What is “White Privilege?”

privilege

There is a video going viral of a 14 year old boy making an apology tour for “white privilege.”  The video shows a young middle school aged kid reciting a poem at school in which he derides white privilege (thus bringing attention to it) while also refusing to abscond his privilege.

Yes it’s a problem, but no, he’s not voluntarily giving it up. Rather he hopes for the day when no privilege exists.

The video is weird to watch because the kid is 14.  What 14 year old could possibly have been walking around in his own skin self-reflexive enough to understand that his interaction in society is markedly different than people of color?  How has he lived long enough to explore the experiences he recites in his poem?  The parents say they have not “coached” him but it is really hard to imagine all of that came out of his head.

It’s almost like watching a Republican try to speak on behalf of a refugee; it’s just odd and conceptually anachronistic.

After a few minutes of internet trolling this kids poem, it became clear there is a huge disagreement about the topic of the poem: privilege.  Besides all the negative comments about the kid, his parents, and the puppetry that seems to be taking place, privilege is a central issue of disagreement.

Everyone is using the same word but many people are using it differently.

I do not wish to debate the merits of the young man’s poem.  I do, however,  want to look briefly at the concept of privilege because when white people and people of color use this term it is clear we are not sharing in the same Wittgensteinian language game.

First, when people say “white privilege exists” they do not mean that life isn’t hard for white people.  I have heard radio hosts and read many comments wherein this is the interpretation.  This is what has been outraging white people, that the black community, minority communities or the media, seem to be implying that “white privilege” is synonymous with “white ease of life.”

This is simply not the case.

I know many many white people who have hard lives.  I have friends with college degrees who work their butts off and make personal sacrifices to make ends meet for their families and themselves.  I have white friends who are veterans and whom do not have a place of their own to sleep at night. I have family that lives in the Tennessee Appalachia and I see that clearly white privilege doesn’t mean all white people have an easy life, get everything handed to them or that they do not experience discomfort because they are white.

No one is arguing that white people do  life do not suffer.

Life is hard.  It is complex and it can be a tribulation regardless of your skin color.  The term “white privilege” doesn’t negate that your life may be very hard, even if you are white.   All people can have a hard or difficult life; it seems to be an innate part of creation post Adam and Eve.   No one is saying you have an easy life because you are white; you can keep your scars.  No one is taking them from you.

Arriving at that acknowledgment, however, does not now render term “white privilege” meaningless.

Second, the term “white privilege” does not mean you are given first dibs on all the good stuff.  It does not mean that you can skip all societal loops of accomplishment.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get the best pay, the best job, the best spouse or the best neighborhood.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get promotions or that you by default are given good grades.

If you have worked hard and accomplished a lot in life…that is great!  You most likely sacrificed time with family/friends for those accomplishments.  I too, am white, and I have spent many hours in study or at work doing what others wouldn’t in order to achieve what others won’t.  I get it.

No one is trying to say you didn’t work hard when they use the term “white privilege.”

President Obama’s comments  “you didn’t build that” made me bristle as much as it did you.   I know what it is like to have employees that want the reward without the work, that want the status without the effort and the notoriety without the sacrifice.  It’s just the country we live in now.  I understand why people of any race react when someone says they have a privileged status yet they have worked hard for everything they have.

I grant you that.  Privilege has not meant you have never had a hard life or that you haven’t worked hard to climb from that life.

These concessions aside, the term “white privilege” is still not meaningless.  It just doesn’t mean what white people think its means.

By “white privilege” one usually means that a person who is white is under less suspicion and given the benefit of doubt in many circumstances.  That’s it. 

It means that you have never felt disadvantaged or been looked at with circumspection in routine daily activities because you are white.  Your whiteness, and mine, have given us different life experiences because we have been looked at differently due to the color of our skin.  The worst is never assumed because I am white and driving at midnight; such is most likely not the case for the typical black male.

Simply put, it means there are no societal obstacles to understanding who I am as a white male.  Society allows me the privilege to show who I am by how I act, what I do and the character with which I live my life.  Nothing about me is assumed because I am white. 

I’d be willing to bet that even the poor Appalachian white person would also be given the benefit of the doubt when they are in public.  They may not feel privileged but in that regard they are.  They are poor, but they are white, and in our society that is usually better than being poor and black.  It’s the difference between assuming the white person may have a WIC voucher in their pocket to buy milk while the black person may be watched for theft.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean that black people can’t find work, get equal pay, apply for the same opportunities or even have the same success.   Black people can do everything white people can do in our society and they often do.   It simply means that because of the color of our skin, consciously or unconsciously, the worst is not usually assumed just by looking at us.

