Jeffrey Dupra: The complexity of white privilege
Recently this paper featured a write-in regarding the existence and influence of white privilege in our country, and culture.
The piece laid out examples such as the increased likelihood that a white person preparing to confront an employer would be entering into a conversation with someone of their own race, and the need and lack of need for a person of color to have a precautionary conversation with their children about personal safety when interacting with law enforcement officers, whereas white parents are not as motivated to have such specific conversations with their children.
I heard a great stand-up comedy bit, also recently, where the comedian, an African-American, had to educate the white cashier at Target about why he, a black man, needed a receipt and a bag for his purchase before leaving the store, both of which the cashier had initially discounted as unnecessary at the conclusion of the purchase. The point and the punchline were clear; a black man leaving a department store without a receipt and bag for his purchase was likely to have a different interaction with the security guard at the door than a white person in the same situation.
I appreciated both pieces. They added to much reading and thinking and talking that I have been doing in my own life, in my own community, as a white man.
I am open to the challenge of re-examining my preconceptions of race, identity and experience in America. I was raised by tolerant, open-minded people, to be fair, and to rely on a phrase that I now believe must be challenged, “color-blind.” This pleasant, and potentially absolving personal history aside, I think that in a deep and persistent way, we were barely to the bottom of our own experiences, and nowhere near the bottom of the experiences of others.
What I mean is that we were limited, self-limited, in our assessment of what was and what was not color-blind, or more succinctly, racist. We thought and acted as if racism was nothing more than an offensive, superficial, and sensational set of behaviors; things we said, things we did. And really, why not? What does a man who has never been jailed know of life on the inside? We did not acknowledge the considerably more potent and powerful forces moving beneath our feet.
I read and reflected on not only the article but the local comments as well; why not? How best to learn about the state of my community and by extension the world than through the words of my neighbors? I was, alternately, surprised, and not at all, by the contrast between the article itself, which seemed to lay out some simple, obvious “truths” about the way race influences behaviors in our country and culture, and the comments, which defensively countered those same “truths,” claiming in essence, that white privilege doesn’t exist.
To be clear, I think that either point, in favor or against, is simplistic, often stated, and at best a sketch of a considerably more nuanced, and gritty “truth.”
What is clear to me, and this is my point, however sharp or blunt it may be, is that what makes it so hard for some white people to accept the notion that something like white-privilege not only exists, but works to their benefit in a way that does undercut the sacred, national narrative that “with hard work anything is possible for anyone.” It’s that we cannot remove ourselves from “its” influence by denouncing “its” existence.
Indeed this point — however sharp or blunt it may be — goes further.
When a dominant group of people seeks to mitigate problems that it has created, they, the members of the dominant group, naturally seek to position themselves in a dominant role, now as problem solvers.
And this is what I think troubles some white people so greatly; that the unbalanced reality of race in our culture is a problem — for all — that we as white people cannot think our way out of. No manner of hard work or thought can remove the stain from the undershirt of our lives. We are not the dominant contributors nor the dominant leaders in the quest for racial justice and equality. What is required of us is, in fact, the antithesis of our dominant nature.
What is required is our humility, so as to experience the narrative of others as a casualty of our own, to learn, to listen, and to follow.
Jeffrey Dupra lives in Nevada City.
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