WHITE PRIVILEGE SHAPES THE U.S.

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White Privilege Shapes The U.S.
« on: Mar 20th, 2004, 6:59am »
 

White Privilege Shapes The U.S.

by Robert Jensen
 
 
Here’s what white privilege sounds like:
 
 
I am sitting in my University of Texas office, talking to a very
right
and very conservative white student about affirmative action in
college
admissions, which he opposes and I support.
 
 
The student says he wants a level playing field with no unearned
advantages for anyone. I ask him whether he thinks that in the
United
States being white has advantages. Have either of us, I ask, ever
benefited from being white in a world run mostly by white people?
Yes, he
concedes, there is something real and tangible we could call white
privilege.
 
 
So, if we live in a world of white privilege–unearned white
privilege–how does that affect your notion of a level playing
field?
I
ask.
He paused for a moment and said, “That really doesn’t matter.”
 
 
That statement, I suggested to him, reveals the ultimate white
privilege: the privilege to acknowledge you have unearned privilege
but
ignore what it means.
 
 
That exchange led me to rethink the way I talk about race and racism
with students. It drove home to me the importance of confronting the
dirty secret that we white people carry around with us everyday: In
a
world of white privilege, some of what we have is unearned. I think
much
of both the fear and anger that comes up around discussions of
affirmative action has its roots in that secret. So these days, my
goal
is to talk openly and honestly about white supremacy and white
privilege.
 
 
White privilege, like any social phenomenon, is complex. In a white
supremacist culture, all white people have privilege, whether or not
they are overtly racist themselves. There are general patterns, but
such
privilege plays out differently depending on context and other
aspects
of one’s identity (in my case, being male gives me other kinds of
privilege). Rather than try to tell others how white privilege has
played out in their lives, I talk about how it has affected me.
 
 
I am as white as white gets in this country. I am of northern
European
heritage and I was raised in North Dakota, one of the whitest states
in
the country. I grew up in a virtually all-white world surrounded by
racism, both personal and institutional. Because I didn’t live near
a
reservation, I didn’t even have exposure to the state’s only
numerically
significant non-white population, American Indians.
 
 
I have struggled to resist that racist training and the ongoing
racism
of my culture. I like to think I have changed, even though I
routinely
trip over the lingering effects of that internalized racism and the
institutional racism around me. But no matter how much I “fix”
myself,
one thing never changes–I walk through the world with white
privilege.
 
 
What does that mean? Perhaps most importantly, when I seek admission
to
a university, apply for a job, or hunt for an apartment, I don’t
look
threatening. Almost all of the people evaluating me for those things
look like me–they are white. They see in me a reflection of
themselves,
and in a racist world that is an advantage. I smile. I am white. I
am
one of them. I am not dangerous. Even when I voice critical
opinions,
I
am cut some slack. After all, I’m white.

  68.42.176.70

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Re: White Privilege Shapes The U.S. 2
« Reply #1 on: Mar 20th, 2004, 7:03am »
 

My flaws also are more easily forgiven because I am white. Some
complain
that affirmative action has meant the university is saddled with
mediocre minority professors. I have no doubt there are minority
faculty
who are mediocre, though I don’t know very many. As Henry Louis
Gates
Jr. once pointed out, if affirmative action policies were in place
for
the next hundred years, it’s possible that at the end of that time
the
university could have as many mediocre minority professors as it has
mediocre white professors. That isn’t meant as an insult to anyone,
but
is a simple observation that white privilege has meant that scores
of
second-rate white professors have slid through the system because
their
flaws were overlooked out of solidarity based on race, as well as on
gender, class and ideology.
 
 
Some people resist the assertions that the United States is still a
bitterly racist society and that the racism has real effects on real
people. But white folks have long cut other white folks a break. I
know,
because I am one of them.
 
