Sunday, August 27, 2017

White Privilege

A few thoughts on white privilege taken from a thread following the posting online of an article on it. 

One misconception is that white privilege is reducible to not being totally or even sufficiently empathetic. It is rather, I think, being aware of the advantages that may presumptively accrue to something simply by being white. From that awareness, then, ought come compassion and understanding, a better understanding of one's self and of others. The misconception inverts the consequence and the premise.

There are of course tensions, paradoxes and nuances in the notion that sit with the reality it encapsulates. I couldn't begin here, or really anywhere, to give much of an account of them. 

But, for one thing, since class is of such utter magnitude in our lives, that a black woman (say) growing up upper middle class and who had a top shelf university education, who asserts white privilege must realize her own class privilege and, taking it one step further,  the privilege inhering in the innate gifts and talents she was born with and what they have enabled her to accomplish. So, a well employed, well paid, socially well ensconced, Ivy League graduate's assertion of white privilege based on a series of insensitive slights and dumb remarks to her sound precious and start to approach grievance mongering.

The white privileged asserter will as well acknowledge the truism that other groups, white ones too, have suffered, from outright depredations to daily mundane slights, simply by virtue of who they are, and, too, that the insistence on privilege entails the assertion of group victimization, not that that's a wrong assertion, but that it generates a kind of group formation in reaction, which at some point becomes divisively counterproductive. As Glenn Loury says and reported by George Packer: 

....I recently spoke with the social scientist Glenn Loury, who teaches at Brown University. As he sees it, if race becomes an irreducible category in politics, rather than being incorporated into universal claims of justice, it’s a weapon that can be picked up and used by anyone. “Better watch out,” he said. “I don’t know how you live by the identity-politics sword and don’t die by it.” Its logic lumps everyone—including soon-to-be-minority whites—into an interest group. One person’s nationalism intensifies tribal feelings in others, in what feels like a zero-sum game. “I really don’t know how you ask white people not to be white in the world we’re creating,” Loury said. “How are there not white interests in a world where there are these other interests?” He continued, “My answer is that we not lose sight of the goal of racially transcendent humanism being the American bedrock. It’s the abandonment of this goal that I’m objecting to.”...

The asserter will need to have grappled with the limits on the utility of the notion of privilege--which while to some extent it is to be understood and internalized in dealing with things--is to be understood as well as ineradicable part of human nature as we all have and perforce react to all the differences among us, differences, inequalities, the randomness of life's lottery, our propensities and predispositions genetic and cultural, individual and group born.

Then, too, there is the potential freezing of social relations by the over insistent claim of privilege and its inherent drawing of racial divisions among us. I'm thinking of Mordecai Richler's black humor novel Cocksure, where the protagonist, Mortimer Griffin, in meeting a black woman, Rachel Coleman, is such at pains not to offend her in any conceivable way that he completely stultifies himself--their exchange described as frozen images staring at each other--and winds up offending her in any event, no little in part because in her view simply being white, "ofay," makes it impossible for him to understand her. 

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