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“Check Your Privilege” is Actually Just a Lousy Argument

“Check Your Privilege” is Actually Just a Lousy Argument

Like you, I’ve read Tal Fortgang’s piece, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for my White Male Privilege.” And like you, I’ve enjoyed watching him get skewered by blog after blog in the never ending one-upmanship that is the who-had-it-worse awards. As the internet froths at the mouth, I hereby declare that, like you, I think he made a big mistake! He should have elaborated on his first sentence and stopped there.

The point he should have made, but skipped over instead, was that the “check your privilege” riposte is not relevant to almost any discussion in which it is invoked. It is a rhetorical flourish used to discredit the proposition based on the identity of the speaker, and not the merit of the proposition itself. There’s a word for this logical fallacy: ad hominem. When employed, it can pack a powerful punch, but in reality it is lazy, lousy, and liberally lobbed in lieu of any legitimate point.

Although I’ve rarely heard the literal words “check your privilege,” I have been exposed to many, many forms of this non-argument. You might recognize these examples from your own experience:

“You wouldn’t know what it’s like to not have healthcare. If you did you would see that [Obamacare/socialized medicine/Healthy SF] is desperately needed in this country.”

“Have you ever been poor? No? Well then how can you have an opinion on [welfare reform/minimum wage/etc].”

“You’re white, and your built-in privilege makes it difficult for you to see how affirmative action merely levels the playing field.”

“It must be really easy for you to argue for school vouchers having gone to a fancy private school.”

THESE ARE NOT VALID ARGUMENTS. They sound good, and they might even sound credible, especially so if the speaker is actually a member of the disaffected group in question. But you’ll realize that it’s a completely invalid point if you reverse the roles and you find that it suddenly makes no sense. I’ve actually seen, in the heat of an impassioned discussion, a “check your privilege” practitioner contort their definition of privilege to include the very, very, unprivileged individual who had taken a contrary view. It was as if he would go to any lengths to avoid making a real counterpoint with actual evidence.

What’s weird is that this line is almost exclusively employed against those who challenge the liberal-Democratic axis of thought on political or economic issues, even though no one seems to apply the logic consistently. After all, surely an Ivy League grad who checks the privilege of another Ivy League grad over minimum wage is no more qualified to have an opinion just because, in her mind, she has better aligned herself with the interests of the poor. Obviously, or at least it should be obvious, there is more than one way to approach a complicated issue like poverty and there are no easy answers, or else we would have solved it a long time ago. In any event, “check your privilege” is not productive discourse in pursuit of solving real political and socioeconomic problems.

The big secret is, you and almost everybody you know is unbelievably privileged. If you live in America, you are privileged. If you read and speak English in a world where English is the lingua franca, you are privileged. If you have an internet connection, you are privileged. If you grew up with two parents you are privileged.

Here’s the good news, though: your privilege doesn’t disqualify you from having an opinion on almost anything. To present that opinion you must have evidence and support for your claims, of course, but you need not settle for a life of lazy rhetorical flourishes in pursuance of quick debate points. Hold your position against the ad hominem, because it’s likely that when the “check your privilege” card has been played, your interlocutor has already run out of counterarguments and you’re winning.

So don’t worry about checking your privilege. Check your facts instead.

May 5, 2014Comments are DisabledRead More
We are Obsessed with Race, Not Racism

We are Obsessed with Race, Not Racism

Our obsession with race has surpassed and perhaps even magnified our problems with racism in America.

Let me explain what I mean. Since I’m white, I can’t speak to the personal experience of racism, and I wouldn’t try to do so. As an American, I am part of a society that has made identity politics a most incessant and obnoxious trope, and I have observed that the more opposed to this drivel people get, the more the boundaries of politically acceptable discourse solidify to exclude them (or should I say, us). There are things that just can’t be said anymore, things that we need people to say because without dissent, race politics becomes an orthodoxy, and orthodoxies are dangerous. That said, I have travelled to a very many places and interacted with a great deal of people of all backgrounds, ideas and identities. Almost every person I have met has been full of opinions about racism, despite the fact that few of them are people whom I would consider to be racist themselves. And I’m beginning to wonder if our obsession with race has reached a boiling point and we might need to rethink how we approach issues of race in this country before it boils over and causes some real problems.

For reference, I always look to South Africa, where I studied abroad, and to the particularly virulent, open racism that persists there 20 years after apartheid. In South Africa, everybody talks about race, all the time. It’s talked about with an openness and frankness that is surprising to an untrained American ear. I think we can learn a lot from South Africans in how they openly confront their racist past and spend every waking minute talking about it–as a result, there are no secrets, no closet racists, no sinister feeling of power behind a veil of magnanimity. In South Africa, racists white, black and coloured proudly declare their racism. It truly lays bear the shocking reality of racism; that it exists in droves, that it is self-perpetuating, that it results in bad justice, erosion of social cohesion, etc–these are things we know. But because South Africans talk about it so much, because they confront it and it is politically acceptable for public figures to say some of the most shockingly racist things, I found it oddly refreshing and somewhat hopeful. That maybe there is a post-racial future in South Africa after all.

