"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A view from the UK on America’s concern with “White Privilege”

I often hear Americans say that someone has to “check their privilege” or they say you have “White Privilege” as if the term requires no explanation for it is self-explanatory. When they do try to explain it, it is without any irony and in complete ignorance of Rudyard Kipling. He spoke of the White Man’s burden, the original “White Privilege” except Kipling meant racism, imperialism, and colonialism to improve the world. My fellow White Americans, mainly liberal, would be aghast at such a reference, they would shrink from wanting to identify themselves with such a figure, idea, or image. Yet, that is *exactly* what they have done by their belief that as White Americans they continue to possess a privilege that needs to be shed or if it cannot be shed, they must use it to bring justice to America. In their behaviour I am reminded of James Baldwin’s prophetic words in The Fire Next Time:

There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted" by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed. (p.21)

At that basic level, the term White Privilege insults Americans, especially Black Americans, as it suggests there is yet another thing other citizens have to wait for White Americans to do for them. From the perspective in the UK, where I live, the focus on privilege, white or otherwise, seems misguided. To know privilege they need to come to the United Kingdom.

I am a commoner in the UK, privilege is reserved to the Crown.
I am a White American who lives in the North East of England. The area where I live is 96% white. I have no privileges based on my race, I am simply one of the many whites. As an American I have even less privileges for I have no status beyond what the law allows me. As an American, I cannot vote but I pay taxes.

In the UK, though, privilege is more than an idea or a convenient explanatory trope[1], it exists in law and practice: The Royal family and those with royal blood have privileges set in law. By right and law, the Queen is my superior. She is the source of law and therefore exempt from nearly all the laws. That is privilege. The Royal Household is also exempt from many laws. That is privilege. The Queen and the Royal Household have the privilege to withhold assent to any law. That is power, that is privilege. They do not have to check it. They own it. As a White American, I am a commoner. In that status I have a kind of equality. I am equal to other commoners in our relation to the Queen. I have no privilege based on my race, my blood, or my nationality. I am the Queen’s inferior and she is my superior through privilege granted by nature and nature’s God.

In the United States we are equal before the law.
By law, no American can claim superiority over me without my consent. By law, I cannot claim superiority over anyone without their consent. No American is privileged by the law over anyone else even the President of the United States must bow before the law. As Barbara Jordan explained her idea of democracy, it was that as she would not be a slave neither would she be a master. Anything that differs from this is not democracy.

Now I began this speech by commenting to you on the uniqueness of a Barbara Jordan making a keynote address. Well I am going to close my speech by quoting a Republican President and I ask you that as you listen to these words of Abraham Lincoln, relate them to the concept of a national community in which every last one of us participates:

    "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." This -- This -- "This expresses my idea of Democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no Democracy."[2]

White Americans who fret about their privilege want to assert their superiority, their privilege, so they can enjoy the ritual of giving it away as if it goes away simply because they “check it at the door”. The problem is that those same Americans, who create this image of White Privilege, take it back up once they leave the room as they do not want to live as equals. They want to live with the inequality, their White Privilege, their White Man’s burden, so their life has meaning. They tell themselves they will use their privilege for good. 

Is White Privilege a necessary variation of the Black Lives Matter theme?
Such a shallow, sad place America is becoming, as Americans flee from justice based on equality of right, which is the true equality. The American idea is based on, born, with the idea of equality. Yet, it is an equality that requires equal civil rights, the public rights, that all share by consent to the laws, which is justice. Americans appear to flee this equality for it would require they accept who they are, their self-government, and live justly, by recognizing and accepting their equality with their fellow black citizens. Instead they retreat into a faux equality as they perform the personally satisfying, yet politically meaningless, if not insulting, ritual of “checking their privilege”, as if by their personal declaration they have ended their personal inequality.

