This past Monday would have been the 89th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Born in 1929, the same year as my mother (sorry Ma; did you want to keep that a secret?), MLK could still be alive and productive today had he not been assassinated fifty years ago this April! He was just 39 years old. Imagine all he might have accomplished given the opportunity!
To honor Dr. King’s legacy, I want to talk about racism today. First, we’ll begin with yesterday.
I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey in the 1950s and ‘60s. Our football team fought Barringer High School (in Newark) every Thanksgiving morning (Go Panthers!). Back then, East Orange and Newark were what whites would call “heavily integrated.”
Throughout my school years, I had both black and white friends. They were just the girls (and one boy) I liked. Race was, for me, a nonissue. My stuttering came first in the line of “problems-to-worry-about-every-day,” not race.
As I’d get ready for school, my morning radio introduced me to the unrest going on in the South–segregated schools, sit-ins at lunch counters, bus boycotts, marches. We had no such trouble in my northern town. To my mind, we were “successfully integrated” in East Orange.
Racism, to me, in the 1950s and ’60s, was something that troubled the South. It was better to live in the North. Obviously.
I went on with my college, then married life, feeling somewhat removed from issues of race. At first, there was a war to end and economic injustice to fight. Then there was a baby to give birth to. And another. Soon, cocooned in my midwestern, upper middle-class, white ghetto, I forgot all about racial issues. Besides, they had all been solved with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Hooray!
But over the past year I’ve come to realize the extent to which racism remains alive and well throughout my country, north as well as south.
Come with me as I look a bit closer at racism today.
I’m using the term racism as more than a set of bad behaviors that put non-whites at a dangerous, deadly disadvantage. And I’m using it as more than an ideology that advocates white supremacy policies and practices. Those are easy to identify, to point a finger at, and to holler, “no more.” But I want to step even further back.
I see racism in this country as a part of our culture that whites simply don’t see. And because we don’t see it, because it functions under that radar, racism continues to plague our land. Let’s look at a few things we whites think of as “normal.”
For us, it’s normal to have band-aids the color of OUR skin, to have those free shampoos the hotels give us work for OUR hair, to have whatever manager we ask to speak with look just like us, and to see in the newspaper that by and large the folks who are running things also look just like us.
I was stopped by a cop on Rt. 84 a few years back going 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. Between my GRAMMA J license plate and my story of heading home (eagerly) from a visit to the grandkids, I got off with a warning. THAT’s actually a great story for another time, but also pertinent here because at no time during that entire exchange with the state trooper, did I even think about keeping my hands clearly visible.
That we don’t see the advantages we have is not because we’re bad people. We are good people, by and large; but we don’t see how how skin color impacts us because the color of our skin doesn’t impact us. Being considered Caucasian in the USA is simply not an issue. Being poor is; being poorly educated is. But being white is simply a non issue.
I get it when I hear whites say they don’t understand this “White Privilege” stuff. Here’s what I have come to believe.
If you were born a straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied male, you won the birthright lottery. You are privileged. Surely you appreciate how men have benefited in untold and often unseen ways for the mere fact of their luck. It’s the same for white women (just not as obviously as white MEN; and we still have a ways to go there.)
Still not sure? Consider these statistics from Francis E. Kendall’s, Understanding White Privilege.
- White people are two to ten times more likely to get a housing loan than people of color
- White people know that our nation’s history books emphasize their history experience (vs. those of native Americans)
- White women hold 40% of middle management positions, while Black women hold 5% and Black men hold 4% (I’ll add this male privilege factoid here while I have your attention: White men constitute 43% of the workforce, yet hold 95% of senior management positions.)
“Unless we believe that white women or African American men and women are inherently less capable,” Kendall states, “we have to acknowledge that our systems are treating us unequally!”
Here in America, we believe in hard work, equal opportunity, and merit. Right? There’s nothing radical there.
But whether we believe this or not depends to a large extent on where we fall along the Successful–Not-so-successful continuum.
