White Rights, White Privileges
I was reading a column in the Atlantic (no, not Sullivan) a bit ago and a question arose in it that made me think about something I’d never considered regarding racism. Specifically, whereas I had always associated racism (roughly) as having the kinds of attitude that seeks to block upward advancement for minorities (or explain away apparent counterexamples by upwardly mobile individuals as instances of affirmative action or something similar), another way to see racism would be to see it as the refusal to allow minority individuals to be completely mediocre, or to be screw-ups. Much as I’ve seen a lot of racism in my life, this wasn’t something I’d considered explicitly.
Just to give these things tags, I’ll call the first phenomenon “white rights” and the second “white privilege”. Under the theory of white rights, it’s really only whites that deserve to succeed. In the context of politics, all of those ignorant people out there who refuse to vote for Obama because he’s black are operating under the theory of white rights (I’m not trying to make a political point here, just a racial one — polls show there are still too many people out there in this camp). This is the way of understanding racism I’ve always been most familiar with. Civil rights battles basically fight for each individual’s right to succeed, not just individuals of certain races.
It is also, I think, the definition of racism that most people use. When we listen to King or Malcolm X, or the justified complaints of minorities, this is the subject matter. They too wish to have a path to success that is open to them. In fact, when you have conversations with people about racism who think it doesn’t exist, they are most certainly using this definition in their thinking. They point to the fact that it is illegal to engage in such discriminatory practices now, and they will as evidence of the collapse of “white rights” point to Colin Powell, or Tiger Woods, or whatever, as evidence that racism is either gone in America or that it is seriously on the decline because anyone, if they try hard enough, can clearly now succeed.
Arguments for or against those sentiments to the side (I’m sure white “rights” has declined as a force, but it surely has not disappeared, IMO), I’m more interested in another phenomenon — “white privilege” (I am unsure if my use of this maps onto what is used in race studies). This is a different form of racism. According to this, we ignore success and instead suggest that only whites have the privilege to be mediocre.
Think of the average everyday mediocre white person, or even the white person who is less than mediocre — actually a bit of a (or total) screw up. Most of the time, white people pay little attention to such things as instances of a generalized racial “phenomenon”. Sometimes I see people simply accepting that this is normal for some people — being (less than) mediocre is a personal choice by some individuals. Some think it is non-admirable, but they make sure that the casual explanation and judgment (if there is one) applies to an individual (or maybe a family), but not a race. Some, in fact, think being (less than) mediocre is a sign of authenticity. Sometimes it is just a sign of “boys being boys” (so to speak) — it’s just normal behavior and not surprising that lots of people exhibit it. It’s life.
Fair enough. But the descriptions radically alter, I think, when we are looking at blacks (specifically). Now, turning to blacks, (less than) mediocre behavior is seen as evidence of a racial essence. A thug is not “a thug” but a “black thug”. It is seen as an exemplification of black essence or nature. The (less than) mediocre black person is seen as “what happens when you leave black people to their own devices”. Think of welfare: whereas there are a lot of whites on welfare, it’s not a racial thing, it’s an individual thing. But when it’s blacks on welfare, it’s a direct result of their blackness. And it’s no longer “life” or even a sign of possible authenticity — it’s a moral issue. In other words, blacks do not have the privilege to be (less than) mediocre, whereas whites do.
It’s a strange version of racism that I have, of course, encountered, but never thought of as a separate way of exhibiting racist thinking. Essentially, what is being said is “being (less than) mediocre is a sign of your racial nature” when you are black. When you are white, it’s never a racial sign of anything, and might even be a good thing! Whites have the privilege to be screw ups, not blacks.
This realization, for me, serves as an opportunity for a “gut check”. It may well be the case that you are not bothered, say, by the advancement of blacks in society; you think it is fine that anyone “can succeed” in America, follow the American dream, or whatever. But when you see a white person who is (less than) mediocre, do you feel differently about it, or do you categorize it differently, than when you see a (less than) mediocre black person?
By guess is that while there are a lot of people who are very against white “rights”, some persons — perhaps even unintentionally — are still under the sway of the theory of “white privilege”. My guess is that “white privilege” as a way of thinking runs more deeply in the American collective conscience than does white rights (though I could be wrong).
Of course, there are also those for whom both theories have a sick kind of appeal.
Where are you?