 
I am not a genius–as I like to say, I’m not the sharpest knife in
the
drawer. I have been teaching full-time for six years, and I’ve
published
a reasonable amount of scholarship. Some of it is the unexceptional
stuff one churns out to get tenure, and some of it, I would argue,
actually is worth reading. I work hard, and I like to think that I’m
a
fairly decent teacher. Every once in awhile, I leave my office at
the
end of the day feeling like I really accomplished something. When I
cash
my paycheck, I don’t feel guilty.
 
 
But, all that said, I know I did not get where I am by merit alone.
I
benefited from, among other things, white privilege. That doesn’t
mean
that I don’t deserve my job, or that if I weren’t white I would
never
have gotten the job. It means simply that all through my life, I
have
soaked up benefits for being white. I grew up in fertile farm
country
taken by force from non-white indigenous people. I was educated in a
well-funded, virtually all-white public school system in which I
learned
that white people like me made this country great. There I also was
taught a variety of skills, including how to take standardized tests
written by and for white people.
 
 
All my life I have been hired for jobs by white people. I was
accepted
for graduate school by white people. And I was hired for a teaching
position at the predominantly white University of Texas, which had a
white president, in a college headed by a white dean and in a
department
with a white chairman that at the time had one non-white tenured
professor.
 
 
There certainly is individual variation in experience. Some white
people
have had it easier than me, probably because they came from wealthy
families that gave them even more privilege. Some white people have
had
it tougher than me because they came from poorer families. White
women
face discrimination I will never know. But, in the end, white people
all
have drawn on white privilege somewhere in their lives.
 
 
   

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Re: White Privilege Shapes The U.S. 3
« Reply #2 on: Mar 20th, 2004, 7:05am »
 

Like anyone, I have overcome certain hardships in my life. I have
worked
hard to get where I am, and I work hard to stay there. But to feel
good
about myself and my work, I do not have to believe that “merit,” as
defined by white people in a white country, alone got me here. I can
acknowledge that in addition to all that hard work, I got a
significant
boost from white privilege, which continues to protect me every day
of
my life from certain hardships.
 
 
At one time in my life, I would not have been able to say that,
because
I needed to believe that my success in life was due solely to my
individual talent and effort. I saw myself as the heroic American,
the
rugged individualist. I was so deeply seduced by the culture’s
mythology
that I couldn’t see the fear that was binding me to those myths.
Like
all white Americans, I was living with the fear that maybe I didn’t
really deserve my success, that maybe luck and privilege had more to
do
with it than brains and hard work. I was afraid I wasn’t heroic or
rugged, that I wasn’t special.
 
 
I let go of some of that fear when I realized that, indeed, I wasn’t
special, but that I was still me. What I do well, I still can take
pride
in, even when I know that the rules under which I work in are
stacked
in
my benefit. I believe that until we let go of the fiction that
people
have complete control over their fate–that we can will ourselves to
be
anything we choose–then we will live with that fear. Yes, we should
all
dream big and pursue our dreams and not let anyone or anything stop
us.
But we all are the product both of what we will ourselves to be and
what
the society in which we live lets us be.
 
 
White privilege is not something I get to decide whether or not I
want
to keep. Every time I walk into a store at the same time as a black
man
and the security guard follows him and leaves me alone to shop, I am
benefiting from white privilege. There is not space here to list all
the
ways in which white privilege plays out in our daily lives, but it
is
clear that I will carry this privilege with me until the day white
supremacy is erased from this society.
 
 
Frankly, I don’t think I will live to see that day; I am realistic
about
the scope of the task. However, I continue to have hope, to believe
in
the creative power of human beings to engage the world honestly and
act
morally. A first step for white people, I think, is to not be afraid
to
admit that we have benefited from white privilege. It doesn’t mean
we
are frauds who have no claim to our success. It means we face a
choice
about what we do with our success.
 
 
Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism in the
University
of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at Jensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu
 
 
First appeared in the Baltimore Sun, July 19, 1998
 
 
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