“White privilege” also means not having the pressure of being representative of my entire race.   Black men especially don’t have this luxury.

As a white male, if I commit a crime, am rude in public or commit domestic abuse that act stays with me, and me alone.  I bear the responsibility.  My neighbors, fellow church folk and colleagues at work won’t cast my behavior over all white men everywhere.

This simply won’t be said, “Well, Nathan acted like a complete jerk in public and the cops came out to his house to settle a domestic issue…see, just another example of what’s wrong with white people.”

Most people will understand that my actions do not speak for the majority of white males.  Any white male friends of mine will go to work and the grocery store the next day and most likely not experience any suspicion or staring faces because of what I have done. 

 I’m the crazy white dude, not them.

Black men don’t have this luxury.

How many of you have been in class with lots of white people and maybe two black people?  Has there not been a time when the teacher, or a classmate, looks at one of the black people and asks for “the black perspective?”  This happens all the time in campuses across this country.  We all listen intently, many of us gleaning insight into the feelings of someone with a different perspective.  It is an enriching experience, one from which I have benefited.

The problem with this, however, is that it is assumed that the opinion given by one black person is constitutive of ALL black people.  We have a multiplicity of white views but ONE black view.   This is the working assumption.  White people understand that lots of white people think differently, but far too many white people assume all black people (or LGBTQ people for that matter) think the same.  When one black person speaks it is the absolute on the “black experience.”

How can any person be responsible for something so weighty?  I have no idea what it is like to be a black male and know that when I open my mouth people assume I am speaking for, and representing, an entire race of people.  For black men that do this well, kudos, because I cannot imagine how difficult this is socially.

This is what is meant by “white privilege”: it is the privilege to be seen as you are without any assumptions simply based on the color of your skin.  This is it, nothing more, nothing less.

The trouble is white people don’t see this as “white privilege” because they are not aware it is happening (for a fuller expose on whiteness see my other post here).  We just assume all people are looked at the same, treated the same and experience things like us…we don’t know we are privileged in these ways…and honestly, it is hard for white people to even get outside themselves enough to concede this.  Ironically, this is exactly what it means to be privileged.

This does not mean that “white privilege” exists everywhere, all times and with equal proportion but it does mean that as a culture we have presumed ideas that enter our minds when we encounter certain people.  It means that there are nascent assumptions at work in all of us, the production of literally hundreds of years, that silently creep upon us whether we will it or not.

The terminology isn’t about taking anything away from the hard work of white people or their hardships.   Obversely, it doesn’t take away from the fact that just because you are not “privileged” doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and be successful.  Many can and do.

It simply means that when you walk out the door to enter the world, the world will judge you totally and fully by the content of your character and not the color of your skin.  No assumptions.  No stereotypes.  No universals.  You are free to impact the world through your action and the world will only respond to you in kind.

It’s really not a question of whether or not it exists; it’s a question of whether when you sense in yourself this hint at privileging some over others (without any reason or purpose), that you pause and make a choice to change how you will act toward people of difference.  This is the only way the world will change, when people who can act, know to act and then act differently.

It would  be fantastic to limit the labels black, white, etc., to cultural discussions, but until our rhetoric matches our action (and thoughts) we are only deceiving ourselves.  It easy to say you believe “x” until something other than “x” pops in your mind when that different person enters your space, walks near your car, or is seen in your church/neighborhood.

As a Wise man once said, “Do unto others as you would them do to you” (Luke 6.31)

 

A Poetic Essay: Writing Love & Poetry with Cixous

cixous

Helene Cixous, the philosopher, writer, thinker, novelist, poet…one with the uncanny ability to grasp the impossible and poetically narrate newer possibilities.

As Derrida describes of her, “A poet-thinker, very much a poet and very much a thinker.”

She writes the kind of poetry that describes the conversant and then leaves one asking, “what just happened?”

Cixous writes,

“It is the places that make love.  Places and all their features.  For them to make love (and so that they might do so), the features must combine their forms, their different energies, and their properties in a whole whose total makes god.”

Poetry is poietic.  The mundane becomes the exotic.  Form and content blend in ways that seek an apocalyptically pristine constitution.

Something to deliver us from ourselves.

The more I see of the world the more I become convinced that the world will not be saved by those who can write prose and disseminate its smooth flat reality.  Such only leads to the nothing of no possibility.

What the world needs is the poet.  As poets perish, the stench of the corpse of our imagination begins to intrude into the spaces that are disguised as lively.

And we hear the gasps of death left in the vacuum of the dead poet.

Poetry lives among us and sees beyond us…it sees and feels the rhythmic beat of relationship and gives rolling hills and texture to Tom Friedman’s “Flat World.”