Those of us who are successful (however we define success) tend to believe we deserve it. Our inherent ability (how smart/athletic/clever we are) coupled with our hard work/effort has brought us to where we are today, we hold.
Those of us who don’t feel particularly successful, explain our failures in terms of “bad luck,” or “bad genes,” or anything except the absence of merit or effort. That’s just sociology 101.
For you to acknowledge your privileged status is not to suggest you give any of these privileges away. Yes, acknowledging your white privilege will do little if anything for those who do not share that privileged status. All it will do is make it easier to have a conversation about it.
Then we can talk about racism, tomorrow.
In ending this, I’m assuming my readers are white. If not, that’s great. Wave your arms wildly and say hello. But short of meeting you, I’ll just say:
How about you? What does tomorrow’s racism look like to you?[learn_more caption=”For further reading on white privilege, I encourage you to check out the following articles”] White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Peggy McIntosh. 1989
Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them. Peggy McIntosh
Understanding White Privilege. Francis E. Kendall. 2002
So given that we want to work to create a better world in which all of us can live, what can we do? The first step, of course, is to become clear about the basics of white privilege, what it is and how it works. The second step is to explore ways in which we can work against the racism of which white privilege is a cornerstone. Francis E. Kendall
Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person. Gina Crosley-Corcoran. 2016.
I can completely understand why broke white folks get pissed when the word ‘privilege’ is thrown around…I was constantly discriminated against because of my poverty and those wounds still run very deep…[But] The concept of intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not in others. ~Gina Crosley-Corcoran
White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. Paula Rothenberg. 2018
White Privilege is the other side of racism. Unless we name it, we are in danger of wallowing in guilt or moral outrage with no idea of how to move beyond them. It is often easier to deplore racism and its effects than to take responsibility for the privileges some of us receive as a result of it… once we understand how white privilege operates, we can begin addressing it on an individual and institutional basis. Paula Rothenberg[/learn_more]
Janet, I agree that the “invisibility” of our own white privilege plays a big role in perpetuating systematic injustices, and keeps many people on the sidelines of our nation’s ongoing civil rights struggles. Moreover, it isn’t part of the dominant “white” narrative. One of the greatest books I’ve read was “The People’s History of the United States” by the late Howard Zinn, which told the history of our republic through the lens of the oppressed. Brilliant and (to me at the time) eye-opening.
As to what tomorrow’s racism will look like? I suppose it could go two ways — we either gradually evolve to becomming a post-racial society, or we further devolve into a system that more resembles apartheid. I believe equality is achievable, however also know that power virtually never cedes itself voluntarily. I believe King, himself, noted this in the late ’50’s, when white sheriffs and governors and school boards refused to comply with Supreme Court rulings and hard-fought federal mandates.
Tim Fearnside recently posted…One Big Lie
Zinn is one of the best. You chose well. I’ve been reading up on the Reconstruction era (the 10 – 12 – 20, depending on the writer, years following the Civil War and before Jim Crow laws took over) and am eager to melt it all down into a readable blog post. I keep seeing parallels to the era we’re now in, the “War on Drugs” that … well, I’ll save that for the post. Thanks for starting us off so early.
I heard several people discussing this issue on NPR on Monday.
I am definitely privileged because I am white (and also privileged by class and education). Yes, that does need to be acknowledged. Oh, and straight.
Poor whites who supported dt identify with being white, and even if their circumstance are not good, they can still believe that overall whites are superior, and they are part of that group. (Also the case during the Civil War, when most white people in the south were not slave owners living on Tara-like plantations.)
However, another point is that when you say race or racism, it doesn’t mean white, any more than gender means women.
Merril Smith recently posted…Passing (Strange) Along the Stage
Hmmm. I missed that; could it have been one of your local subsidiaries? I’d love to have heard it but couldn’t find it on the NPR site. Do send link if you have it. If I had more time, I’d liked to have woven the articles that I included into the piece more. I found them very helpful for my own clarification. Some of posts come out feeling like they need another few weeks of tweaking. Alas. . .
