-on-one homicide), sexual sadism killings, etc.

Not knowing how the world works is dangerous. White privilege and racism allow the dominant group to live in a bubble of unreality. Most days that’s no big deal I suppose. But every now and then reality intrudes on you and if you haven’t been expecting it, the trauma is magnified. So, when 9/11 happened, millions of whites were running around saying “why do they hate us?” because whites have never had to see our nation the way others do–we’ve been able to live in la-la land.

But folks of color didn’t say this, because those without privilege HAVE to know what others think about them. Not to do so is to be in perpetual danger. So whites flipped out, and by virtue of being unprepared, pushed for a policy response (war) that folks of color were HIGHLY skeptical of from the beginning. But whites, enthralled by our sense of righteousness (itself a manifestation of privilege), pushed forward, convinced that the war in Iraq would go swimmingly. How’s that working out?

In other words, racism and privilege generate mentalities and policies that are dysfunctional, even deadly for whites as with folks of color. Folks of color are the first victims, to be sure, and the worst. But as someone else said, what goes around. . .

Privilege creates a false sense of security. Being the dominant group can set you up for a fall, can prevent you from building up the coping skills needed to deal with setback, because so often those skills are ones you just don't need.

Until you do, that is.

[This quotation is adapted from two sources: a comment Tim Wise wrote at Resist Racism, and one of his books, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Lyrics for Steely Dan's song "Black Friday"]


  1. this reminds of me something else that could be a topic for Stuff White People Do - unload their emotional baggage on their friends of color. i'm reminded of white friends of mine who are utterly incapable of dealing with the most routine sh*t sometimes. to them, i am a 'strong black woman' - simultaneously meaning i am a superwoman who can handle anything and that i am therefore devoid of any real emotional struggles. what they fail to realize most of the time is that the things they constantly fall apart over, i'm forced to deal with silently just so i can get along in the world and not be seen as the black stereotype of 'angry' or 'out of control'. this is another version of the 'magical negro' sidekick - the all-knowing negro who can enlighten their white acquaintances on the difficulties of life but are portrayed as not having any actual lives of their own.

  2. Hi Macon,
    Have you ever read _White People_ by Allan Gurganus, and if so, what did you think? I just added it to my goodreads...haven't read it myself.

  3. Thank you for the post suggestion, anonymous. That does sound like a good topic that's related to this one, but separate too, so I'll see if I can add anything to what you've said here sometime. You've actually described several ways that whites often project stereotypes onto black women. Michelle Obama, of course, gets them thrown onto her back too (as in the recent moment on Bill O'Reilly's show--I think on the radio--when he basically said out of the blue, "She seems angry to me. Don't you think she seems angry?"). As I continuously say on this blog, white folks should wake up to these tendencies, and to so many others.

    Hi Sharon, I have read the collection of stories called White People, and remember finding it enjoyable (it was a long time ago), and insightful about white people and their ways, though his characters are mostly or all American Southern white folks. The story "Nativity, Caucasian" seems to me like a great parody on common white fears of and disdain for the body. Gurganus is a gentle storyteller, so you have to read carefully for real critique of white people and their ways, but it's there (in a lot of color symbolism too, if I remember right). Hope you like it--it would be great if you'd let us know what you thought of his take on "white" people.

  4. Macon, this is wild. I was listening to that song last night - on purpose knowing today would be another market blood bath.

    Tim Wise rocked in that article. Good Lord that man is on target, time and time again. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. That quotation almost perfectly described what it was like, before I happened to be living in New Orleans on August 29, 2005.

    I really don't think I'll ever trust the government again. I don't trust that my money's safe. I don't trust that my stuff is safe. I don't trust that elected officials know how to do their jobs. I've lived on other people's charity, I've gone 30 days with the national guard stationed on my street keeping me out of my house. It is impossible to realize how on the brink we all are, until you are forced to.

    I think many white people truly do go through years of life without that security ripped from under them. And I think it's something that's getting worse with this generation, ie: more people age 20-30 are STILL living with and being supported by their parents than ever before.

  6. yeah it's like those articles in magazines and the newspaper about the failing economy or our poor health care system - featuring white white collar professionals struggling to make it. it's like the hard times haven't started until the white people say they have.

    wise brings up 9/11, which has been "marketed" as the worst terrorist attack on american soil. like slavery and genocide of native peoples never happened.

  7. "So, when 9/11 happened, millions of whites were running around saying “why do they hate us?” because whites have never had to see our nation the way others do–we’ve been able to live in la-la land."

    It stuck out to me that in this point you equate 'whites' with 'white people from the USA'. I'd like to point out that in other white countries, we didn't say that; but neither did we run around asking why they hate you, because we already knew why.

    I think it's interesting though that while it was easy for us to spot the American privilege there (we didn't know that you had no knowledge of your foreign policy, we just thought you didn't care), it is just as easy for us to divorce ourselves from it - to condemn the ignorance of Americans living off the world's suffering when we do it too, just as much, and the only thing we don't do is export our culture aggressively like the USA does.

    So is that another thing white people do - point at other white people's privilege in smug ignorance of their own?

    Maybe you've already covered that one. ;-)

  8. >So is that another thing white people do - point at other white people's privilege in smug ignorance of their own?

    >Maybe you've already covered that one. ;-)

    I think Isabel, a commenter, is doing a great job covering that over here and in other posts:

  9. thanks fromthetropics, I came here from a link up there.....

    Didn't realise until I posted that this one was so old, sorry bout that.

  10. cinnamon girl, don't apologize. I was being sarcastic (towards Isabel, and not you) when I said, 'doing a great job' ;) Your comment was actually very timely.

  11. Lol fromthetropics, I went and read that post and came back here to ask if you were suggesting Isobel is critiquing it or embodying it....

    I think it probably is the same thing, whether you are pointing the finger at the upper class or pointing the finger at another white country... either way it means you don't need to look at your own privilege. It's easy for the poor to see how the rich are privileged, and it's easy for the rest of the world to see how the USA is privileged. It's harder to see that you share some levels of privilege with that group if you're so busy seeing how different they are to you.


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