Poetry, as theory and praxis, is difficult.  Difficult because we no longer think poetically; we think matter-of-factly.

We no longer use words in which we may become lost.  In writing our words…we have lost them.

We no longer feel emotions that cannot be harnessed.  We commoditize our emotions through manipulation and consumption.

We see the world in the script of black and white (letters and reality).  When in actuality, reality may be best situated beneath the writing and beneath its margins…imagined in the places we cannot see because we cannot speak them.

Poetry is not merely the art of speaking and rhyme…

it is the very act of taking the actual path that has become grown over through time as we faintly see the footprints of daring poets whose footprints have left vague impressions in the dirt…

Hear Cixous:

“One can’t escape the hidden designs of God.  She has written everything down and we do not read.  We are read”

Cixous, writes and speaks…and she does so poetically.  It is a poetry not bereft of science or prose…but one that writes poetically in response to this world of cold hard surfaces.

She has met Lacan and yet she is still a poet.

She captivates the reader with simplicity in a world filled with complexity…making what is so familiar to us all, the language of love, distantly close.

I ran across one of her texts recently, a text that is as deep as it shallow and as profound as it is complex.

As a lover of the gospel, and its imaginative possibilities to love more deeply and thrive more fully, I embarked on her work “Love Itself: in the Letterbox.”  What I happened upon was the delicate and inter-relationality of continental theory, psychoanalysis, language and deep expressions of love for which I was little prepared.

This is a dangerous text.  It is shockingly simple.  It is infinitely iridescent.

If you want to think and feel the subjunctive character of what is so familiar, then read her.  She writes of the already and the not yet always already.

She makes the simple act of writing love letters, letters in the letterbox, an act of deep reflection and intuition.

She talks of love, its behavior, its appearance and its presence.  She speaks our language, with our language and is yet speaking of the act of writing love past our language.

She is the poet.

Here is the world.

The world does not drown our words…and therefore our interminable possibilities.  The words of the poet open up creation…giving us a new gospel of sorts.

Going to the letterbox, Cixous speaks with us, to us, for us and also past us…about that which is most salient in our lives, either in lack or in excess…the incarnation of this four letter word: L-O-V-E.

The problem with writing love is that it is the problem of writing us.

Our problems are beautiful.

Our humanity can be tragic, but that is what makes it lovely.

Just as Gospel attempts to reforge creation via love located in the depths of what we call God, it being the hearkening from out of our graves into a poetically imaginative and lively world, so poetry speaks words of creativity and new impossibilities into the dirt that attempts to bury our dreams and hide our morbid smell.

This conflict of life and death, of the as is, with the as it should/could be, is the task of poetry.

Poetry is the horribly beautiful description of that which we most long for…but for many of us remains remote.

She writes “love itself.”

She doesn’t create a new world as much as she sees the real world, where routine trips through our lives are given sharper focus and memories become conversation partners with our future.

Wherein our emotions become sensations, we feel with our sight, smell with our hands, and think with our heart.

Thus, in the Spirit of Cixous, I not only form this essay in her simple prose, but I write this short poem pursuant to her vision and to descry the absent presence of love…longing not for a world of continued non-rapport, but for a world were love itself and being itself can finally become one.

Love is Poetry, Poetry is Love

Cixous writes, “I was afraid you would always be there. I didn’t want to tell you that earlier.”

Have I not heard footsteps behind me?  Have I not imagined them as they approached?

I have seen you before.

Your Smile is familiar.  I knew it was there but I did not see it.

I was afraid of this day.  Hopeful it would come.  I have read this story before, even though it has not been written.

The speech that is spoken, I see your lips move, but I am unable to hear.

I see your breath in the foggy, misty morning, but I do not feel it upon my neck.

“I was afraid you would always be there. I didn’t want to tell you that earlier.”

Earlier has arrived later.  I delivered the letter.

The mailbox was empty.  The letterbox was not emptied but my letter did not remain.

I wonder if it was delivered.

What an undone world.  Tears roll down my cheeks.  They collect behind my ears.

The world is lonely.  I am surrounded by everyone.  But I am not surrounded by one.

“I was afraid you would always be there.”

Perfect love?  Gospel?

Love is a nomad that returns to my tongue and restores my despair.

I didn’t want to tell you.  But love casts out fear.

I keep writing love, love writing me.  The letterbox is cold.  It warms my hands.

I leave the letterbox solemnly.  Back through the fog, leaves crunching behind the smile I feel staring at me.

I look through the world.

I say to myself, “I was afraid you would always be there. I didn’t want to tell you that earlier.”