I’m not sure what you mean by your last sentence. Could you clarify?
Janet Givens recently posted…Racism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
It may have been this. I was in the car, and only heard part of it.
Merril Smith recently posted…Let Sleeping Cats Lie: Haibun Quadrille
Janet, Your observation — “I see racism in this country as a part of our culture that whites simply don’t see” — resonates strongly with me.
Yesterday I was video interviewed for the Canadian Summit on PTSD, and INVISIBLE WOUNDS was part of our discussion.
This point is: Just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Squirrel Handles
So true. Thanks, Laurie.
Great post, Janet. This needed saying, and even more it needs to be understood by those of us lucky enough to have won the life lottery. And this isn’t just true of the US either. Much of this applies here in the UK too, sadly. Even more disturbing to me than the stats, bad though they are, is the growing sense of empowerment felt by some at the expense of others. It started becoming much more overt here during our referendum campaign, and has become much more prevalent since then. The troubles brought about since your 2016 election have been well documented, and there are many parallels to be drawn. It is easy to feel despair at the way our countries – and others – are going, but that would be defeatist. People need to keep saying what you have said here, and hopefully more will come to understand the rightness of what you say. Some will never want to hear you and voices like yours, and hopefully over time those people will be removed from positions of power, so that their ability to pursue policies of privilege and racism will be removed.
Thank you, Clive. Let’s all keep talking. And keep listening to each other.
Btw, there’s a little check box in the Comment section and if you check it, a link to your last blog will appear. I noticed your recent one doesn’t show. Pity; I think some of my readers would really enjoy your posts from across the pond.
Janet, I have much to say on the topic but as I am still technically “working” it will be later tonight. I just wanted to point out one of the most prominent ideals of white privilege , that very few acknowledge or address, the whiteness of depictions of Jesus Christ and its acceptance. Brought up as a catholic. I recall every image of Mary and Jesus as a blonde/red haired pale skinned images, often blue eyed . Images of those surrounding any scenes were dark /olive skinned and of middle Eastern appearance more likely with the reality of geography and genetics .Christianity itself as seen as predominantly a white institution and held up as an ivory tower of righteousness and superiority against uncultured others when imperialism and colonialism have occurred. With this scenario “goodness” appears as a white privilege by defacto. We see during the enlightenment and with discovery that many of the things that we adopt as our own now are things gifted to us from scholarly minds that were anything but white and not directly christian. Yet we are still accepting of our white privilege in this area as are those who are non white. ? back later.
You make an excellent point, Charmaine, and I thank you. The photo I grew up with had Jesus standing at the “door to my heart” and knocking. He had long dark hair and his skin was a kind of sepia color. But, I was just lucky.
Christianity’s origins, from Rome, have taken on an overtly Caucasian turn. And the Crusades didn’t help any.
I look forward to your return, after work.
Joan Z. Rough
This is a great post Janet and so needed at this time. As a kid I grew up in a house with a bigot for a father and my mother following close behind. I couldn’t play with people of color or Jews. I hear and learned all the terms for unfavorable people from places like Italy, Puerto Rico, and more. I loved everyone and felt very confused about it all especially since my father was a WWII hero and had liberated many of the concentration camps of their Jewish population. I spent a lot of time rebelling and hiding who my friends were.
For many of us privileged whites, we thought it was all over during the civil rights era. How wrong we all were. As for tomorrow? When we whites become a minority in this country, we’ll learn what our privilege has bought us.
Joan Z. Rough recently posted…Reclaiming My Creativity
It says much about you, Joan, that you could rise above the bigotry and meanness you grew up with and do so with such grace.
I’d like to think that some day race will hold the same social meaning as hair color does today. “You know what those red heads are like!” And we’ll all have our funny stereotypes and be best friends.
