We Benefit When We Check Our Privilege

Martin Luther King at the march on Washington

Monday – Martin Luther King Day

Last week an article in The New York Times said that disagreements about “white privilege” are deterring at least some women from traveling to Washington to participate in the post-inaugural women’s march to protest Donald Trump. This is as good a day as any to discuss white privilege. I turn to Ralph Ellison and Lucille Clifton for clarity.

The article started off as follows:

Ms. Willis, a 50-year-old wedding minister from South Carolina, had looked forward to taking her daughters to the march. Then she read a post on the Facebook page for the march that made her feel unwelcome because she is white.

The post, written by a black activist from Brooklyn who is a march volunteer, advised “white allies” to listen more and talk less. It also chided those who, it said, were only now waking up to racism because of the election.

“You don’t just get to join because now you’re scared, too,” read the post. “I was born scared.”

 That one Facebook post would deter someone from protesting Trump makes me wonder how committed the woman was in the first place. But it’s also true that organizers want people to wrestle with issues of privilege:

In some ways, the discord is by design. Even as they are working to ensure a smooth and unified march next week, the national organizers said they made a deliberate decision to highlight the plight of minority and undocumented immigrant women and provoke uncomfortable discussions about race.


A debate then ensued about whether white women were just now experiencing what minority women experience daily, or were having a hard time yielding control. A young white woman from Baltimore wrote with bitterness that white women who might have been victims of rape and abuse were being “asked to check their privilege,” a catchphrase that refers to people acknowledging their advantages, but which even some liberal women find unduly confrontational.

No one involved with the march fears that the rancor will dampen turnout; even many of those who expressed dismay at the tone of the discussion said they still intended to join what is sure to be the largest demonstration yet against the Trump presidency.

“I will march,” one wrote on the march’s Facebook page, “Hoping that someday soon a sense of unity will occur before it’s too late.”

But these debates over race also reflect deeper questions about the future of progressivism in the age of Trump. Should the march highlight what divides women, or what unites them? Is there room for women who have never heard of “white privilege”?

As an aside, I note that versions of this debate have been going on for over 150 years. In fact, pre-Civil War feminists and abolitionists found that their attempts at solidarity fractured over the debate between race vs. gender

It’s worth looking at some background here and for that, as so often, Ralph Ellison proves useful. What grates oppressed groups—and this can also include women, as I’ll be discussing shortly in my Lucille Clifton example—is when privileged people refuse to acknowledge that others may be struggling because they lack their advantages. Privilege can carry with it a kind of blindness, which is where Ellison’s novel comes in. At first the narrator sounds resigned:

I am not complaining [that people don’t see me], nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.

Invisible Man then talks about the indifference mutating into something else:

It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

A friend noted that this is why young black men (and sometimes women) stopped by the police sometimes push back. They are tired of being seen only as black faces—as phantoms of police minds—and refuse to abase themelves. And not only men: Sandra Bland was locked up for refusing to put out her cigarette when she was stopped for a busted taillight. Unfortunately, such little acts of protest can have outsized consequences, as we know only too well. The person of color is seen as uppity or threatening and suddenly shots are fired.

I’ve talked about how, following the election, many of my students of color felt rendered invisible by the outcome. They couldn’t believe that their fellow Americans were willing to overlook how Donald Trump, through his slurs, erased people of color and Muslims. My LBGTQ students felt the same, as did a number of women students.

In darker times, oppressed groups assumed racism and misogyny were simply facts that could not be changed. During the Obama years, however, they came to feel visible and, in this new atmosphere, began to take their individual personhood for granted. They felt aggrieved when even sympathetic souls proved to have blindnesses. No longer worried about macroaggressions, they started focusing on microaggressions. They expected more from those of us who are privileged.

Everyone benefits when we open our eyes. Speaking as a white straight middle class male, life is far richer when those around me are no longer phantoms. I become a deeper person when I don’t sightlessly bump into others but instead engage with them.

From my teaching, however, I also know that my white students become defensive or tune out as soon as I mention “white privilege.” What I do, therefore, is shift the grounds. People who are privileged in one context may be invisible in another.

For instance, even white women like Ms. Willis are erased when their ultimate worth is determined by a ten point scale. They are rendered invisible men think it is a matter of course to pinch them, make sexist slurs, or grab their private parts. I also know how liberating it can be for women to have their invisibility acknowledged because I have seen whole rooms of women stand and cheer when Lucille Clifton used to read “wishes for sons.”

I’ve written about the poem elsewhere so I’ll look only at the final stanza here. After pointing out that men can feel that they are in control because they don’t menstruate and then, later in life, experience hot flashes, Clifton writes that they might feel different if they were subjected to the power of people “not unlike themselves”:

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.

The image is of someone in a vulnerable position negotiating with an authority figure. One wonders what Lucille’s own gynecological visits were like.

In his farewell speech, Obama quoted Atticus Finch saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” As a mixed race child, Obama had no choice but to engage in this exercise. After all, the white grandparents who raised him had no idea what, as a child of color, he was going through. They probably came into their parenting duties with certain prejudices. They and their grandson had to learn a different way of seeing.

Once you open your eyes, your marriage will benefit, your work relationships will benefit, your communities will benefit, and your country will benefit. What more could we desire?

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