White Privilege

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?

9 thoughts on “White Privilege

  1. I think you’re selling academics a little short. Historians like Edmund Morgan, Kathleen Brown, Victoria Bynum, Stephanie McCurry, Jacquie Hall, Peter Coclanis, and a host of others have placed class and gender at the heart of racial construction in the US south. Likewise, labor historians have been pretty good about examining the mutual construction of class and race in the industrializing North. Your critique probably holds up for studies of the midwest, however. It’s unfortunately been under-studied as a whole and particularly ignored when it comes to class diversity and racial identity.

  2. Well, I probably am. This is yet another reason I think we have to start figuring out how to effectively talk across disciplines. I know it’s a terrible business model, but I’d love to see whole books searchable on the internet. I’d love for scholars to be able to go to, say, Google Scholar, type in "white privilege" and get all kinds of texts by historians, sociologists, race theorists, music folks, etc.I was thinking about that because Michael Bertrand writes about Elvis and so, of course, he writes a lot about race and masculinity and all that kind of good stuff, but how many, say, sociologists are going to think to pick up his work? Big questions that make me happy to mull them over.

  3. Do you use JSTOR? Or Project Muse? Or Lexis-Nexis? One of the great things about the bigger academic journal storage sites is that you can do exactly what you’ve described. What one soon realizes, however, is that disciplines use different terms to describe the same phenomenon. However, with some oblique searching, it’s possible to develop a richly interdisciplinary view of what’s being said. Unfortunately, then the problem becomes time to read and think about how all of it connects. I think that’s why the major critical works (like Love and Theft) become so significant — they are lenses that focus (and elide) a sprawl of thought that otherwise is hard to digest.

  4. No, no. That’s kind of what I’m getting at but I want something like if they had a baby with H-Net and Google. I want for that "aha" moment usually relegated to the library after months of searching and scanning to become kind of ubiquitous.But, exactly the fact that disciplines use different terms to describe the same phenomenon or the same terms to mean slightly different things is a problem, as is the broadness of the landscape.I’m excited, neverless. I wonder if there will be an increasing role for people who can bring people together in some way. If the librarian and the editor find their role changing from gatekeeper to way-pointer. I think librarians are already better about that. Maybe the roles of editor and librarian are on the verge of conflating in ways.

  5. It’s the salon-host (like yerself, or Michael B, or Bitch) that is the new important conversation-broker. The more that these hosts put readers outside academia in the mix with academics so that readers have to hash it out and learn from each other, the better. You are creating what needs to be.

  6. Exador (and B), I do have some thoughts on this, but have pulled something in my back (ow!ow!ow!), which seems to be connected to the coherent thought portion of my brain. I’ll be back later, I promise.