OK I knew I shouldnt get embroiled during work time but we are talking origins today . Whilst I do not want to get into religion per se as its an emotive subject we are open minded beings and neither should it become an elephant in the room when we are questioning the source and origins of white privilege. So this is my thoughts. We have to take this quite far back, when we read that God “made us in his own image and likeness” did that kick start our white privilege with Christianity, if our likeness is endorsed by the greatest power of our maker? how many images are depicted in fascist or far right group emblems of knights of the crusades? how many equally march or use the cross as an image of “right”? I think it goes back even further with evolutionary psychology of the human condition that really hasnt changed much since man met man, the relationship we have with our mortality, the need to survive it at all cost, Darwin and Nietzsche concept, tribal survival of the fittest. Maybe we are subconsciously conditioned and nurtured into maintaining the survival of our tribe from usurpers? I know that it is a position that is exploited by fear “distributors, ” coincidentally I have just finished reading an article about opioid abuse as a predominantly white problem in America, many reasons are given, ie the likelihood that a physician will prescribe to a white patient something they wont trust a black person not to abuse etc but I quote an interesting section…”White privilege is rarely mentioned by name when talking about opioids, but it is glaringly obvious in almost every discussion. Time and time again, a white person with a loved one using opioids will say something like: “I couldn’t believe my daughter was using heroin. I never thought something like this would happen to our family,” or “We raised our children in a good family. How did this happen?”
There are some very disturbing implications in these phrases ― namely, that white families are by definition “good” and immune from certain problems. This is white privilege incarnate – the belief that white families aren’t or shouldn’t be affected by the kinds of problems that impact families of color. Silence, stigma and denial allowed the opioid problem to metastasize in white communities until it was too big to hide anymore. We were blindsided by widespread drug addiction: This can’t be real! These kinds of things don’t happen to us! “….
You’ve brought in fascinating points, Charmaine. First, I always find it of interest to hear how folks define “the other” — the “outsider.” That has, of course evolved over time. Each wave of immigration to our shores (this side of the pond) has brought a new “enemy” to fear and blame and scapegoat. I wonder why more don’t see it and am heartened at how you’ve phrased it here. Thank you.
Second, THANK YOU for bringing up the example of the opioid epidemic and how our attitudes, our language, can reveal so much. When I was a lowly grad student in sociology, my first professor worked for was researching child abuse. He found the same thing: child abuse occurs across all socio-economic lines, yet the doctors and nurses in ERs across the country consistently misdiagnosed it in white, middle-class abusers (false negatives) and over reported it false positives) in black and poor families. I like to believe that Dr. O’Toole’s research helped to put an end to that, at least a little.
I have read the erudite comments on your well-researched post and have only a story from “yesterday” to offer now. In 2008 we hired an awesome crew of house painters, who happened to be black. I say awesome for many reasons because they painted flawlessly in the dark, no mistakes when dawn would have revealed them.
We grew fond of the friendly crew and before they finished the job I commented, “We may be seeing our first black president soon,” referring to the possible election of President Obama. When he was elected, I assumed that meant our country had left racism behind. After all, at least half of the country approved, judging by the voters’s decision. How terribly naive and idealistic of me.
I can’t believe the hideous comments by the populace and those in elected office these days. What blowhards! How I long for a return to civility and kindness.
Of course, I am glad I was brought up to value everyone, regardless of country of origin, skin color, or creed. That said, I am well aware that I have been born into the “white privilege” you define here.
I think a lot of us thought racism was finally dying out when the Obama family took that stage in Chicago on election night, 2008, Marian. And there are many, I know, who feel the overt racism that is prevelant today is the backlash from having the audacity to put a black man in the White House. If so, perhaps it’ll just die out as quickly as it rose up. I don’t know. Anger takes energy; so maybe all this overt racism and misogyny will die out soon enough. And, we must keep in mind that it is still a minority who voted in the current president. What gets me currently is how long blacks have been dying right under my proverbial nose and I had no clue. Dying.
