If white privilege is a problem, then it stands to reason that I can only see that problem through the lens of white privilege, and if whitesplaining is a problem, then any account I might give of it carries a real danger of becoming yet another instance of whitesplaining. I don’t always handle these issues well. (Seriously, I think about some of my past comments and cringe.) It’s a tricky issue. Still, I don’t think it’s one I can avoid any more than the next guy or gal with a keyboard and a penchant for social commentary, and I will make one (possibly gratuitous) assumption here, which is that there must be some reasonable way for a guy like me to approach the subject. Whether or not I find that approach in this post?
Well, let’s see…
What has me thinking about this? Well I just happened upon a Youtube clip from another white guy who took it upon himself to present a reasonable approach to this issue. Suffice to say, that I don’t think he managed it, and again, I don’t know that I’ll do much better myself. Still, I think the problems with his approach make a nice springboard for tackling the issue.
…or at least for addressing some of the problems frequently arising when those of us on the pale end of the privilege spectrum try to address the issue.
The video in question was produced by Eric Post, a military veteran also famous for this response to a flag burning protest. He has other posts, but these two seem to particularly resonate with the sentiments of quite a few people. In both cases, Post adopts what seems to be a fairly reasonable response to a (probably left-wing) challenge to the social order. In both cases, Post seems to dismiss the challenge altogether. He prefers constructive engagement to insults and (thankfully) violence, but the impact of both these videos would seem to be a clear rejection of the concerns and problems in question. It’s tempting to see his approach as positive, given the man’s general tone, but I think the most important thing here is to pay attention to the story he is telling. In both cases, he generates a rather one-sided narrative, and in both cases the appearance of reasonability provides him with a moral high ground denied to those he claims to be responding to.
Anyway, here is the video:
The first thing I want address here is the way Post frames the problem, the context he generates within which to discuss the issue. We don’t encounter the case for white privilege here in any direct sense. What we get in the video is Post telling us a story about a black guy who said something to him about ‘white privilege’. What we learn of the black man’s thoughts on the subject is what Post chooses to tell us. So, his own white privilege here gets a solid boost from the privilege he acquires as the narrator of this story. But how reliable is Post as a narrator? For all we know, he made the whole thing up, though I think it more likely he is taking more subtle liberties with the story-line.
As Post would have it, this is the story of him setting a man straight on the issue before they hug it out and wind up with a hopeful ending. That’s the kind of ending I would expect from a Disney movie or a television sitcom. Most verbal confrontations don’t follow such a neat pattern. People interrupt each other. In the rush of rapidly phrased arguments, points don’t quite get made the way you would want to make them. The other guy scores a good point or three as well, and some really important stuff just gets dropped while tangents take people into all manner of foolish places. Moreover, there is always a genuine prospect that each side in an argument will just end up talking past the other without engaging them in any meaningful way. The prospect that Post really did just have a nice conversation with a guy who took all his points with grace, and without rejoinder, before agreeing with him in the end strikes me as about as likely as any other happily-ever-after ending in any other story. Suffice to say that he’s asking his viewers to take an awful lot on faith.
It’s a bit much to ask.
More to the point, consider the nature of the encounter. This began at least as a petty insult, followed by at least the beginnings of a pissing contest (Post does tell us he got in the guy’s face). So, right away, the case for the existence of white privilege gets off to poor footing in this video. It enters the story as petty insult, an expression of personal animosity cast at a complete stranger. In effect, the issue emerges here as a sort of game piece played in a petty conflict over personal status.
Social justice, this ain’t.
Now, I have no doubt there are people who would do that, people for whom ‘white privilege’ is little more than an insult to be thrown at random white people, or at least those of us who get in their way. Whether or not Post’s account of the man’s behavior is accurate is one thing, but I think I’ve met a few people like that myself. The thing is that I’ve also met folks for whom this issue is NOT about humiliating anybody, and for whom this issue is an important obstacle to social justice.
… or as I like to call it, justice.
The notion of ‘white privilege’ connects to a broad range of other controversial topics associated with social justice, inequality, and all manner of things deep and divisive. I probably won’t be solving any of them in this blog post, and wouldn’t expect Post to solve them in his short video, but perhaps, that’s the problem. Post does solve these issues, or at least he pretends to solve them insofar as he explains them away and replaces the whole issue with a quick motivational lesson shaped for the benefit of black people and liberals everywhere. This would be an impressive accomplishment, but it isn’t, because the problems he pretend to solve never amount to much more than a dirty story about an asshole he met on the street. If this isn’t a straw man, it’s certainly a whipping boy. Just an easy set up easily smacked down, and narrative easily applied to all those complex issues Post hasn’t really addressed at all.
