Part of the reason I was able to remain completely oblivious to issues of racial justice in the U.S. for so long was that I grew up before the 24-hour news and entertainment cycle brought about by digital and social media.
Most kids in the 80s and early 90s simply weren’t often exposed to images or news of any kind from the world beyond their local communities and personal acquaintances. I remember, for example, joining a group of students around a car radio to listen to the reading of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial when I was 13. I had no opinion regarding the case, and had joined the group simply out of curiosity. When the verdict had been read, I went back to playing basketball and didn’t give it any further thought. I didn’t know anything about Rodney King or the LA riots until college, or even later. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the progress of racial justice, or that I dismissed the importance of what happened to Rodney King, or that I denied the wider significance of race-infused police brutality — it simply didn’t register on the radar screen of my consciousness, like a dust storm on Mars or the birth of a baby Panda in China.
This blind spot with respect to issues of racial injustice in the U.S.–this “color-blind-spot,”–also extended to American history. Though I’m sure we read about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in grade school and high school, the emphasis was so insignificant that I have no recollection of having ever done so. I knew vaguely that the enslavement of African Americans had happened, and that it was now over, but that was roughly the extent of my knowledge. Nothing about the transatlantic slave trade or the horrors of the lynch law in the post-Reconstruction South, much less about the positive contributions of African Americans to American life. Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Frances Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, were all completely unknown to me until long after high school. As far as I and the kids I grew up with were concerned, African Americans were enslaved and now they’re not, and that’s all anyone needs to know about African American history.
This ability to make it through childhood—and even, for many, adult life—without ever having to worry about or grapple with instances of racism or unjust disadvantage is one manifestation of what is often referred to as “white privilege.” This term was popularized in the late 80s—around the time I moved to Napa—but builds on the penetrating psychological analysis of W.E.B. DuBois in the early 20th century. The things to which the term “white privilege” refers, some of which are contained in the 46-point list Peggy McIntosh compiled in her seminal article on the topic, are certainly real. The experience of my childhood and that of innumerable others clearly attests to this. People who look white are simply exempted from all sorts of concerns, hurdles, and obstacles that constantly and necessarily impose themselves upon people of color; and, in the context of the U.S., upon people of African descent in particular.
I’ve come to think, though, that speaking of these exemptions in terms of “privilege” is both unhelpful and misleading. It is unhelpful because it immediately angers and alienates most of the people who need to be persuaded to change their minds if the phenomena to which “white privilege” refers are ever to be rectified. White Americans who are wealthy usually want to believe that their wealth and social status is the result of merit or hard work, not unearned privilege. White Americans who are poor have difficulty seeing themselves as privileged in any way. The term seems to them an insensitive dismissal of the often-extreme hardships and challenges they have faced in their lives. Many white people in middle America were persuaded to become Trump voters precisely as a result of this perceived dismissal at the hands of progressive liberal culture. Most white people in modern America face severe tragedy and difficulty at various points throughout their lives; to label such people “privileged” jars badly with their experience of life.
“White privilege” is misleading because it mischaracterizes the struggle for racial justice as jockeying for social position rather than a fight for rights. The problem with slavery was not that white slaveholders enjoyed the “privilege” of being able to sit on their porches and drink mint juleps all day. That part of it was fine. The real problem was that African American slaves were deprived of their basic natural rights to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The problem with Jim Crow laws and segregation was not that white people got to vote, hold political office, freely use public facilities, and live their lives under the protection of the law. That was all well and good. The real problem was that formerly enslaved African Americans were unjustly deprived of the right to vote and hold political office, unjustly degraded by being systematically excluded from public places, and unjustly deprived of the equal protection of the law. The problem with ongoing issues of systemic racial economic inequality, systemic racial inequality in educational opportunities, and systemic racial disparities in the enforcement of criminal justice is not that white people are systematically handed wealth, education, and get-out-of-jail-free cards; it is that African Americans are unjustly deprived of equal economic and educational opportunities, and are unjustly targeted by laws and enforcement practices that should be protecting them.
You get the point. America’s problem with race has never been that white people get to live normally. It has always been that black people have been treated unjustly and excluded from doing the same. The good and important process of bringing white people to an awareness of the vast disparities between their experience of day to day life in America and that of black Americans should not be billed as a consciousness of privilege, but as a consciousness of systemic and historically path-dependent injustice. The problem is not privilege but apathy in the face of injustice. The problem is that white Americans tend to go about their lives as if they live on an island apart from people unlike them. And as blissfully oblivious islanders, they fail to see their own lives and times as only the visible peaks of mountains extending into unplumbed depths beneath them. The opposite of injustice is not privilege, but justice. The opposite of apathy is not self-awareness, but caring.