Deidra J Lewis
Over the last two years (since our 50th high school reunion), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my childhood, and how much has changed over the years. I really did grow up in a village, a real community. My parents worked, and my brother and I were latchkey kids. The senior citizens on our block ( we called them old ladies) were the lookouts for those kids who misbehaved. There was no doubt that they would “tell on us” if we were caught. It was an integrated city, but somewhat segregated neighborhoods. However, I did enjoy friendships with both black and white students in school. The parents of all of my friends worked, and I had no idea about welfare until I went to college on scholarship in Chicago. I never experienced racism as a child. My mother, however, told me that when I was about six, she and her friends with daughters enrolled us in a dance class at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. Several weeks later, the managers segregated the students because the white parents did not want their daughters in a dance class with us. I never knew this as a child, so it did not inform me.
My high school experience was idyllic. We were blessed with great teachers, excellent curricula, and exciting extracurricular activities. I was a good student, and in retrospect, I now know that I was lucky. When I attended college with students from Chicago, it was clear that their curriculum had not been as rigorous as ours. Consequently, when my son started school, I enrolled him in a parochial school to ensure that he would have an excellent education.
When I think about the “why” of our current situation, I respond with frame of reference, exposure, and entitlement.
For me, frame of reference is everything. We don’t know what we don’t know. Our frames of reference is formed by our upbringing, by our family, by our community, by our faith, and by our education. Our ideas are formed by that and those who touch us as we develop.
My mother forced classical piano and classical ballet lessons on me through high school. Thanks to her I have an appreciation for Bach and Beethoven, while most of my friends who were not exposed, do not. My exposure to areas of interest outside of the home, broadened my frame of reference.
My mother did not feel entitled, but she did feel it was her responsibility to expose me and my brother to all that she could afford to do. When I see the public schools in this city and most cities eliminating music and art from the curriculum, I know that we are depriving the majority of our young children the critical thinking development that these extra curricular activities provide. We know there is a correlation between music and math.
I know that I’m rambling, but I do believe that there is a concerted effort (if not a conspiracy) to de-educate the poor and people of color. Significantly more substantial resources are needed to provide systemic funding for extracurricular opportunities for K-12 to ensure that our grand children develop the frames of reference and the exposure to critical thinking opportunities to which they should be entitled.
It’s wonderful to see you here. You honor me and I thank you. (I’d still enjoy that email exchange).
There was an Arthur Murray Dance studio? Must have been in Newark.
Our memories are similar as to the strong educational foundation we got both at EOHS and in our respective grammar schools. We were fortunate. I remember knowing who our Superintendent of Schools was. Dr. Hayworth made sure his schools, all of them, gave a quality education.
I agree strongly with your last point, too (sadly). You might recall that I taught Animal Farm while in Kazakhstan and at the end of the book, the “pigs” — the ruling elite, specifically of Stalin’s era but the lessons are the same — have taken control of education and begin to systematically exclude the workers. I’ve made reference to that many times since (certainly since the 80s and Reagan) that our public education system is heading in that direction and we had best pay attention. But to whom do I say this? How do we make this a priority today? That, I do not know.
Janet Givens recently posted…Racism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
I, too, went to EOHS. I don’t remember a lot of racism until my senior years when the race riots started in Newark. I don’t remember being afraid but I felt confused since I never experienced race concerns in my younger years. On my block, I played with kids of every ethnicity and most of my friends were black. We had a black maid when I was young whose name was “Fanny.” I loved her and she weekly washed my favorite toy horses made of plastic in those days. She was kind and like a second Mom since my own Mom worked as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s and wasn’t very attentive. In high school, a black boyfriend invited me to the junior Prom. My parents came unglued and told me in no uncertain terms “It wasn’t done.” I don’t remember my parents being prejudiced, though, so I was confused and would meet him by the train tracks above our home. I remember marching for civil rights and felt strongly that we were all equal. I was deeply involved in Hi-Y, a YMCA group that met regularly and was my salvation in high school. I adored the leader who was a gay man and I remember him being “beat up” though, at the time, I didn’t understand why. Many forms of prejudice existed that I understand now living in a predominately white city in Arizona. I went to MLK Day today and we marched through the city. It felt familiar and good.