The problem here isn’t entirely contained in the video. If folks would treat this as a random encounter with a random jerk whose particular flavor of jerkitude just happened to be racial politics, then perhaps we could file the whole thing under guilty pleasures of little or no consequence. But that isn’t happening. No, this is one of many videos out there which circulate around the net under the guise of substantive commentary about the notion of white privilege. A white guy whitesplains away the whole issue through a dirty story about an asshole he met on the street and a good chunk of the internet says ‘huzzah’!
This isn’t solution. It’s avoidance.
So, how does Post dispense with the issue? He begins by telling us he has had some problems of his own in life, and yes, these do seem like serious problems. He goes on to lecture the man from his story on the need to be realistic about his job prospects and to educate himself properly for the kind of job he hopes to do. In effect, Post is saying that white privilege is a myth, and that the difference between a successful person and an unsuccessful one is a function of the effort they put into life.
As an answer to the problem of white privilege, this seems to be equal parts straw man and false dichotomy. Simply put, success isn’t either race or effort. It’s a function of both (and a lot of other things). If the black man in Post’s story is wrong, then so is Post, bearing in mind, of course that this whole thing is Post’s story. In effect, it is a story about the choice between two different kinds of mistake, and that is all that Post seems capable of understanding about the matter.
This brings us back to the concept of ‘white privilege’ itself. What does the phrase mean? I’ve heard people use it in at least three different ways. Some clearly use the phrase to suggest that white people are categorically better off than others, that we all have a better shot at success (through no credit of our own) simply by being white. This approach would seem to dismiss the significance of any mere white-people-problems and sweep any advantages enjoyed by any particular non-whites under the rug. If mileage may vary, this way of talking about white privilege doesn’t acknowledge any variance outside the boundaries of a clear case that some people (white ones) have it better than all the others. I don’t think this way of talking about the issue stands up to scrutiny all that well, but it’s a sense of the phrase that is well suited to insult contests and generally morbid reflections about personal status, hence it’s appearance in Post’s story, and hence the ease with which he dispatches it.
A second approach would be to suggest that white people enjoy an advantage on account of being white. How this particular privilege stacks up against the other advantages and disadvantages that individuals experience in life is another question altogether. One needn’t deny that white people have our own problems or that some individual minorities may have some clear benefits in their own personal lives. Hell, we don’t even need to deny that there may be contexts in which being a member of a minority could actually be an advantage. It is enough to say that being white can help out in some ways. This approach seems more reasonable, but it achieves the reasonability at the expense of weakening the proposition quite a bit. It’s particularly attractive to white liberals such as myself, who may want to acknowledge privilege while minimizing its importance in our lives. “…yeah, I caught a break by being white, but let me tell you about this other personal hardship, and look at you, you got all this.”
…which is why most who talk about white privilege would step the whole thing up a notch and insist that in the grand scheme of things whiteness weighs rather heavily against those other factors. It still may be that particular white people have real problems and particular non-white people may have real privileges of their own, but in the grand scheme of things race is more likely than not to play a significant role in determining one’s status in life. In other words, whiteness may be one of many variables, but it is often the decisive variable in getting a job, getting a house, talking to a police officer, or any number of things that affect peoples wealth and well-being (not to mention their lives). This third approach is, I think the more serious of the three. It isn’t really all that different from the second approach, except insofar as it insists on the relative importance of whiteness in relation to other variables.
Suffice to say that Post’s argument wouldn’t touch either of the last two approaches to the subject of ‘white privilege’. Whether real or imagined, his adversary in the story isn’t up to the task of clarifying the issue, or if the real person did do that, suffice to say that it didn’t make it into Post’s own version of the story. It couldn’t, because Post’s story was always a story about a pissing contest, about a conflict over personal dignity. The antagonist in Post’s story was never going to accomplish anything more than gain a smug sense of satisfaction out of his insult, and so nothing rides on the ‘white privilege’ message but personal vindictiveness. Post is the only one with a dignified goal in the story, and that is true regardless of the (de-)merits of anyone’s thoughts about white privilege.
The reasonability with which Post approaches the issue is illusory; it’s simply a function of the story-line. Notice how he takes it upon himself to lecture the other man about the nature of taxes. Because of course the man he is talking to wouldn’t understand that his government check is paid for by private citizens. This is a common theme among ‘conservatives’ and radical right wingers these days. They like to imagine liberals and minorities in the form of the unemployed demanding government aid. The prospect that a gainfully employed person might advocate the social safety net is a possibility increasingly escaping their own narratives about government and economics. This story facilitates that trend by telling us about an individual who literally occupies that very place in life, and of course it compounds that narrative by enabling Post to explain the nature of taxes to the man as though he’d never thought about it himself. Post is reasonable in the story, because that’s how he tells the story, but in effect it is a story about a black man who doesn’t understand his own situation at all. The cherry on top of this condescending pie is the fact that it’s a white guy explaining it all; in effect whitesplaining white privilege to the clueless minority who hasn’t the faintest idea how to take care of himself.
