White Privilege: Pervasive and Perverse
In “The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it,” (National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2020), Fr. Bryan Massingale, a black priest, addresses to fellow Catholics a message that applies to all faiths, all institutions and organizations, and most especially to all white people in the United States. Using a recent encounter between a white dog walker, Amy Cooper, and a black bird watcher, Christian Cooper, in New York’s Central Park, as an illustration he presents a summary of most (but not all) of the assumptions that comprise the basis of the behaviors of white privilege. It is a must read for all who seek to understand racism at that level of depth necessary to overcome it and the other systemic injustices tolerated by generations of white society. It must be read in the light of this claim from a white basketball coach, Gregg Popovich, “It is even deeper than you thought, and that’s what made me start to think: You’re a privileged son of a bitch, and you still don’t get it as much as you think you do. You gotta work harder. You gotta be more aware. You gotta be pushed and embarrassed. You’ve gotta call it out” (quoted by Maureen Dowd in “An Anti-Trump Slam Dunk,” The New York Times, June 14, 2020).
Racism is the severe, costly, and lethal rationalization of the denial of human equality and dignity of all persons. The vivid reality of racism as the instigating force of interpersonal, social and state violence has, at last, become undeniable to White Americans, so long in denial of the severe and far-reaching human devastation their denial has made possible. Worldwide, youth no longer tolerate this silence and denial. Around the world, as they have with the climate crisis, adolescents and younger citizens lead the way to the confrontation of racial oppression and an accounting of responsibility for it. Manifestations of solidarity with black people and people of color appear in demonstrations in various countries. We know that parallel forms of racism and oppression of minorities plague many nations. May this global manifestation, as so many rise to transcend this grievous injustice, be an occasion of learning for all, especially those of us who have lived through generations of silent complicity that gave rise to the imbalances of the impact of COVID-19.
Racism is the severe, costly, and lethal rationalization of the denial of human equality and dignity of all persons.
The racism connection to the pandemic (noted in previous Corona Connections), has been evidenced through the higher rates of infections and mortality, and more severe economic impacts among Black Americans, and has been slammed to our attention by the screen-centered lives of quarantine. The convergence of lives governed by corona, lived on-screen and online with the ubiquity of cell phone cameras, literally brought home the structural racist oppression endured by African Americans since Europeans first brought them in chains to perform the forced labor that constructed the economy of the United States. This time Americans could not, and did not, look away from a concatenation of police crimes against black citizens, occurring during the weeks of “lockdown,” repeating a century-and-a-half of law enforcement as one of the main mechanisms of control over black people that replaced chattel slavery. Thousands have been seized by an outrage born of a late, but intense, recognition of gross injustice, taking to the streets to demand an end to the police violence that has now become the most evident of the multiple manifestations of American racism. As of this posting, many reforms are in process from making records of officers’ previous gratuitous use of force, banning chokeholds, and officers wearing body cameras, to demilitarizing, defunding, even abolishing armed police forces. This is, indeed, a moment of transformation that holds the potential for movement toward a far less violent nation and world. That transformation, however, depends more on the minds and hearts of citizens than on any of these particular social reforms and structural changes, made necessary by white complicity. Racism is deeply rooted in American culture and in the American psyche, allowing for multiple un-reflected harms inflicted through white privilege. The structural and institutional injustices of white supremacy are primarily manifested and maintained through white privilege. Unless and until white Americans honestly confront and acknowledge the advantages conferred by nothing more than being born into white skin, and accept the personal and social challenge of eliminating that privilege, there can be no authentic reconciliation and social cooperation among all Americans.
The structural and institutional injustices of white supremacy are primarily manifested and maintained through white privilege. Unless and until white Americans honestly confront and acknowledge the advantages conferred by nothing more than being born into white skin, and accept the personal and social challenge of eliminating that privilege, there can be no authentic reconciliation and social cooperation among all Americans.
Father Massingale offers a set of recommended actions to be taken by Catholics within their church communities. Some may be adaptable to secular settings. One recommendation he does not make to his Catholic readers, who are likely to have learned that the sacrament of reconciliation requires a full and sincere examination of conscience, is a profound confrontation of the self. It is not sufficient to recall moments of cowardly inaction. It is not sufficient to feel the consequent guilt and discomfort. Reconciliation depends on remorse and self-understanding. Toward that end and toward the relinquishment of white privilege, we white people need to engage in a profound and painful interrogation of our deepest selves. That personal inner process might well serve all White Americans of any or no religious belief, indeed, any citizens of racist societies as they struggle to overcome personal, as well as, social and structural racism.
The following reflection – discussion – action sequence suggested specifically for peace educators, is intended as a way to begin, in a limited way, that necessary process of the inner work; at least enough of the process to serve as a basis for confronting white privilege in learning settings. This suggested sequence is but one possible way to first lay some groundwork, then to engage, and then to act. The journaling is both to facilitate the essential personal reflection that learners may wish to keep private, and to record the substance of the reflections that must be confronted and followed through if we are to learn to acknowledge and overcome white privilege. We can begin with a careful and reflective reading of Father Massingale’s message.
- Journaling. Begin a journal on your experience of ingesting, manifesting, being affected by white privilege. Do you recognize any of what this article reveals? What family, school, social and religious factors and experiences may have affected the degree to which you have absorbed it? When and how did you become conscious that you were benefitting from or being harmed by white privilege? When and how did you determine to challenge it?
- Learning more about black lives. Select one or more books from the list available from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to read as a whole learning group. Discuss what all are learning, and how all are responding to that learning. What significant understandings did the book provide? Make notes in your journals about the relevance of the “book learning” to your lived experience.
- Finding out about actions and movements for change. Do an internet search and an exchange of information about proposals being made to overcome police brutality and other manifestations of racism. What are the purposes of the groups? What are the assumptions under which their purposes and their strategies are planned? Are these purposes and assumptions adequate to the challenge of overcoming white privilege as Father Massingale describes it? What actions are they taking? Which of these groups might you want to work with? Make a note in your journal about why you would want to work with a particular group.
- Consciousness-raising. Form groups to begin the process of becoming “woke.” For the first sessions, white learners join together and learners of color join together to share their knowledge and experiences of what Father Massingale asks us to attend to, and anything they are willing to share from their journals or any other relevant experiences. Try to get a better understanding of how white people manifest white privilege and how people of color are harmed by it. What do people of color think white people need most to hear? What do white people need most to say to people of color? Make a note in your journal of what your own personal statement would be.
- Confronting reality. Now bring both groups together. Having selected first speakers, start this “reality check” with each making brief statements of their truth to the other. Take a time of silence try to absorb and reflect on these first statements after each is put forth. When ready take time to clarify to try to understand as clearly as possible the meaning and intent of each message. Make notes in your journal about the learnings and experiences of this exchange.
- Toward a common reality as a basis for action for change. The intended purpose of the common conversation is trying to see the common reality of the social realm we share and wherein we can work for change. What realities arising from white privilege might we be able to change as a first step in the longer process of transformative, systemic, and structural change? Toward which of these might we be able to take common action? Again, make a note in your journal about which group you find to be best suited to your capacities and concerns. Write down its contact information as a possibility for personal action.
- Getting to it. Once there is a choice of an initiative that most would be comfortable working with, make the contacts and get started. It would provide even more strength to the movement for change if each also had a particular group about which they could keep others informed as they work with it. Continue to journal about experiences, learnings, achievements, failures and conundrums. If necessary, keep acquiring new journals. You are very likely making history.