The privilege theorists who talk of white privilege or white fragility appear to believe that by making everyone “check their privilege” they will create a just society free of any contradictions. They want a society ruled by a democratic tyranny where people will be forced to behave equally, think equally, and check their privilege equally for everyone must be judged publicly on the colour of the skin rather than the content of their character as expressed in their public behavior.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.[3]

If you are white, you have a privilege that must be checked, which is a sort of reversed Black Lives Matter, in which if you are black, you have no privilege so you must wait for others to check theirs. Instead of living their life justly so that colour of skin does not matter, that is without regard to “white privilege”, the white privilege theorists distort themselves, and the community True privilege, the one granted by nature and nature’s God or by force and fraud, would never be surrender or checked, which is why American fought a civil war to settle that question once and for all, for all Americans. No Black man or woman needs a White Person to check their privilege to make them feel better or to have equality.

There's no white man going to tell me anything about my rights. Brothers and sisters, always remember, if it doesn't take senators and congressmen and presidential proclamations to give freedom to the white man, it is not necessary for legislation or proclamation or Supreme Court decisions to give freedom to the black man. You let that white man know, if this is a country of freedom, let it be a country of freedom; and if it's not a country of freedom, change it.[4]

In the United States black men or women are not habituated by custom, practice, and the law to obedience or deference to the “white privilege”. Through the United States constitution and the Civil Rights Act, they can defend their equality if challenged in the public domain. By contrast, the UK is based on inequality of privilege in which the populace is habituated by custom, practice, and the law to deference and obedience to the Crown and the Queen.[5]

The Queen suffers no remorse for her privilege which is true privilege
Unlike Americans who struggle with living with equality, the Queen experiences no remorse or concern for her privilege. She knows it is a fact of nature that she is superior and endowed with certain rights and *privileges* open to no one else. By contrast, the Americans do not even understand that their ability to speak of White Privilege, the very idea of White Privilege, only comes about because of the American founding, the revolution, that enshrined the self-evident proposition that all men are created equal into a government, which rejected the idea of privilege. It is only on the basis of that American idea, the idea of America, with its belief in the equality of consent that we can criticize the idea of privilege.

When White Americans talk of their privilege, they do a double disservice, they denigrate the American idea by their insistence on their privilege, which they keep wanting to remove but seemingly cannot find a way to remove it as they do not want to embrace the one thing that renders it meaningless-equality as expressed in the American founding. And, they force Black Americans to endure White Americans “checking their privilege” so they can meet as equals.

Perhaps the best way to move forward is to return to the ideals of the American founding and live according to the truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. However, that may be too revolutionary of idea or it is simply too late for America?


[1] Consider the work by Robin DiAngelo, "White Fragility", International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) pp 54-70  http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/viewFile/249/116   in which Whites are simultaneously the dominant race, itself a form of racism, but surprisingly, incomprehensibly, unable to be dominant for they suffer from a lack of “psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates. I call this lack of racial stamina “White Fragility”.” Thus, Whites are both dominant and fragile. p.56 It is almost as if DiAngelo cannot find enough White Supremacists as Whites simply do not see themselves as racists so do not engage in the analysis. She seems wistful that she cannot find White Supremacists with the racial stamina to discuss and defend their white supremacy. Perhaps, the real reason for the lack of “racial stamina” is that White Americans do not see themselves as superior and see themselves as equal to blacks. However, even the concept of being white is not even the colour of skin, as DiAngelo states being white is simply a social process “white and Whiteness ...describe social process.”  p.56

The deeper understanding of Whiteness studies is as follows:
“Whiteness..signf[ies] a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically and culturally produced, and which are intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of domination. Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color alone). Whiteness is dynamic, relationship, and operating at all times and on myriad levels. These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people. Whiteness studies begin with the premise that racism and white privilege exist in both traditional and modern forms and rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it.”