The public/private school debacle is near and dear to my heart. I believe strongly in separation in church and state and don’t think it is ethical or legal to support private school vouchers with our tax dollars. I am very involved with Prescott Indivisible and we are working to support Immigrant families in Arizona and nationally. There is so much work to be done but I often wake up in the morning disheartened at the backwards movement of our country and the reemerging of racism under the new “regime.” This, I believe, is our defining moment and a time to “come together” and reject with united voices the current atmosphere of hate and intolerance.
Today, I am upset that so much of
Hi Linda, and welcome.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience with us. We were lucky, in so many ways, to grow up in EO. It wasn’t until I moved to the midwest in 1971, and met and befriended white folks who hadn’t had the same experiences I’d had — which is to say they’d never had Black people in their lives — I began to realize that I had a unique advantage over them. I knew, first hand, how wrong the stereotypes were. But telling them was not doing it for anyone. Fear was already taking root, only a relatively few years after the ’64 and ’65 Civil Rights’ Acts. And people in my circles just stopped talking about race.
Open, excellent, accountable public education is a must; I couldn’t agree more. But first, I’m beginning to think, we have to be able to talk together. And I don’t mean blacks with whites, necessarily. I mean whites among themselves, too; comparing experiences. Trying to better understand. Willing to explore. Being curious. Hmmm. I’m beginning to feel quite passionate about this. Again, thanks for stopping by. Good to hear from you.
Hi Janet thanks for this great post – the comments were great too. I live in post apartheid South Africa. Even as I start writing this, I know I must keep it brief otherwise I’ll be writing forever.
One of my thoughts is that forever we have projected onto ‘the other’ that which we don’t want to own up to in ourselves to the point of being institutionalised in our thinking and feeling. We see ‘the other’, different to us by way of skin colour, creed, religion, education etc as not belonging. So we make a scapegoat of the other. We ‘use’ our fellow human beings as a scapegoat, conveniently making the other a vehicle or a carrier for our own dark depths that we do not want to acknowledge. We project onto the other. Not only do we not want to acknowledge our own inferior qualities, eg laziness, irresponsibility, superstition, irrationality, savagery and brutality, we vehemently deny those qualities within us. In the denial, we repress them. Us and them ..
History can teach us much. Strange though how we don’t learn the lessons from the past. It’s a psychological law – that which we don’t resolve, continues to repeat itself until it is mastered and a new pattern established. (Freud: repetition compulsion).
We thought that under Mr. Nelson Mandela, our president in 1994, that racism would die out. It’s stronger than ever; our current politicians milking it for all it’s worth for the wrong reasons, i.e. for political gain.
I read ‘Underground Railroad’ recently, Colson Whitehead. As one reviewer said ‘…essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present’.
Hi Susan. Thank you again for stopping by and sharing your thoughts here. I’m so saddened to hear your report from South Africa. I hadn’t realized. So much of the news here is taken up with tRump tweets et al, there is not much room left for other countries. So I’m particularly thrilled you’ve joined us and can share your perspective as it suits you.
A quick note Janet – things are happening here rather rapidly. Our current president is not going to be around for much longer … I know, we all know, that once he’s out and all his minions this country will soar 🙂
susan scott recently posted…This, That and the Next
Thanks, Susan. I shall follow your news with greater interest now that I have this new connection. Perhaps SA will provide a template for how the USA will move on when our time comes.
Janet Givens recently posted…Racism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Why I’m Grateful for the 2016 Election – Janet Givens
[…] I learned the extent to which racism still exists in this country and I am angry. I wrote about this in January. […]