Of course it is possible that the whole encounter is real and that Post’s account of it is essentially accurate, but once again we have to consider the larger presentation. What makes this video powerful is precisely the way it fits in with the larger narratives of right politics in America. Post winds up the theme by telling the man (or telling us that he told the man) to stop lying to himself. In telling the narrated man to stop lying to himself about his own welfare, Post is effectively telling anyone who supports aid to the poor and/or concerns about social justice to stop lying to ourselves. In effect, this is but another story about lazy minorities who blame others for their own lack of effort along with the foolishness of anyone who would humor them. Reasonable tone aside, Post is pushing an explicitly racist message here.
Which brings me to another point, a larger one about the nature of privilege. One of the reasons the notion of ‘white privilege’ is so threatening to so many is because it undermines the meaning of success in a meritocracy. It runs contrary to the norms about success and failure in both mainstream liberalism and conservatism Whatever any of us has in America, we typically want to believe we have earned it. That goes without saying. It’s what the money in our bank accounts a little more meaningful than they would be for practical reasons. It’s what makes the houses we live in personal statements and the televisions we watch measures of personal merit. We have these things because we earned them.
But what if we haven’t?
What if our success (in whatever way we define it) is due in part to some break we didn’t earn? That’s a damning prospect. It stings a little, even for hose not so very adverse to messages about social justice. But for the true believers in their own success, for the fundamentalists of the free market this is outright heresy. We cannot admit of anything like white privilege or any number of social factors that might play a significant role in determining our lot in life. For the true believers amongst us, that way lies madness! Hence, the initial problem of this story!
…not the insult.
Post begins this story, sitting (as many of his posts do) in a car, telling us about his favorite car. Presumably, he is proud of his seat in this car. Presumably, he feels he has earned that seat. I don’t think that’s an accident. Whatever the significance of white privilege for African-Americans or any other minority, in this story, it is the threat to the moral significance of a nice car that is really at stake.
This is the real threat to acknowledging white privilege. for Post. It could mean, he hasn’t really earned that car, or perhaps anything else in life.The issue isn’t whether or not white privilege can explain any measure of social inequality, it is whether or not it leaves intact the moral value of consumer products.
So, it’s rather fitting that Post takes time to provide the man in his story with a kind of motivational lesson. According to Post, the central lie that both he and the man in his story were told (by whom he doesn’t say) is the notion that one must work to achieve happiness. The truth, he says is just the reverse. In this respect, he isn’t all that far from the Puritans of old, worrying about the apparent elect (also a class defined in part by worldly possessions in elation to some imagined moral characteristic). Post is just one among many to suggest that wealth is somehow a function of character.
The problem of course is that it’s not that simple. Personal resilience can explain a lot, but it doesn’t explain everything. Time and again, studies have shown that minorities and women (among other groups) face real obstacles to success in the work place, the housing market, and any number of contexts affecting their economic well-being. Some flourish anyway, and that’s a damned good things. But it’s an insidious logic that turns this into an argument to be used against those that don’t. It’s all well and good to tell people they should do whatever it takes to overcome those obstacles in their personal lives (although doing so often assumes an air of unearned authority on the topic), but I can’t help feeling that one of the many things people ought to do toward overcoming those obstacles is address them on a larger scale. This doesn’t mean spitting insults at white people who drive nice cars, but it does mean challenging white privilege as it plays out in various contexts of modern life.
And no, that doesn’t mean anybody should be ashamed of any privilege they may enjoy in life. It does mean we ought to be careful how we use it. If Post, for example, really does help an unemployed black man get ahead in life, I’d say that’s a damned good use of his own position. Putting out a video demeaning to the status of minorities for the benefit of right-wing consumers isn’t. I’m not suggesting that those of us born into any kind of privilege ought to spend every moment of every waking day trying to figure out how to make it right for others, but we ought to be open at least to the prospect that there are real problems with the way identity shapes the prospects for success in life. Perhaps, we ought also to look for ways to change that.
It isn’t the universe, as Post suggests, whose justice is at stake; it is the communities in which we live. The universe may not owe anyone, but for those of us living in societies committed at least to equality in rights (if not wealth), I reckon we do owe others an even chance at earning a living.
Far from denying the importance of hard work and honest sweat; the point is to ensure that such things really do matter.