BY MILES LAMENSKY
Privilege, in particular white privilege, remains mostly invisible. Like the delicate lens draped across a retina, one’s very vision begins with privilege, making its effects nearly indiscernible.
On Tuesday April 1, Duquette philosopher George Yancy delivered a paradigm-shattering speech in Fort Howard theatre. In a tongue known as parrhesia, a figure of speech marked by fearlessness, Yancy boldly offered a mind-boggling proposal: to be white is to be racist.
“Not me!” erupted from a sea of white. Fair-skinned attendees experienced indignation, denial and finally trepidation throughout a swirl of considerations. Could it be? Surely Yancy was referring to the other white people — the bad ones, the racist ones.
“Not I,” thought everyone. “I’m one of the good ones. I have black friends. I enjoy Will Smith in I Am Legend. I’m not racist. He is and she is and that one over there is! Why am I being held responsible for the archaic racism of the past?”
To interpret Yancy as holding whites responsible for centuries of racist cruelty demonstrated by long-forgotten ancestors is to misinterpret him entirely. Rather, Yancy is elucidating how this hatred provides the foundation for contemporary white privilege.
Each unreflective act rooted in white privilege, e.g. driving an Escalade without garnering accusations of grand theft auto, instantiates one’s racism.
Attempts to prove one’s “innocence” only exacerbate the problem. When a white woman frantically asserts that she is “most certainly not racist,” to a black friend, she perpetuates racism. What is more, she provides her shame with a voice in an act of “white narcissism,” shifting the victim from “them” to herself, the self-pitying creature wrongly accused of her ancestors’ crimes.
Racism becomes visible in every “white gaze” cast by whites over black bodies, a gaze aimed to shape and reform the spot lit black man into his true form: the dope-fiend pimp, slinging coc when he’s not participating in drive-by shootings. In this way, with every dehumanizing gaze, whiteness mutilates another black identity.
This process is for the most part unconscious. White privilege runs in the background. Like a smooth spinning hard drive, we become aware of it only when it fails. Only by “losing one’s way,” as Yancy puts it, can whites begin to unpack the density of white privilege, of white unawareness, of white racism.
Only by having reality torn from white hands again and again can whites begin to understand the full depth of the rabbit hole. Otherwise whiteness is maintained under the default setting of normativity. To quote Yancy, “to be racist all you have to do is nothing.”
To my white readers, imagine for a moment that you are racist. With what defenses is such a claim met? Do you propose a dichotomy and cite the warped misdirection of such an assault, that the real racist is over there? Do you proclaim that you pray for whites and blacks alike, that you voted for our black president? I ask that you let the claim sink in. Fight it over and over, but do not forget it.
Because the key to obliterating the status quo, which is whiteness, is facing it fearlessly. Not parading it around in a self-centered display of white narcissism but staring whiteness in the face to learn how it distorts the world. I am racist, and so are my white readers. The question is, what are we going to do about it?