But it is hard not to contrast the South African free discourse over race with our much more regimented, yet simultaneously boiling, discourse in America. We have confined ourselves to a very narrow and troubling politically correct discourse where the only thing it is permissible to talk about is how bad racism is and how racist white people are, and it has become completely impermissible to talk about the identity politics and tokenism which have resulted from this myopic obsession. As a result, the conversation about race and racism in America is troublingly one-sided. When I am engaged in a discussion about race, it is almost always about racism, the ism being the domain of racists and a racist society (depending on your worldview, this defines a relatively narrow or a very broad band of Americans). But in all this talk about racism, we are engaging in a more important discourse, a discourse on and around capital-R Race. The difference is that while “racism” can be easily used to segment the undesirables in our midst, race is considered not only an important preoccupation but a necessary one in order to combat racism, and thus race, not racism, is what enters the national consciousness and infects our discourse. In short, we no longer are obsessed with racists, we are obsessed with race.

What form does this obsession with race take in our society? We are racial compartmentalizers. We count minorities in positions of power and obsess over racial balance. We talk about racial “firsts” (first African-American so-and-so). We still can’t decide on a good definition of Hispanic. We try to “fix” racism with countless race-specific philanthropies and entitlements. When we encounter people or public figures that challenge our assumptions about race, the we get cognitive dissonance and the discourse gets wrapped up in it. Black men like Herman Cain and Michael Steele were commonly derided as Uncle Toms during their pinnacles of influence. (This isn’t just a racial problem–we even blame women like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg for not being feminist enough, which is eerily similar to the time when Sarah Palin was being attacked by the feminist movement who apparently wanted a woman in power but only a certain kind of woman.) This systemic compartmentalization is rampant. We castigate white people with success for ignoring and/or not admitting their privilege. We castigate “minorities” (I hate that word) with success for not doing more to help other minorities. In the latter case, it is very discomfiting to see the expectations of people when it comes to diversity unhinged on those who are providing solutions.

If there’s ever a better exemplar of the problem of race in America, it’s President Barack Obama. Obama is our first black president, but he’s actually half black. It’s interesting how his mixed racial heritage rarely gets as much attention as his blackness. It’s as if there’s an unspoken rule that being biracial is too confusing for a racial narrative. He must be black, or maybe conservatives wouldn’t hate him as much, and he wouldn’t be different than every president that came before. But he’s also a possessor of a litany of American privileges that we usually associate with whiteness. He was raised in a white household by his white grandparents. He went to white colleges. How do we as Americans square that circle? Do we dare create a definition that challenges our inborn assumptions of race, or do we call him black and leave it at that? And if we have decided that a half-black man is either all black or all white, what sort of example is that supposed to set to mixed race children growing up in America, that they have to choose one or the other in order to have a place? Of course, if we make too much of a deal of his white heritage, we have also failed black kids in telling them that you can be successful if you’re black, but only if you’re actually white.

Our race discourse is about constantly deconstructing and reconstructing our racial narratives in order to make the most sense about ourselves. We all think about these things, even if we don’t talk about it. We are conditioned from an early age to internalize notions of race and culture, to be aware of racism, to know our racist history, to understand it. We embrace “diversity” and engage in an uncomfortable amount of social engineering in order to achieve some utopian post-racial future. At the same time, we are conditioned to only speak about race in euphemisms, to avoid offending (which often means avoid discussing) and to tread lightly in the public sphere on the subject. We also are very happy to shut down discussion of race, especially by white people–an uncomfortable ad hominem lobbed at white people who dare to criticize identity politics in America.

A bigger challenge to egalitarianism is that we can’t be satisfied as Americans all seeking for our piece of the American Dream. We can only be satisfied if every person fits neatly into a box on a census form and into a race coalition with its own community spokespeople. We need to conflate race and class, because the alternative is too unsettling. This is a problem because using “white” as a synonym for privilege ignores a very important factor of what constitutes racial “normality” in a society. It is fair to say that white people have a privilege in a white society. It is more accurate to say that X people have a privilege in an X society. Whatever X is in America, it isn’t strictly white. There’s a combination of looks, language, culture and history involved in X. There are plenty of white people with southern drawls who couldn’t land a job on Wall Street even if they had straight A’s. Our culture doesn’t work like that. There are also plenty of black kids growing up in Fairfield County, CT who often act, talk, and subsequently succeed like any white kid growing up in the same circumstance. Incidentally, they are often accused of “acting white.” This is part of the problem: that we use such terminology speaks to a very sad conflation between race and class in contrast to America’s multiracial, diverse reality.

