Friday, August 7, 2009

Can A White Person Successfully Give Up Their Privilege?

I was reading this post at the anti-racist parent blog about White Noise, a Minneapolis-based group of "white parents with white children" who want to end white supremacy. The name sounds a bit too similar to militia/supremacist groups which is why I initially decided to research them. I was going to write about this the other day but the Sodini shooting took precedence. Speaking of which - his merely thinking he could lose some privilege was enough to incite violence. 

Let's ask those teabaggers and birthers how they feel about the prospect of having less power even when it's the perception and not something that has come to pass. This kinda proves my point and informed by initial response. There are certain rules that govern a society. Smart groups focus on dominance for their survival - amongst other things. Who voluntarily tries to step back from the meat brought in from the kill while they examine how it got there and whether they should cut off a piece to give away?  Others aren't going to wait around, they're "hungry" and will eat it. They may also decide to get rid of the ones who aren't grabbing for it because it might cause the group to be weakened beyond repair. So all in all I think the premise is a bit ridiculous!
It hit me while I was still pregnant. Standing there at the Mall of America, looking up at the huge rotunda of bright lights and countless stores, I realized something. This baby I carried inside of me, at this point no bigger than a knucklebone, was going to be privileged with a capital “P.” And with that awareness, I entered a place of contradiction. You see, I could already feel the mama-self growing in me; that place where my bear claws would live, where the desire to do anything to make this child safe, make this child whole, would growl as it grew stronger. That mama-self doesn’t feel like a choice. It’s in there, hooked around my mitochondria and woven into the DNA.

But there’s this other self; sometimes called the political self or the activist self or the stand back and pay attention self. It knows that my child — white and raised by white parents in a family where the adults have the gift of education, have choice about their work, and own their own home — is a privileged child. Every gain my mama-self wants to support my child in making will be on the backs of other children, children with mother’s whose mama-selves are just as fierce as mine but who have to fight against real monsters like hunger or violence.
I know. I know. I bet some of you would have thought I'd applaud the efforts and say, Right On! No. This isn't Utopia. In the real world groups fight for dominance. In the real world said groups change the rules all the time at their leisure and apply them discriminately to retain an advantage. Even the definition of whiteness shifts - and will continue to do so for the ones they chose to grant "whiteness" to. Black people will never be allowed to be white. That one drop rule will always apply. So everybody else can get a crack at it but not us. Not even after you've declared yourself Cablasian. Not even after you marry into and immerse yourself in the proximity of whiteness. At least half the people in this country who identify as white weren't considered white at some point in our history. For the purposes of elevation they had to pit themselves against the more obviously non-white peoples to step into their whiteness.

That's not to say I don't appreciate the efforts of the benevolently privileged in examining their power infrastructure. Men can be feminists after all. Blacks can be racist. Which is also my point. People who've been given the short end of the stick can and do find someone else weaker to pick on. Like how some black men take out their frustration at not being able to successfully complete against white men as a collective and bash black women and abandon their children. Like how some black people use religion as an excuse to bash LGBTs and say it's about "following God" as if other people don't have a spiritual practice of their own. 

So the white mother in that post mentioning having a "partner" versus a "husband" caught my attention. I wonder how much her orientation (if I was reading between the lines correctly) has something to do with her efforts. Again, orientation alone is no guarantee of being equitable. Part of the response I got to my initial critique in the comment section was that these parents are focused on what's going on today. That they're not trying to deny having cultural and ethnic pride nor do they want to insist their children attempt to make up for historical wrongs.

Well....if that isn't examined properly and in context to what they're trying to accomplish perhaps I'm missing the point to this initiative. Or they are. As I replied the focus is leaning heavily on race as a construct not class. Are these a bunch of yuppie white parents trying to be "down"? I may be a little harsh on them and their efforts but they don't get a cookie or gold star. Like I said I think they need a bit of a reality check. If they have limited interaction with non-whites how are they putting into practice what they want to preach? Also have they considered what the response of other privileged white people will be? Do they allow themselves to be graded on by non-whites?

Minnesota doesn't exactly have a large non-white population. I can guarantee if they had to compete on equal footing with others and "had to share" privilege all of that talk would go right out the window. If they were inconvenienced past a certain comfort zone they wouldn't want to give up anything. If they had to deal with an underclass population in their daily lives they'd move to separate themselves immediately. Having the friend, confidant, lover or neighbor is no guarantee of being free from racist/sexist attitudes either. 

So I could be the benevolent Negress and applaud their (misguided) efforts but since everything's on their terms they don't need my approval. 

