Saturday, October 15, 2011

Featured Reader Comment: Reconsidering White Privilege and White Angst During the Great Recession

Mr. Devega,
Your "spoiled kid at the birthday party" analogy does not seem apt. If the white people that you readily lump together as an operating unit feel pessimistic about their prospects, how does it follow that the reason for their pessimism is some good that's come to minorities? It seems to me that one could logically conclude from the cited statistics that minorities have a healthier, more realistic outlook than white folks. But the assumption that a person's unease over a lost job or house is based on his or her feeling that somebody of another race might be doing better does not appear to be founded in these statistics.
Michael Henry Grant
Like you all, I am a product of my upbringing. During my formative years, I was lucky to have had Black, Hispanic, white, and Native American brothers and sisters as my teachers from kindergarten all the way through to high school and college. In talking with one of my dear friends today--while I was watching the Chicago bomb squad blow up a suspicious package at the Metra station near my house--we reflected on how our childhood was pretty unique by all accounts. We grew up in a very segregated town; but the town was small, and most folks had friends from a range of backgrounds. At the time it was awkward. In hindsight, the experience was a blessing.

Somewhere along the way, I remember being told that how one asks a question has a direct influence on the type of answer they receive in return.

Occasionally, I feature readers' comments. I do not do this as much as I should. I plan on improving on this shortcoming in the future. Michael's question is an opportunity to self-correct.

I do not have a ready answer to his observation: I am more than willing to admit that sometimes I come up short, as hyperbole and language can override rigorous theory building and empirically grounded truth telling.

Therefore, I reach out to you.

How would you all respond to Michael's post about white privilege and my analogy--one I am willing to reconsider by the way--that relates white victimology to a spoiled brat at a birthday party?

I am curious as to your answers given that I learn much from the readers of WARN. I am also a sucker for any correspondence that ends with "respectfully." Condemn me my upbringing.

In all, I guess I am my father and mother's child, an old soul, one who is a sucker for formality.

Please share, is Michael on to something? Is white rage not necessarily about black and brown success? During the Great Recession how do we balance race and class in our discussions of national anxiety and fear?


Thrasher said...


I find some logic and sincere grounding in Michael's letter but it is only for me a faint pulse of objectivity.

I still smell the stench of white privledge, deflection, avoidance and excuse ...The very fact that the letter was written is evidence of anger towards your premise. The idea that our plight has to always be contrasted with white folks is never a potion I like to shallow..

There are countless tales about white rage against Affirmative Action..Conservatives even invented the myth of Black folks being mad at other Black folks who are talented, educated and articulate . I have never met a Black person upset over other Black folks being educated and employed..WTF

In summary from my vantage point there have only been 2 types of white posters on this site those who affirm WARN and those who do not. It would be great to observe an array of white posters who augment the site with more than just reactionary or affirmation posts but that will require maturation and courage from white posters especially those who just sit on the sidelines...Should I hold my breath and wait for them?..Perhaps Mike's post is a begining of something...

A.Ervin said...

Granted there is some* estimation on behalf of Mr. DeVega as to how he garnered his conclusions but given the factual history of America, it is not that difficult to fathom that there maybe some plausibility to his perspective. White citizens suddenly wanting "their" country back almost immediately after the first Non White POTUS is elected is not a coincidence.Let us not forget that the Koch brothers, Faux news, and their ilk have only exacerbated colour/racial anxiety vigils nationwide. Perhaps more sets of statistics were needed to draw a more concrete conclusion such as the racial demographics by state in contrast to the responses and or before/after Obama was elected adjacent to pre/post GFC. I also noticed a trend for White Americans to shift the focus away from a racial issue towards a financial/class issue which I find rather irksome and morose.Even among the economic elite they too are not above racism to retain said status and bear in mind the average complexion for that tax bracket is none too far from being completely lily white.Facts like these lend me to believe that some of us did not bother to think before seeking answers. With the global financial crisis pendulum still making is peregrination toward double dip White Americas sense of entitlement is no longer silent, but now vigilant.

*racists/ racist enabler would deny racism exists even if were tangible*

CNu said...

George has good taste...,

stephen matlock said...

I can go anywhere I want in America save a few troubled areas. I can apply to nearly any job I want (given that I'm qualified) and expect to be treated as a candidate. I can drive on any highway I want and unless I commit some egregious error I won't be pulled over. If I am pulled over, chances are I can expect only a ticket and maybe a lecture, given to me through my window while I remain seated in my car.

I take it for granted that everyone who works with me looks like me. Everyone who runs things looks like me. Everyone I meet and interact with in restaurants, medical offices, schools, government agencies, political office - they all look like me.

My middle-class lifestyle is subsidized by the government (transportation, home mortgage deduction, untaxed medical benefits).

But - there is no privilege.