X isn’t necessarily the same thing as white, and indeed, if we want there to be any progress on the racial front, we have to insist that X shouldn’t be white and it is possible, and desirable, to deconstruct the “white privilege” paradigm. This isn’t unthinkable. The definition of “white” itself has changed in history. One of the more interesting books I read last year, Nell Irwin Painter’s The History of White People, tells a fascinating story of how “white” has come to express different ethnic makeups in America. In the last 200 years alone, white has excluded, and then included in turn, people of German, Scandinavian and Irish origin. Imagine that in the late 19th century there was an entire contingent of scientists who didn’t consider Nordic people to be white enough!

I would have to mention Michel Foucault at this point because the parallels of racial discourse in today’s America to sexual discourse in yesterday’s England are too obvious not to bring up. Foucault observes that the people whom we regard to be the most uptight about sexuality were the most obsessed with it. People who spent every waking minute restricting new sexualities and perversities and in doing so opened up sexuality to a whole new universe of intrigue in science, the law, and medicine, in what he calls the Perverse Implantation. Rather than sexuality becoming more subdued, it became more accessible, with the prudish Victorian discourse on sex merely a catalyst for an unprecedented interest in sex, and indeed, it is often misunderstood to have been prudish in the first place.

We have a similar situation in America with race: we spend every waking minute thinking about it and in doing so create more obsession. We can’t get enough of race. Instead of pushing past racism, we are recycling racism into a new paradigm in which all facets of the racial puzzle are reconstructed, pushed into avenues of politics, art, science, the humanities, and thus continually re-examined, obsessed over. Call in the Racial Implantation. Instead of defeating racism, we are creating a new class of racists who, like the racists of old, believe their solutions to the race problem are progressive. They also tend to be inside an echo chamber where challenges to their outlook are deflected, often, ironically enough, with charges of racism.

Given these issues of race in our discourse, racism itself isn’t surprising. I would be surprised to find myself in any modern society today without racism. It either is an extremely natural human instinct in complex societies, or it is going to be a very bad habit to break. I think everyone will disagree on the best “solution” to racism, the discussion of which I think may be part of the problem, but c’est la vie. You can’t argue with the facts: America has racists, and whites sit at the top of the racial hierarchy. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including whites. White people, like myself, find it difficult to square their belief in an egalitarian society with the racial realities of our still predominantly white society. And that’s something that we can and should address, and there are plenty of ideas on how to do so. But the first step to solving a problem is recognizing a problem. And the problem, I believe, needs to include our obsession with race. We need to realize that our race discourse has added to, and perhaps even compounded the racism problem. I would like to see racism become just one part of a larger discourse where we look at ourselves first and foremost as perpetrators of a perverse race logic. Only then can we really begin to address the dreams of a post-racial future.

Thanks to Danilo Campos and Frances Low for reading drafts of this.

May 18, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
On the History of White People

On the History of White People

Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is wide ranging in scope and historical depth, covering the history of those people we deem “white.”  In short, it is a remarkable work, taking a historical long view of the perception of the white race and its race discourse throughout history, starting with the ancient Greek perception of the light-skinned Scythians and Celts, through the Roman period, skipping over a thousand years of medieval race-mixing and slave trading, and then focusing her historiographical lens on America, where her work delves deeply into race theories, racial sciences, anthroposociology, eugenics, anti-immigrant nativism and black civil rights.

In the nascent field of whiteness studies, this book is critical to understanding the delicate interplay of race and class that is at the core of how “white” evolved as a social concept in the United States.  The story begins with the ancients, as the civilized Greeks looked at the barbarian Scythians and Celts with their lighter skin and brutal lifestyles.  (Of course, no sources survive from said barbarians, and Painter is fair to moderate her reading of the sources she does have with humor and skepticism throughout the book.)  The Scythians and Celts quickly expanded into many varieties in the eyes of the Greeks and later the Romans:  Colchians, Celts, Gauls, Germani, and in turn these peoples had their own subdivisions.  Painter is quick to establish that “race” as it is perceived today (i.e., of the pigmentation of one’s skin) mattered little to naught to the ancients, who saw peoples primarily in terms of their sexuality:  the virility of the men, the beauty of the women, various mating rituals real and imagined.  Bloodlines throughout Europe undoubtedly mixed a great deal throughout the Roman period and beyond, culminating in an extended period of slave trading throughout Europe that saw as many as a third of Europeans in captivity in the middle ages.  The tradition of slavery as it relates to sex and beauty is carefully examined, and the particular appeal of the light-skinned girls from the Caucasus region plays a significant role in the shaping of white perception of beauty later on.

