Saturday, July 04, 2009

Thinking about "White Privilege"

It's been a little under a year since people started to say that the fact that Obama was merely leading in the polls rather than utterly wiping the floor with John McCain was a matter of white privilege. I never believed that a young candidate with little experience of any color only barely beating an older candidate who was a war hero of any color was all that surprising, to say nothing of the unquestionably obvious example of white privilege that some people treated it as*. Especially in a nation where old people are the most reliable voters.

I was surprised (and grateful) that issues of Laurel Hallman being white or at least whiter than Peter Morales didn't come up or at least didn't come up where I could see then in the UUA election. The Sinkford administration has shown us clearly enough that electing minority leaders does not in itself attract minority members, so I'm kinda hoping we can leave identity politics out of things as much as possible henceforth or at least not treat them as reasons to vote in themselves. (Am I always going to wonder when people say that Peter Morales was "enthusiastic" but Laurel Hallman was "aggressive"? Probably.)

Anyway, I've been thinking about privilege since that point and I think we would benefit from distinguishing two types of privilege that I see as different but are often talked of interchangably: The type that everyone should have (type 1), and the type that nobody should have but that some people have anyway (type 2). Let's look at examples:

Type 1 privileges (privileges that theoretically everyone should have):

Chris Rock has a really wonderful skit called How to NOT get your ass kicked by the police. My brother has massive issues with authority and violates every tip the skit contains on a pretty constant basis. If he is pulled over, he will swear and scream and generally make the officer's life as difficult as possible. At this point the cops watch for him because, as annoying as he is, ticketing him is a great pleasure. As far as I've ever personally observed, the police officers he deals with are quite reasonable to him and take his abuse with nonchalance and mild annoyance.

A friend of mine at one point observed that if he were black, the cops wouldn't just ticket him, they'd arrest him or, well, kick his ass.

I am not saying that police officers' lives should suck more. I am saying that my brother should be, sigh, the model for how people who treat the police badly are treated. The police are public servants, and they should treat everyone decently, even people who don't particularly deserve it. If the police do get revenge, it should be in the form of watching troublemakers more carefully and giving dramatic descriptions when the judge asks how the defendant behaved at the traffic stop.

Ideally, no officer should ever go over the line, but in reality some of them do. If some asses must be kicked by officers who decide that someone is being "threatening," my brother's should be every once in awhile because the determination of who is a threat shouldn't be made on the basis of color.

TYPE II privileges (privileges that theoretically no one should have):

My husband and I know a very beautiful woman who was a plain and awkward teenager. Because she was used to thinking of herself as awkward even after she became beautiful, it took her several years to understand that she was beautiful and that she was being treated differently because of it.

Once, she said, and this is more or less a direct quote "First, the guy at the chicken place gave me a free dessert. Then I realized I'd forgotten my wallet and he said not to worry about it and to just enjoy my lunch. People are SO nice!"

Soup kitchens notwithstanding, it seems pretty clear that restaurants shouldn't make a habit of giving away lunches to the public at large. I like restaurants, after all, and I want them to continue to exist. A fast food worker giving a pretty girl a free lunch is going to happen every now and again, but generalizing that privilege to the population at large is not a desirable thing.

If we accept that John McCain got more than a negligible number of votes simply because his opponent was black, then I would think that would fall into this second category. An argument can be made that a person of one race or another would make a better public servant for a variety of reasons, though the Sotomayor hubbub over this issue suggests to me that no politician better make it too directly. But politicians from minority or poor backgrounds have been vaguely hinting at the disadvantages they've overcome and how they understand people who are struggling for a long time and everybody knows what they mean. But no one should ever get votes because of their opponent's color.

Anyway, getting back to my two categories above, to my thinking, calling one of these things "white privilege" and one of these things something else would be advantageous to the clarity of what we're talking about and minimize confusion. As the term is used today, I think it's very easy to slip into a miscommunication where white listeners feel that they are being accused of having type two privileges rather than type one privileges. In effect, the white privilege concern isn't that white people never get speeding tickets**, it's that they usually don't have to worry about getting an asskicking when they get one.

Does this make sense?


*I thought that John Edwards, who was a young, compelling, speaker with new ideas who came in 3rd in the Democratic primary was a reasonable response to "How would things be different if Obama were white?"

**Which leads to white people saying that they aren't getting speeding tickets because they aren't speeding, and thus dismissing the concern entirely.


Suzie said...

It's complicated because all of us are more than our color. A poor white kid might get his ass kicked, too. My nephews have had run-ins with the authorities, and it hasn't always been pleasant.

Then there's the intersection of gender. A woman of whatever color may get sexually harassed.

hafidha sofia said...

I think that in our society at least, identity politics is always occurring in politics, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

PG said...

I thought that John Edwards, who was a young, compelling, speaker with new ideas who came in 3rd in the Democratic primary was a reasonable response to "How would things be different if Obama were white?"

Edwards had lost in 2004. People don't like losers, especially those who couldn't even carry their own state (see, e.g., Al Gore). Also, Democrats who keep their ears to the ground were worried about Edwards and Rielle Hunter long before the primaries.

Chalicechick said...


I totally think that Obama could have survived a rumored mistress and a failed prior run, but I will cheerfully concede that Edwards and Obama were in different situations.

I just think his superficial similarities to Edwards serve as a likely answer to the "Oh, things would have been totally different if Obama were a white guy" statement. Race is important, but IMHO, who Obama is was more important.

Hafidha, I don't question that identity politics occurred and a review of the posts from last August will show that I never have questioned that. I just felt like the people who, last August, were saying Obama's minor lead over McCain was a sign of racism since Obama was so darn great that if he were a white guy the polls would show a landslide months before the election were WAY overstating their case.

Worse, I thought the "only a racist would support McCain because Obama is so great" subtext smacked of the sort of entitlement and arrogance that would be poison with the voters who Obama still needed.

You will note that Obama himself didn't use the "racism is the only reason that McCain isn't losing badly" bit because he knew that to do so would be suicidal. It scared the hell out of me that Obama supporters were starting to use it because I agreed with Obama there.


PG said...

FYI, I have been linking to this post to illustrate my point that while Henry Louis Gates may have been an ass to the police, being rude to the cops without getting arrested for that is a privilege everyone is supposed to have.