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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

-- Getty Images/Win McNamee

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks at a campaign event at Westerville Central High School March 2 in Westerville, Ohio.
Confronting white privilege

Can today's politics shift the balance?


The day after the New Hampshire primary, before which the pundit class had widely and incorrectly predicted that Barack Obama would win, I asked Tara Harris, my assistant, her view on what had happened.

Without looking up from her newspaper, she explained that all the white folks who had told the pollsters they would vote for Sen. Obama did what they really wanted to do when they got into the voting booth. “In secret,” she said, “they were able to give rein to their prejudices and vote against him.”

Tara is a 30-something black woman with a degree in history and a curmudgeonly practicality about politics and much else. Whether her theory of that moment about voting holds -- and it seems not to have held elsewhere -- is not the point. The point is that I asked a question to which the answer for her was a given, a fact of life, something that would have been too apparent for discussion, say, among her family members. It was a small matter, to be sure. But it also was indicative of those insistent, if seemingly inconsequential, distinctions between blacks and whites that, when all locked together as part of the larger puzzle, reveal a difference that exists somewhere between one’s skin color and one’s essential nature.

The question itself, some would suggest, is an example of the condition (there are those who would call it sin) of “white privilege,” the condition that affords whites in a racist culture a certain aloofness to racial realities as well as untold privileges merely because they are white. The condition is like the positive of an old photographic negative. If whiteness confers privilege, blackness confers unending disadvantage.

Book information
Interrupting White Privilege: Catholic Theologians Break the Silence
Edited by Laurie M. Cassidy and Alex Mukulich
Orbis Books, 194 pages, $28

“Being white,” writes Laurie M. Cassidy, “is having the privilege of functioning in society blind to the system into which one is born and from which one benefits.”

Ms. Cassidy, assistant professor of religion at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., along with Alex Mikulich, assistant professor of religion at St. Joseph College in Hartford, Conn., edited the volume Interrupting White Privilege: Catholic Theologians Break the Silence, in which a group of U.S. Catholic theologians take up the challenge originally posed by Fr. Richard McBrien to colleagues in the Catholic Theological Society of America to assess the effects of white privilege.

Jon Nilson of Loyola University Chicago, describing the history of the project, wrote that the effort was spearheaded by Joseph Nearon, who recalls that when he was approached by Fr. McBrien, “We decided that for the CTSA to address the question of black theology, we needed someone who was 1) black, 2) Catholic, 3) a theologian. I noted that ‘the field is fairly limited’ and McBrien immediately responded ‘To my knowledge, you are the field.’ ”

Mr. Nearon’s conclusion in his first presentation on black theology, a revelation to him since it had “played no role in his religious life or theological career,” was that Catholic theology is racist. “If this fact can be blamed on the cultural situation, if it is more the result of omission and inattention than commission, it is still a fact,” he told his fellow theologians. He said he was pointing out the fact “not to condemn but to awaken.”

-- UPI Photo/Obama Press Office

Barack Obama with his mother, Ann, in an undated childhood photo taken in Honolulu, where he grew up.

If racism is America’s “original sin,” then white privilege is both the wages of that sin and the avenue through which it is perpetuated. Taking down the “colored only” signs is satisfying the law; confronting white privilege is getting at the heart of the matter.

It is coincidental that the volume of essays, published in 2007, should seem so timely, given the political moment that is being stirred beyond anyone’s expectations by a candidate running as a black man but whose white mother immediately makes the picture more complex. Can it be that this black man is, as he was referred to by the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, the post-race candidate? Have we reached that point? And what does that make of white privilege?

The insidious part of white privilege is that those who are advantaged, of course, think their station in life normative, not privileged, so that racism is the aberration to be worked on.

Being white, then, can be viewed as “colorless” and whites can see their own lives as “racially neutral.” “This ignorance may manifest itself in white consciousness as a greater awareness of racial oppression shaping black experience rather than of the privilege shaping one’s own life,” writes Ms. Cassidy.

Fr. Charles Curran, a moral theologian teaching at Southern Methodist University, said in his contribution to the collection of essays, that it is only recently that he realized “the extent and power of white privilege and my participation in it.”

In working on the society’s project on white privilege, he writes, he realized his support for minority theologians was problematic because “ ‘I’ was the subject; ‘they’ were the object. ‘I’ was graciously doing what I could to help and support ‘them.’ ”

“In reality,” he writes, “the problem was ‘I’ and not ‘them.’ I was blithely unaware of how white privilege had shaped my understanding of what was going on. The invisible and systemic nature of white privilege came through in my absolutizing my own limited and privileged position and making all others the object of my goodwill.”

The grain of the culture

Another way of putting that, in the world outside the academy, is that whites see racism as a problem affecting others, not as something so deep in the grain of the culture that it is easy to look past.

Everyone has examples. Some culled from my own experience and conversations can be as simple and graphic as the diversity-training question put to a room of white employees: Who here thinks life would be easier as a black person?

Or the update of a classic experiment, running endlessly on the Internet, that shows little black kids, unprompted, choosing white dolls over black ones because “they’re better.”

Or the black woman in eastern Kansas who has been stopped more than once by police while driving through suburbs in the early morning hours to meet her runner friends. She’s a lawyer, and her colleagues once got so enraged that they called a police department and elicited an apology. But that’s a rare circumstance, she knows, and she knows, too, to caution the officer that all she’s doing is reaching into the glove box for her registration.

So where are we headed if this is not to be the state of things forever?

It is difficult in this collection of essays to find direction for moving beyond the bondage of white privilege. Language that lays out the problem in such crisp and at times dramatic terms fuzzes off into what might be, for the non-theologian, opaque theory.