Update: I found a web site that according to them "provides resources and tools for white people who are motivated to investigate their white cultural conditioning" that's called UNTRAINING.
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The "benevolent negress"? Faith, what are you trying to do to me on this Friday? Drive me to drink more than three Lattes a day?

Black folks did not learn from OJ or President Obama. Our president is not stupid; he knows the level of hate on all sides. He has not fallen for the "macadamiaraisin" ethnicity nonsense. He knows people see black.

It matters if you're black or white. It matters because our system makes sure that it does. This enables the powers that be to capitalize on the strengths, weaknesses, fears and doubts of any particular group. Of course, those very powers that be also feed or debase those qualities in any of the groups to suit their purposes. It's called the vicious cycle.

The powers that be have always benefited from the "battle of the races" and they don't want to see the superiority and inferiority come to an end.

In the end, they're worse that Hitler. Hitler gave his reasons (crazy they may be) and carried out his plan (evil as it was). This modern breed of racists are more like the guy hidden in the background giving you a rope that you think will save your life, but is meant to hang you.

If people would be really honest about their feelings, preferences and hate, we'd all be better for it. I'd rather deal with the enemy I know.

Khadija said...


I also don't feel very benevolent about this sort of thing. In fact, it annoys me. How does this individual's decision to meditate on plucking lint out of their navel affect anything? It doesn't.

Even if these sorts of people are sincere, all they are is a diversion from any meaningful struggle for justice. They are a diversion that, unfortunately, placates many AAs who are frantic to find official "White People of Self-Proclaimed Good Will" (insert trademark symbol here). As opposed to being eager to run across decent people of any and every ethnicity/race.

As you alluded to, hypocrisy is never far beneath the surface of these sorts of proclamations. It reminds me of all the wicked people who go out of their way to spout religious slogans ("I'm blessed and highly favored," etc.). Such persons' daily lives seldom reflect the slogans they ostentatiously mouth.

In both cases, I respect (and I'm more likely to trust) the people who are quietly living out their values, and doing the right thing as a matter of everyday life. Without fanfare. Without public self-congratulation.

Peace, blessings and solidarity.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Bluebutterfly: Haha. 3 lattes a day is a LOT of caffeine. Of course race and gender matter. Anyway...that's why I had to call BS on this "supremacy divestment experiment".

Khadija: What I'd like to see these parents do is some knee-deep, in the trenches, inconvenient work towards elevating the status of others with less privilege. They can remove themselves from the equation entirely and achieve the same thing. That would mean they'd have to think of others first though. So not gonna happen!

I have to laugh every time you mention the church slogan jargon. So many people in my family use them and it really annoys me. There's 9 churches in a 5 block radius from my mother's residence and I see the neighborhood deteriorating yet these churches are still passing around the collection plates 15 times a week. Grrrr!!

Unknown said...

Faith, my thoughts about whether whites can/will give up white privilege is that, IMO, the bulk of white people are self-involved and rarely, if ever, think they are privileged. Many whites are not conscious of their privileges because they've never NOT had them. They tend to mingle with other whites and even if they mingle with blacks and have black friends, they are not aware that blacks don't have the same privileges--because they're typically not conscious of those privileges.

The bottom line: In a world where quality resources (including privileges) are scarce, it's supreme magical thinking for anyone to even begin to think that rational, UN-indoctrinated people will GIVE up privileges--even when they are conscious of them--unless they are getting something of equal value.

Most people are self-involved and pre-occupied with their own lives and/or with the lives of likeminded others in their group, their class, their race. AA women of the "save alla our people type" are a rare exception.

This cannot be said enough: Survival, thriving-oriented, likeminded African American women (or let's say those on the Sojourner's Path and similarly minded others) need to focus almost exclusively on building support NETWORKS for themselves along with the help of people who SHOW that they respect and appreciate bw. Along with continuing to do other positive things for themselves, AA women would add tremendous value to themselves by building and operating those networks because that's very positive and constructive, and ALL thriving people are attracted to positive, constructive others.

We need to STOP focusing on ANYONE else who is not doing anything for us. We cannot afford it. Likeminded AA women don't need to all live in the same place or ever even meet each other to develop and operate networks that uplift us.

Not only should we be focused on building and operating those networks, we should also be equally invested in protecting them. This means we NEED assorted "friends" and allies.

I believe we should allow ANY person to SHOW us ***and continue*** to SHOW us that they support, promote, and protect our interests.If they're not SHOWING it, they're just hot air. At the very least, they must not actively thwart our interests.

