Last night, I spoke at a Community Forum about a “white history month” sign in a Flemington, NJ business. (See local coverage of the Forum here.) The Hunterdon County (NJ) Anti-Racism Coalition did an excellent job of organizing the Forum and creating a space for discussion. I guess it’s not too surprising that those who made the hundreds of hostile online comments appeared not to attend the Forum, and I wonder if it’s really fair that they can hide behind the anonymity of a newspaper’s comment section but still have the power to spread ignorance and hatred. (Perhaps nj.com can consider changing their comments platform the way some other major newspapers have done.) I wanted to take the opportunity here to share the remarks I made last night, and you’ll find that below:
“White privilege.” This is a phrase many white people find unsettling, ridiculous, and/or offensive. Some of you may have those very reactions. And that is exactly why we need to have this community meeting tonight.
The idea of white privilege often prompts responses by whites like: 1. “Privilege? What privilege?” or 2. “Why are you making me feel guilty for being white?” or 3. “How come we celebrate everyone else’s history except white history”?
I would like to slow down and unpack all three of these responses.
First, let’s consider using the term “unearned advantage” rather than privilege since I (and other activists) think it might more usefully speak to the benefits that come with white skin, regardless of economic or other circumstances. The unearned advantage that comes with white skin means being able to drive around here with a lower chance of getting pulled over by the police. It means being able to enter a store with a lower chance of getting followed. It means turning on your tv and seeing people who look like you represented in a wide variety of ways. This unearned advantage means a million other things white people take for granted and don’t even recognize. They just think of it as normal life. However, it is not normal life for people of color. These are benefits that come with white skin.
But how are white people supposed to know about this system of benefits? If they tend to associate with other white people and see these other white people receiving similar benefits, then again, this will all just seem like normal life, not a system of unearned advantage for those with white skin. And when whites do see a person of color not getting these benefits, well that person must have done something wrong.
White people can only start to recognize this system for what it is by talking to people of color, by reading the overwhelming evidence that describes this system, and by encountering a variety of media perspectives.
It was much easier to recognize this system in the 1950s when there were convenient signs that labeled unearned advantage, when “Whites Only” signs hung outside of movie theaters, restrooms, swimming pools and were written into housing contracts for new suburban developments, even in the North, like Levittown.
One of the good things about the civil rights movement of the 1960s is that those signs came down, but the problem is that the system of racial oppression that operated under those signs did not get dismantled. The fact that the signs went away misleads people today into thinking that we are post-racial and colorblind, but that type of thinking is a denial of the new racism that is alive and well, a racism that is insidious, that is masked by a veneer of equality.
OK, so if whites begin to recognize that they benefit from unearned advantage, what next? Some might respond, “You just want me to feel guilty for being white.” No, actually. Feeling shameful or guilty about being white is a paralyzing waste of time and emotional energy. There is a difference between acknowledging your unearned advantage and feeling guilty about it. As a white person, I can say that I benefit from this system, and I benefit whether I want to or not. I am presumed innocent. I can also say that I did not create the system of unearned advantage from which I benefit, so I shouldn’t feel guilty when I didn’t create this system. However, where I do have some choice and responsibility is what I do with my advantage. For the moment, I am choosing to be here, speaking about it, trying to raise awareness, and confronting it.
So this leads us to the spoken or unspoken question from whites, “Why can’t we have a white history month?” Well the short answer is you already do, and white history is the history that is generally taught all of the time, from pre-school to graduate school, but it’s just called “History” or “American History.” The “Whites Only” sign isn’t explicit, but it’s certainly there all the same.
The long answer is more complicated because I think the question might actually be “What is white culture?” or “Is white even a culture?” This is where we need to go back to the moment where it all began, when white was invented in the first place. For that we need to go back to the 1600s in colonial Virginia. During the earliest years of colonial Virginia, there were European laborers and African laborers, and generally, they worked side by side without a racial hierarchy, and they were united against the small group who controlled them, the wealthy white landowners. As the decades wore on, though, this group of laborers grew in size and power and became a threat as Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 made clear.
The only thing that could break apart this coalition of laborers was the creation of race, the creation of labels “white” and “black,” which didn’t really exist before then; instead people identified by religion or nationality. But as the Virginia slave codes of 1705 set into law, Africans became black and permanent slaves, and Europeans became white and not-slave. Europeans could still be indentured servants, but for a specific amount of time, and when that time was up, they were given freedom, food, and supplies. White landowners retained their power by dividing and conquering the laborers. They gave the European laborers whiteness, which gave these workers just enough power and autonomy to set them apart from slaves but not so much power that they were a threat to the status quo.
The creation of whiteness also drew a line in the sand about who was allowed to be human and who wasn’t. And when the European laborers accepted whiteness as their new identity, they gave up, generation after generation, their specific ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic European identity. That was a sacrifice they made in exchange for limited power. Anyone who was not white was seen as not even having a history or culture. The fairly recent creation of Black History Month is an attempt to speak back against a system of oppression that has not allowed blacks their history or humanity for centuries.
So, today, when whites mourn a lost sense of cultural identity because they think everyone else has a culture except whites, they need to recognize that their specific European culture was sacrificed in the very creation of whiteness, and whites today have inherited that sacrifice.
If whites today want to be upset about something, maybe we should be upset that for centuries, white workers have been divided from our fellow workers of color in order to preserve the status quo of the elite. If whites today want to be upset about something, maybe we should be upset that for centuries, this same system taught whites to believe that racial oppression was our history and our culture and that it was just.
Do you want to continue to accept this system of oppression that has manipulated millions upon millions of people in this country for more than 3 centuries? Or do you want to stand up and say “Enough is enough”? I challenge you to defy this system we have inherited, to reveal and dismantle systemic racism, and to join our anti-racism coalition as we try to do just that.