This suggests that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been a failure since whites are the only ones who seem to have civil rights. We are confronted with the facts that every year more whites are shot by police than blacks while as a percentage of population, blacks are more likely to be shot. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/16/the-counted-killed-by-police-1000 This raises the question of why these whites are not afforded the rights they are supposed to be consistently afforded. Are we to believe on this basis that they have been judged by the content of their character, which is why whites are shot, but blacks are shot only because of the color of their skin?  Soon, we enter the Alice in Wonderland world where so that until Whites understand they are White racists they will never develop their racial stamina so that they can be re-educated to understand that they are racists and as soon as they accept that they can begin to be healed. Until then they will remain repressed racists who are to be judged by the colour of their skin and not the content of their character for their skin colour determines their character.

[5] The UK institutions are based on personal loyalty oaths. The Army, MPs, and Police, Courts, all take a personal loyalty oath to the Queen. They do not swear an oath to the people or a constitution.

3 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

At that basic level, the term White Privilege insults Americans, especially Black Americans, as it suggests there is yet another thing other citizens have to wait for White Americans to do for them.

Quite. Much of black activism, indeed, "black history," revolves around white oppression rather than black achievement.

And even worse when white academics check their privilege; you can barely swing a cat without hitting slavery, Jim Crow, or the 1960s, and indeed the heroes of these stories are usually unbenighted whites eerily just like themselves.

Tim Kowal said...

"It is only on the basis of that American idea, the idea of America, with its belief in the equality of consent that we can criticize the idea of privilege."

Equality is perhaps too much to ask of any people, particularly one where greatness has become so scarce that they find it in reality television. King George III's remarks, following the separation of his American colonies, come to mind:

"I pray that the United States does not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy."

Britain's inequality was overt and proud. America hides its. We call those who rule over us our "servants," without irony, still convinced of the fiction we control them in some meaningful way. Americans overthrew the inequality of being "subjects," and perhaps for that reason they cannot muster the enthusiasm to cast out those they call their "servants."

This is the seduction of the Western mind: being painfully aware of the threat of tyranny everywhere and at all times, and yet finding none to hand, it succumbed to the lie that the West's ideology itself had become tyrannical. And so the West has put underfoot its formerly cherished principles of equality, democracy, liberalism.

Lawrence Serewicz said...

Tom,
You raise a good point that James Baldwin also mentioned in his book The Fire Next Time. The Black Muslim movement, with its separatist agenda, was also one for black supremacy not equality. Although it is too uncertain as to whether the seperatist agenda (the ballot or the bullet as Malcolm X argued) helped fuel the civil rights movement's success (LBJ was trying to hold together a domestic agenda and a foreign policy agenda), one thing is clear that such an agenda is un-American and intentionally un-American.
Supremacy either by Whites or Blacks or any group is to be resisted as Un-American. The challenge, though, is most people are simply unaware of this early history or the motives, that appear to be emerging with the BLM in that it is not enough to find civil rights, which are open to all, it is to find civil rights that are only open to Blacks. The problem is that the American idea is colour blind. This point was clear to me when Henry Louis Gates spoke at my college about 30 years ago.
Our school was about 98% white at the time and had our largest intake of black students. As part of that program to improve racial diversity within the campus, Prof Gates was invited to speak. I was fortunate enough to attend the reception after the talk. There I was in discussion with one of the black students. I pointed out that once he, and I, had our college degrees we could never go home again.

Professor Gates overheard the conversation. I am not sure what he made of it, but it fit within the topic of the day and the tension that education creates for racial politics. By attending college, I and the other student were different from the communities we left. We were not superior, but we were different. It was that difference that begins to allow for equality for we were both strangers in the strange land of the the life of the mind, the life of culture where true equality emerges.

It is this life of culture, that transcends colour, politics, religion, that is no longer defended. The American universities no longer defend the life of the mind or the culture, the culture of liberal arts, that is necessary to sustain the American idea. The BLM movement and those who wish to reject their "White Privilege" contribute to this decay for they do not see anything higher to skin colour, politics, or power. They do not seek to explore the life the mind. For them, and most of the academy, philosophy serves politics with the desire for faction to rule faction permanently without consent nor in the service of wisdom.