Also, IMO, blacks generally think and talk about the "wrong" things that whites do at the expense of focusing on and IMITATING the "right" things that whites do for themselves. If you notice, most other groups focus on the "right" things that other groups do for themselves, and they imitate and incorporate those "right" things into their group. The world is a global village.

Every group has always copied from each other when they've come into contact, except that way too many AAs these days tend to copy the worst aspects of what other groups do--because it's usually easier to copy bad stuff.

If people would be really honest about their feelings, preferences and hate, we'd all be better for it. I'd rather deal with the enemy I know.

Not to hurt your feelings, but you AND I are insignificant to the typical white person. They don't need to even think about being honest or dishonest with us. LOL! We're not on their radar, and honestly they're not on mine unless they're helping me in some way. Whites have positioned themselves to not to need to focus on people who aren't of value to them. The only time they need to think about these others is if they think these others can and will harm them. Too many softhearted AAs tend to value people "just because." Other groups don't tend to value you UNLESS you're bringing them value and doing it on a regular basis.


Oh, boy, you hit a nerve with the offering plate. Every "rotten" neighborhood has at least 2 churches on each block, yet nothing is done. That is the one thing that pisses me off more than anything else.

Susan said...

Faith: I read your piece and think it is truly powerful. I am bringing it back to our group. First, I don't think there is anything that white folks can do that is "right"- I don't think we get the privilege of doing the "right" thing no matter what it is. Bottom line, I believe that we maintain white supremacy with our bodies no matter what we do and individual acts can rarely, other than sometimes in miniscule ways, shift white supermacy because, as you said, white supremacy finds ways to reform itself to maintain its role. This is, I believe, strongly a part of the white supremacy-capitalism dynamic. Having said that, to do nothing is even more problematic. To do nothing as a parent in terms of being conscious about parenting is very dangerous. To only meet as a group of white parents talking is deeply problematic as it looks at activism as something that happens over tea and biscuits in the comfort of your living room. I am totally happy to tell you more about the context for the group - how class and queerness and the specifics of our whiteness inform the work - but I don't do so to make excuses or comfort. If you are interested, I am happy to share as much as you would like. Or not. One of the things that I knew before submitting the post was that I/White Noise would gain rather than decrease power just by virtue of writing this. We would get some of the "good white people" responses by some people. This is deeply dangerous. And, again, at the same time, for reasons of transparency and resistance with a small "r", it felt important to write. What I am taking away from your post as a first take is some additional accountabilities that should be included in this kind of work and that not enough were. Thank you for that.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Evia: You bring up some interesting points to consider. Make no mistake though: I don't care what white people think of me further than having any hindrances to my life goals. What I find troubling about these "well-meaning" types is they are just as racist as the "other white people" they think they've evolved from.

Also it was a black female blogger who had written about this and she's been trying to "explain" what the purpose of this group is as the moderator of that anti-racist parenting site. So I see this as yet another example of a black woman acting as protector of some foolishness.

We do need to find support though so I am willing to take it wherever I can get it if it's really being offered, but the question of the payoff is never far behind.

I suppose those parents in that group feel a sense of superiority or justification, but unless they're tested it's just words. So in building a coalition or support AA women do have to undertake proper evaluation lest she find herself left out in the cold as she's betrayed or abandoned.

Bluebutterfly: Yes well again it comes down to who's going to demand what for their time and services.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Susan: Welcome. You most certainly didn't have to directly engage me at all. I respect that you did. Ultimately my opinion of what you're doing is meaningless. You are free to do as you will.

It is good to examine privilege and recognize you have it. I don't want to get involved in the ways you decide to explore it. Not at all. I did think part of the approach was based on a certain perspective from a "lofty" perch if you will excuse the expression. That's not to say we all don't have out share of obstacles and challenges.

I just don't think your efforts deserve a round of applause. I think this is something all white people should be doing period. Particularly the lower economic classes as they tend to be so easily led by the wealthy classes of whites into falling for the racism dog whistle and fight over crumbs. They miss the entire manipulation.

So...good luck with that. If your efforts lead to tangible results you can take comfort in seeing justice bent slightly closer to good than evil.

Making you (and others) aware of the faulty logic in your approach was necessary lest those who weren't using critical thinking skills think this was a kumbaya moment. With what's going on in the country right now and what will come to pass people need to be practical, realistic and use common sense.

Unknown said...

Hello Faith,

Its always interesting to read your perspective, particularly on such a curious topic as whites examining their own privilege.