  7. I know you’ve moved on now, but I did promise to come back. There are really quite a few issues here, which I probably won’t be able to address adequately, despite the fact that I think I’ll be going on about this at length. "I want something like if they had a baby with H-Net and Google"Basically, you want easy, instant access to full-text resources on any topic imaginable. Google and H-Net are pretty amazing in their own ways, but nobody is designing databases to encompass the whole world of knowledge (not even Google, b/c there’s plenty of valuable material they just can’t get at). It’s not a bad goal, but it’s not a very workable one. This is related to the terminology question, but a major problem for people in finding the right information these days is "information overload" – simply finding too much information, and having to sort through it all. How frequently do you think you look past the first page or two of Google results? More information is there, but do you have the stamina or time to get to it? To determine its relevance and quality? If everything that had ever been written on the topic of "white privilege" appeared in one place, in full text, even with consistent indexing (application of subject terms), you’d likely spend a year or more trying to find the right stuff for whatever you were working on, just so you could get started. There’s a reason encyclopedias give you the basics rather than the whole of human knowledge on a topic – the whole of human knowledge is unwieldy, and you probably don’t actually need it right this moment. So we split things up, into PubMed and PsycInfo and H-Net and ERIC, so individual disciplines can at least start with their own subset of the knowledge. Sure, there are probably some things in the other disciplines that would be useful, and they can use those databases as supplements. Typically, though, nobody is interested in writing the grand master theory of everything ever about topic x. People have their individual areas of interest and understanding, and the problem of weeding through and managing the amount of information contained in all possible sources would be completely overwhelming. TerminologyThe problem of indexing and terminology for databases (not in the Access sense, in the H-Net or ERIC sense) is a huge one. You’re absolutely right that different disciplines and individuals use their own words to describe like concepts. In terms of information retrieval, it’s not so much a problem of getting people to talk about something using the same word, but a problem of making the tools understand that the different words are related, and having really smart people linking those words on the back end. Smarter database creators build in a controlled vocabulary, a thesaurus of sorts that will take your entered search term, and translate it into the One Standard Term for what you’re asking. It’s best when it’s transparent to the user, and you can see how your query is being adapted and interpreted. For example, if I’m using PubMed and want to find something on those LifeFlight copters, I can use the MeSH database (their vocabulary) and search for helicopters. Then I get choices, and can decide based on the provided definitions if I really mean aviation (not so much) or air ambulances (bingo!). Other databases don’t have this, so if I go type in helicopters, I’m going to get exactly those things about helicopters, which may be vastly bigger or different from what I need on my "air ambulances" topic. Right now, computers and computer-based tools can’t really discern meaning, so at least you hope there are features such as a thesaurus that will help you link your stated question to the way the answers are named in the resource you’re using. But then again, very few people actually take advantage of the advanced searching features (such as a thesaurus lookup) when they’re available. People want one search box quick lookup, Google-style. That’s not necessarily a fault of the searchers, but it’s a problem when you consider just how much information is available and how unlikely you are to find 1) only the right stuff and 2) an amount of stuff you can manage. It’s one area where librarians are especially useful, particularly in the academic arena. These specialized librarians (such as medical, law, science, art) know their databases, and they know how database x names concept y, or they at least know how to find out. They know how to get you to your real question, which you may have stated as, "I need stuff on white privilege," when want you really want is something on how race affected the response to Hurricane Katrina. Librarians get the ins and outs and frustrations of seemingly inadequate tools and too much information, and are there to get you, as an individual with an individual question at a moment in time, to exactly what you want, or as close to it as humanly possible. Roles for LibrariansIt is absolutely correct that librarians, if they’re smart, are transforming their roles from one of gatekeeper to one of wayfinder. It’s what we love to do anyway, most of us. Some of my most rewarding experiences in my current job have been when people come in, faces a little intimidated, who have never used the library but have to do a project on a topic, and have no idea where to start. Being able to get that person off to a good start, finding things that are relevant and accessible, and watching those faces turn to an expression of "I can do this!" feels like pure magic. If you ask me a question, no matter how poorly formed or poorly thought out, I want you to leave feeling empowered, like you have wrested control over the vast world of human knowledge. It’s not about controlling access for me. It’s about making life easier for all those who seek knowledge. Librarians these days (again, esp in academic settings) are reaching out to their users more and more, instead of forcing the user to come to us. We’re integrating into clinical medical teams, research benches, and corporate teams, so when someone needs to make an informed decision, there is an expert there to gather that information to support that decision. It’s not that dissimilar from a medical team having a pharmacist, social worker, or other specialist around. As a medical librarian, my job is to bring them the evidence on what is known to work, what has been discovered in the years between the building of their initial knowledge base (medical school) and today. This is exactly a way-finding role, and it’s very exciting. There are still gatekeeping functions of a kind, particularly in selecting what resources to make available, and which to not make available. However, this is done in light of both limited budgets and the understanding that having a giant pile of all possible information can sometimes be as useless as having none. You want the best and most relevant, and we try to get that to you. I think the issue of editors is a little different. Scholarly publishing is currently undergoing a lot of change, just as libraries are. Editors also serve gatekeeping functions, deciding what written words deserve wider circulation. Editors do not have the same issues of information organization, or the same responsibility for matching the user to his or her need. The two both deal with dissemination of information, but the function served is very, very different. "usually relegated to the library after months of searching and scanning"Let me just say, you should never, ever, ever have to spend months searching and scanning in a library in order to have an "aha" or "woo-hoo that’s it!" moment. If you do, you haven’t been taking advantage of the librarians, who are specially trained to take you from question to aha moment with as little time and effort as possible. If you are getting a librarian’s help and it does take months, you either a) have an extraordinarily obscure and difficult topic or b) need to ask a different librarian. I cannot emphasize enough that for most librarians, pointing you to the best possible resources, helping you construct a search that is appropriate to your topic, and teaching you how to narrow that down is one of the most rewarding things we can do. But we can’t do our jobs if you don’t ask. Yes, we have learned to recognize the frustrated face, but some of you don’t like to be approached when you’re frustrated. All you have to do is ask. B, I’m sorry this was so long and strays so far from your original post, but you brought up some interesting things that I wanted to address.

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