“Drawing upon the work of James W. Perkinson, I contend that unlearning white male ignorance involves a pedagogy of seeing ourselves in the mirror of blackness,” writes Mr. Mikulich. “A pedagogy of unlearning white privilege and a praxis of solidarity before the cross may offer the possibility that white male theologians will take responsibility for our complicity in oppression and seek communal repentance for our sinfulness.”

How exactly that might happen is never explained, nor do the essays, challenging as they might be in outlining the reality of white privilege and how essential it is to perpetuating racism, prescribe any large societal program that would bare white privilege and move to eliminate it.

If theology can take us to a new level of awareness and to the most difficult questions about this, one wonders if it is our politics that may, wittingly or not, be pulling us toward some form of an answer. Perhaps it is law, after all, that has carved out enough space that black brothers and sisters might be able to leverage their way to a piece of our heart.

A remarkable photograph accompanies an article in a recent New Yorker magazine. It is of presidential candidate Barack Obama and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker.

-- Newscom

Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaks for Sen. Barack Obama at a campaign rally in New Jersey Feb. 4.

Their stories, Mr. Obama’s certainly better known by now than Mr. Booker’s, are as compelling as the image. Each of these young black men has traveled some of the quintessential corridors of white privilege. Mr. Obama, 46, graduated from Columbia University and later magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American elected editor of the Harvard Law Review. Mr. Booker, 39, went to Stanford University and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University, where he earned a degree in modern history. That same year, he enrolled at Yale University Law School and graduated in 1997.

With the world almost literally at their feet, these two men turned from expected career tracks and the usual pursuits of upward mobility. Their battles were elsewhere: on the South Side of Chicago doing community organizing for Mr. Obama and in a slum housing project in Newark for Mr. Booker, where he lived until the place was condemned.

Mr. Obama, now going for the whole enchilada, the presidency, the pinnacle of white privilege and white power, says it’s not about race. But it is, on so many levels it is, and not all of it is about the downside of that loaded word. It is unmistakably about race when Mr. Obama recounts his history as a son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya and says his improbable journey would be possible only in the United States.

Is he the product, then, of white privilege, or the result of having overcome black disadvantage or the sum of what it takes to live through what can be the harshness of a biracial world?

In the wider view, will we come out of this moment, this presidential race, any different than we were?

A Midwest homecoming

In Kansas, that redder than red state, where the population remains overwhelmingly white, thousands stood in line on a Tuesday night of Democratic caucuses, some for more than two hours in rain and sleet, to cast a vote for Mr. Obama. The state went for him three to one. Perhaps it was his mother and the fact that the candidate visited for a day and was photographed with his mostly white relatives. A Midwest homecoming.

But if white privilege is the silent maintenance of the cultural upper hand, what might that privilege be conceding if it stakes so much hope on a black man?

Is this a political Tiger Woods, too smart, too good, too successful to be confined by the old pejoratives? Is the political equivalent of Augusta National being forced to open the gates?

-- MCT/Idaho Statesman/Joe Jaszewski

Supporters reach to shake the hand of Sen. Obama after he spoke at the Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho, Feb. 2.

In that New Yorker piece, Booker’s mother, Carolyn, told how she tried to educate her children to “a colorblind ideal.” She told them not only of the lunch-counter protests in which she participated but also of white college friends who joined her and supported the cause.

“You want your children to be aware that prejudice exists in the world,” she told writer Peter J. Boyer. “But, at the same time, you want them to recognize that, on a larger scale, with just 10 percent of the population of the United States, you need to have friends of all colors, of all races, of all ethnicities. And you try to approach every person as an individual, and not as a group.”

And yet if anyone wants to know the endgame when it comes to white privilege, wants to know the difference between being able to get out or having to remain in a crumbling inner city, of having entrée to the economic system or being stuck in a place where the system’s up and gone, one need only drive through the ravaged landscape of Newark and read the grim statistics of life in that extended ghetto.

In her essay for Interrupting White Privilege, “Social Justice, the Common Good and New Signs of Racism,” Barbara Hilkert Andolsen explores some of the practical consequences of white privilege -- employers who, for instance, advertise mainly in suburbs because people there are more desirable due to the gaps in training and education between whites and blacks; the advantages whites have in personal wealth.

Correcting such imbalances is a complex matter, she notes, and requires “clear understanding of the contemporary ways in which racial patterns in areas such as housing or employment leave many African-Americans at the margins of society.”

If, however, one is dealing with the effects of white privilege as that hidden, assumed construct that allows whites to be blind to unjust circumstances and to treat racism as a problem “out there,” then being aware of those on the margins is only the start. Are those on the margins to be invited in? Do whites, instead, move to the margins? How does it cease being a problem apart, a “we” and “they,” and become an “us”?

That, of course, is the hard part. It’s the part that doesn’t easily fit into a program because it is not only countercultural, it is also radically counterintuitive. And it would be disruptive of life as we know it. Life on the margins, whether in the slums or the Ivy League, can be dangerous. Opening the privilege to all means the privileged would have to make enormous concessions. There’s no hiding in the voting booth on this one.

No one would deny that Mr. Obama and Mr. Booker are ambitious as well as talented and dedicated. Yet there is a kind of symmetrical irony -- white privilege in reverse? -- in the fact that these two powerful young men made fundamentally counterintuitive decisions when they faced those initial choices between life in a corner office at tree-top level or life in the streets. Perhaps they demonstrate that making white privilege a multiracial privilege first requires, at some point, the risk of radically rejecting the privilege itself.

Tom Roberts is news director of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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