I think that introspection is meaningful period so I can't dismiss the article outright. I do feel that the article itself doesn't serve the interest of this forum but your analysis of it does. Especially where you highlight the article writers lack of means to implement any deconstructing of white privilege so as to benefit blacks or other people of color at a social disadvantage.

It goes without saying that other people simply acknowledging their position in society and the unearned advantages that accompany that position does not constitute empowerment for black women. I recently read an article published in 1975 in New York magazine, discussing how the WASP families that run banking and the high society arts organizations in New York are not socially obsolete and indeed wield just as much power as they had in Mrs. Astor's heyday.

The article explains how WASPs invisibility as with their selective exclusivity and their dominance of New York government, finance and culture is critical to their power and not accidental.

The article went so far as to describe the typical manner that WASP men and women present themselves physically and how they tend to select mates with the idea of preserving their lineage at the forefront of their selection process.

I found these details important as the concept of reproductive responsibility is viewed as essential, not optional because solid families create stability and foundation for success and prosperity. Men or women that ignore this idea do so at the risk of unapologetic exclusion from the group. I am young but I do not recall knowing or hearing of a time when such high standards were applied to one having access to the larger black community, meaning the lower to working class black community with the highest visibility in the media.

The article also discussed when and under what circumstances a non-WASP is permitted to join their ranks. The model of selecting a non-WASP for inclusion included such considerations as education, industry, behaviors and beliefs as these constitute the value this person will add to the group.

This perspective struck me as powerful and an example of how to negotiate relationships with potential mates that could replace the old race based model that gives DBRs a free pass to exploit black women.

To summarize, the mothers article referenced in this post, actually declares that she feels powerless to change or affect the system that grants her and her unborn child unrestrained privilege in our society. Possibly for the purpose of opening a dialogue where she can receive sympathy for this? I should be so fortunate as to ask for and receive sympathy for inheriting unfettered access to the best the world has to offer and my inability to change that!

At any rate, it serves black women's interest to acknowledge the cost at which power is obtained, the methods for obtaining it via mental preparation, encouragement and setting expectations high despite objections from those dispossessed in the wake.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

me: Thanks for your comment. Do you have a link for the article you were referencing? I'd love to read it. I think it's important that we properly evaluate points of intersection from the past to make the necessary adjustments for the future.

Unknown said...

Absolutely, here is the link,+WASP&as_brr=3#v=onepage&q=New%20York%20magazine%2C%20WASP&f=false

The article is titled, The New York WASP is not an Endangered Species by Owen Edwards and is on page 27.

Unknown said...

Hi Faith,
I'm white and I respectfully offer these responses.

"If they had to deal with an underclass population in their daily lives they'd move to separate themselves immediately."

I know an idealistic white family who, back in the 70s, stayed in their newly integrated neighborhood long after all the other white families had moved out, even after one of their kids was mugged. After the second kid got mugged they finally sold the house and move out to the country. I agree with your judgement of hypocrisy but I'm not sure why you'd expect white people to tolerate living among an underclass (of any race)when you detail how awful life is in these neighborhoods.

"What I'd like to see these parents do is some knee-deep, in the trenches, inconvenient work towards elevating the status of others with less privilege."

There are a lot of stories about idealistic young white people who move to inner cities to do volunteer work or ministry and get mugged, sometimes even killed.

More often they just become sympathetic to racism or at the very least extremely cynical about liberalism. I know a white female social worker who worked for CPS with poor blacks in the inner city and after three years she'd become a hard core conservative and started sending out law school applications. I know a white woman who worked for years as a school psychologist for an inner-city school, and she described how hysterical and epithet hurling mothers became when she tried to work with their children, and that her efforts were largely useless considering how many bad influences the kids had at home and in the street.

To wit, what there have been many educated blacks and a smaller amount of whites in the trenches trying to uplift underclass blacks. Some make use of opportunities (and some create opportunities when they don't exist) but, I know this sounds harsh, the majority of underclass blacks cannot or will not change and I see no reason why functional middle class people of any race should work to the bone and risk their physical safety for adults who don't want to uplift themselves.

As you've noted the increase in marriage and family formation would be the best way to solve these problems but no one, black or white, can make men get married (or stay married) if they don't want to. So I don't really see what white people could do.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Live in: Well it's this "idealism" that I questioned to begin with. Some white person with limited exposure to non-whites assuming they could "do good". Not understanding anything about black people and positioning everything in terms of race not class or values.

Of course there is usually some incentive such as teachers getting their loans forgiven for teaching in the unsafe residential areas that turn so many off. Not knowing there's an elite class of blacks. There was a time when it was just your garden variety racism where whites would protest the idea of any black person living in their residential areas when say 40-50 years ago people were strivers and had values and the prejudice was completely unwarranted.