It is here that Painter turns to the history of racialism in the figure of J. F. Blumenbach, the pioneering German scientist who made a thorough investigation of over 200 skulls from around Europe, Asia and Africa to determine the measurable structural characteristics inherent in his races.  Classification and taxonomy were all the rage for natural scientists in the 18th century, so it is no surprise that a compelling narrative of humanity developed that could explain the races scientifically, culminating as Blumenbach’s study did in the “Caucasian” race, which curiously enough did not include many light-skinned people in Europe including the “Slavics” and “Laplanders.”  It is a theme throughout history that racial differences were not only presumed predetermined, but they were required by the rigid rules of scientific taxonomy to be free from intermixing or impurity, and of course always prone to inherent prejudice.  It is not surprising that certain light-skinned people were not classified as “Caucasian” until well into the 20th century.

From Blumenbach, Painter takes us to the bulk of her scholarship, and a third of the book, which traces the white racial theories and Anglo-Saxon ethnocentrism of countless scientists and anthropologists of the 18th and 19th centuries such as Germaine de Staël, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Z. Ripley.  As the scholarship begins in the intellectual center of Europe, Germany, in the 18th century, it is not surprising that the most preeminent racial theorists were also Teutonists who traced the superiority of German stock from Roman times.  Germaine de Staël, a woman before her time who excelled intellectually and politically in high academic circles, took the Germanic history and expounded about German superiority and greatness, connecting the success of German, or Saxon, breeding, with the success of the industrializing English-speaking world.  The “Anglo-Saxon” link was a particular favorite of future American race theorists as it made complete the path of superiority in the white race throughout history.  The Anglo-Saxon superiority was trumpeted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who looks at the English history as a story of a superior German stock supplanting the inferior Celts, who were less civilized, poorer, and, incidentally, Catholic (not surprisingly the political environment in Emerson’s time was highly anti-immigrant and virulently anti-Catholic).

We see several explosive political cartoons from Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist (and inventor of the modern Santa Claus) who apparently harbored some violently anti-Irish views.  The preeminent racial reading of the tail end of this age was the 1899 book Races of Europe by William Z. Ripley, which expounded on the taxonomy of the white race to minute levels of detail including eye color, hair color, head shape and face length.  Ripley’s work gave even more scientific validity to the racial hygienists of the 20th century who sought to put racial theory into practice, advocating eugenics as a means to population control.  (The focus of white racism on other white people occupies a substantial portion of this book, which is what might distinguish it from other histories of racialism.)

At the core of Painter’s thesis is the evolution of “white” from a very narrow definition covering the so-called direct blood descendants of Saxons and excluding pretty much everyone else–including Irish, southern Europeans, Jews, and of course Africans–to an increasingly widening definition as the political and social needs of whiteness grew.  With waves of American immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whiteness encountered several enlargements that not only affected how those within the Anglo-Saxon “pure” whites saw themselves, but created an easier social and economic opposition to blacks.  Of course, she does not ignore the Civil Rights movement which played a crucial role in altering the political consciousness to see “black” and in doing so, see “white” as a much more expansive category opposite to “black.”  But she does not drive this point home as well as she could, that whiteness until very recently had very little to do with blackness as a social construct.  Whereas today, we view “white” as being in many ways the antithesis of “black,” the race theorists of the 19th century were not preoccupied with blacks at all.  In fact, Emerson himself was a well known abolitionist.  The intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries who sought to create and define races were more concerned with the races among white people than the races aside from white people.  To be white was not to be non-black, insofar as an Irish immigrant in New York was often seen as being as little deserving of inclusion in the white race as a black man from South Carolina.

Painter cuts a sizable swath out of white history, but by the author’s own admission, the book is mistitled.  Past the colonial era, it addresses exclusively the history of white people in America, and more importantly focuses on the successive enlargements of American whiteness as it relates to class, economics and sociology.  The book does not, sadly, focus on the peculiar postcolonial state of whites in the non-Western world, including the unique case of the Afrikaners in South Africa I have researched in the past.  The book also does not delve deeply into perceptions of whiteness or anti-white discourse past the 19th century, preferring instead to focus on the white perception of white identity, making the book, ironically enough, too white-centric.  In most histories of a race, the focus is on that peoples’ placement in society as an agent and erstwhile victim of change (or focus on the discourse or influence of that group on society at large).  In The History of White People, we are more interested in the development of American nativism, the modern perception of whiteness as it differs from earlier perceptions of whiteness, and of course the retelling of a very old story indeed:  a story of how people love to compartmentalize and control their own identities through artificial definitions with dubious historical consistency.

June 14, 20121 commentRead More