At lunch we were talking about white privilege and country music and how it seems obvious that country music is music by and for white people, primarily, and yet we still have difficulty talking about race, especially as it pertains to whiteness.
I was thinking about that because David Cantwell’s post about race and music and Merritt popped back up in Bloglines for some reason and he says,
Indeed, the conviction that racism and race prejudice must coincide with conscious race-based antipathy—with intent—is dangerous in its own right. Among us white folks, I’m afraid, it is a too common assumption that racism demands burning crosses and Grand Dragons to deserve the name—and that an absence of such blatantly bigoted intent indicates an absence of racism period or, for that matter, a lack of any racial problem whatsoever.
Some academics call this attitude “white privilege.” That is, the privilege white folks like myself have of not having to think about race very hard, or at all, if we don’t want to, as well as the privilege, as it were, of falling into defensive and self-flattering patterns when we do address race.
I completely agree with the first paragraph. It’s the second paragraph that gives me pause. I don’t think he’s wrong. I just think it’s more complex.
I hate the word “problematize” because it doesn’t mean anything other than “there’s something important going on here but I’m too lazy or distracted or incompetent to discuss the nuances of it” but I do want to take this moment to problematize the idea that white privilege is, in part, the privilege of never thinking about whiteness, because there is something important going on here, but I’m not sure I have a handle on the nuances of it.
When I was growing up in rural Illinois, I knew no black people except the kids of the ministers that my dad was friends with. There were no black kids in my schools. There were no Asian kids. There two Mexican families–the Herraras and the Salazars at one school, but none at the other. It was just a bunch of white people.
We were constantly talking about whiteness.
We should have been in a utopia of white privilege. With no one different than us to force us to see ourselves as “white,” we should have never thought about it.
But we thought about it all the time.
We were proud to be white and especially proud when we were acting properly white.
I don’t know if I can get at this exactly right, but we weren’t judging what “white” was by comparing our actions against the actions of non-white people. We were judging what “white” was by comparing our actions to the improper actions of other white people, the white trash.
And this is, I think, something crucial that academics don’t get. Our privilege was not that we never thought about white people or what it meant to be white–we thought about that all the time. We rarely thought about black people. Or anyone else who wasn’t white.
When we did, it was in some abstract “Be careful in the city, there are dangerous minorities there, and they are all in gangs” way. But for the most part, it never came up.
See, what I’m trying to get at is that we didn’t see being properly white as something that put other people down; it was an attempt to raise us up.
So, I don’t know. I think this comes back again to class and how poor white people are supposed to be the shock troops of the powerful. Poor white people believe that if they can act properly white, they will be accepted by white people in the classes above them. Whiteness, which they have come to think of as a defining element of their community, is supposed to guarantee their acceptance into all white communities. Poor white people expect to benefit from their loyalty to other white people. If they’re acting properly white and still not being accepted, it’s easy enough for the blame to shift to non-white people, because who, once he’s invested his whole life in believing that shared whiteness equals shared community, wants to face that the people he perceives as being in his community don’t see him the same way?