Like those who "marched for Civil Rights" but wanted to leave their do-good efforts at the end of that day and go back to their whiteness. Really this conversation is one you should be having with other whites because as I've said I think the entire premise is extremely faulty and misguided.

It's not even remotely original. But as I also said if someone decides they want to examine themselves they should. I'm not expecting anything external to come from it though.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your response. I may be wrong but it seems that you don't have much experience with white people outside of very liberal ones. You are clearly an intelligent out of the box thinker, and I want to challenge you with my comments.

"Some white person with limited exposure to non-whites assuming they could 'do good'. Not understanding anything about black people and positioning everything in terms of race not class or values."

This may sound harsh, but the best way to assure that white kids do not grow up to be racists is to prevent them from being beaten up by underclass blacks. This also applies to Asian-Americans whose parents own stores in black ghettos. Some white kids who grow up with extensive contact with underclass blacks adopt their dysfunctional behavior, and since the overwhelming majority of middle-class parents don't want their kids to be either racists or gangbangers they move to neighborhoods where the only blacks around are members of the middle-class ie the same behavior you encourage for black women. And yes it can cause naivete about the reality of underclass black life but most parents consider than an acceptable trade-off.

"Of course there is usually some incentive such as teachers getting their loans forgiven for teaching in the unsafe residential areas that turn so many off."

Well, of course. Save for the very few Mother Theresas out there most people give to others out of enlightened self-interest, and only people suffering from intense misinformation about the reality of human nature would expect most people of any race to do otherwise. College education, especially in the humanities, tends to do this to people before real life teaches them hard lessons.

Most white people's motivations for exposing themselves to discomfort and danger are indeed mixed, but for many who have had little real contact with underclass blacks the desire to help is real.
Facing the reality of the black underclass is for many privileged rosy-viewed youths, like the first heartbreak and a junior year abroad, simply part of growing up.

"There was a time when it was just your garden variety racism where whites would protest the idea of any black person living in their residential areas when say 40-50 years ago people were strivers and had values and the prejudice was completely unwarranted."

As you note things have changed. 40 and 50 years ago black men like Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson sang love songs to black women, whereas rappers like Lil Jon, to put it mildly, are far less romantic. The popularity of hip-hop among all races makes many parents frightened that their children will sink to those levels.

"Really this conversation is one you should be having with other whites because as I've said I think the entire premise is extremely faulty and misguided."

White people don't like to talk about race because whenever they try to do so in a way that acknowledges the reality of the black underclass and their responsibility for their behavior people like Susan Raffo accuse them of being racists. It's much easier to avoid these conversations and move into white middle class neighborhoods.

I thank you for conducting this exchange respectfully. Due to the head-in-the-sand philosophy of white liberals I vote but am basically apolitical in terms of partisanship but maintain a keen interest in the study of human nature.

Faith at Acts of Faith Blog said...

Live in: I have no idea what you are referring to when you use the term "liberal white person". I've had exposure to those who like to think of themselves as liberal and as well as some who identify as conservative.

And since racism is a state of mind and most people are unindoctrinated towards their privilege it's ridiculous of you to posit that a physical confrontation alone is the root cause. Children are taught to be racist and they accept that teaching unless they chose to analyze themselves.

Non-blacks owning stores in lower income black neighborhoods is a whole other subject I'm not going to get into. First of all if they had no customers, these people would have no business. They also CHOOSE to open a store there and should be prepared to respond to the population they serve. Often they're barely servicing people at all and have contempt for them so it's a vicious cycle.

You still focus on the underclass as being the predominant behavior of blacks but make no mention of the underclass whites/racist ethnic whites who also cause problems. You're lumping all whites together.

As far as rap music goes and children listening to it, that is a parent's job to monitor what their children are exposed to. There were conscientious blacks who tried to stop the onslaught of negativity and depraved lyrics but make NO MISTAKE it is the white male executives who PUSHED for it and supported it due to their racism and greed. Had the label heads been held accountable they would have refused to sign any of these artists.

I don't mind having a conversation about this to a point. I am not here to bring you up to speed on race relations though or convince you of anything. I wouldn't use the Onion as a reference for a serious conversation as it is a humor publication.

My tone is one I have for everyone who comes to this forum UNLESS they are disrespectful or disruptive. I will not allow you as a white person to attempt to "teach me" about things you clearly have a limited perspective about to begin with, but it has been an interesting exchange.