I don't see what you're talking about, so it must not be true.

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. Good point. There are quite a few lurkers here. What can we do to bring them out? Is commenting here that difficult, frightening, intimidating? I hope not. Funny, there are rare days when we get lots of traffic by our standards (meaning 5-7k hits such as when C and L or other sites pick us up) and other days that are more modest. There is no relationship between visitor traffic and frequency of comments. Odd actually.

AErvin. Timing is something else. You didn't get the memo that the election of Obama and the rise of rabid right wing populism was just a coincidence did you?

Cnu. He is down with the brown for sure. What money and creativity will do for you.

Stephen. I like your voice. Now, let's see how a racism denier would deflect your truth...they are miraculous in that ability. no?

Michael Henry Grant said...

Thank you for the response, Mr. Devega!

I should clarify that I don't mean in any way to deny white privilege. I am white, and I am aware that in many ways that sadly puts me at an advantage. But the reason for my post last night was what seemed to me a huge overgeneralization and lack of intellectual rigor in looking at a set of statistics. White rage is real, and it is deplorable and unfounded. But to say that the reason a white person might feel pessimistic when things are looking down for them is a reaction against minorities doesn't make any sense. It is sometimes the case, and it's impossible to miss the tones of white entitlement in some of the rhetoric we hear, but that and a statistic showing that white people feel more glum about the recession than minorities do not, individually or in concert, support such blanket statements.

I must also disagree with Thrasher's contentions that "the very fact that the letter was written is evidence of anger towards your premise." I read amd enjoyed Mr. Devega's Red Tails review over on Ain't It Cool News, so I came looking for this blog; perhaps I should have posted some praise on the copy of that review on this site, but I didn't feel like I had much to contribute besides "hey, good review, I'm really looking forward to this movie." I read the top few stories, had some kind of mushily formed thoughts on the O'Reilly/Dr. West/Tavis Smiley post, and had some definite disagreement on the conclusions drawn in the pessimism piece, so I commented on the one where I had something to say that seemed worth contributing. I really hope we can disagree without having to be angry. And for the sake of general amity and understanding, I hope that if I don't become a regular poster here you won't think it's because I don't like the people or the conversation. One feels a certain obligation to stay in a conversation once one has entered it, and sometimes when things get busy it's hard to keep up with forums on the internet. But I will be following the blog, and hopefully I'll take the chance to chime in again in the future.

Thank you again, Mr. Devega.


chaunceydevega said...

@MH. Thanks for chiming in.

We are not an Amen corner so feel free to agree or disagree. You will be no less welcome for doing so. We have some spirited chats here, but that is in the interest of really getting to the heart of the matter.

There is a whole history where the group interests of white Americans have been racialized against their overriding class interests with people of color.

If you google colorblind racism, white racial resentment, conservatism and race and states rights, or even "realistic group conflict and symbolic racism" you will come up with a litany of material that could be of use to you. The last phrase will come up with a seminal article by Larry Bobo, sociologist at Harvard (still I believe?) that works through the public opinion data here.

It is very accessible work even without the math...which by admission is not my cup of tea.

Hope to hear from you again. Glad you found us through AICN.

Thrasher said...


I am glad you no longer decided to post under anonymous hopefully we can get CD to come from behind the cloak:-)

I think I was right on the point about you and your comments again the very mention of me in your post confirms that.

I welcome you to WARN!

Tyler said...

As a chronic lurker, I'll jump in.

What I think it might be interesting to talk about is CDV's question about the applicability of the birthday party metaphor. To me, there's no doubt about the existence of a culture of white victimhood in this country. This is an easily observed phenomenon, with deep historical roots (from the various strains of nativism to the responses to Reconstruction to, I would argue, the original Puritan notion of being cast out and persecuted specifically because of a spiritual purity or mission.) What is intriguing, or is at least intriguing to me, is to try to dig down into this and understand what it says about the various manifestations and afflictions of the American white psyche.

So here are some ideas I would forward. In rural Colorado, where I've spent quite a bit of time, the birthday party metaphor seems almost directly accurate. The black population is vanishingly small (here I'm talking about what they call the "western slope," which is in some ways an epitome of "Red State America" - rural, small cities, both socially and politically conservative); this lack of diversity means that they (black folks) are "othered" in all of the stereotypical ways: "Those welfare queens down in Denver are living off my hard earned tax dollars" etc. etc. This comes from and represents a deep, if unarticulated, feeling that, for lack of a better slogan, "Work is White." By this I mean that their entire understanding of the American narrative is that they've gotten where they have through hard work, that minorities (blacks in particular, because the relationship with the large Latino population is more complex) basically do not work hard, and it is this that creates the "ghettos" that they see/imagine in the "big cities" of America. They are absolutely blind, as Stephen Matlock pointed out, to any notion of racial privilege. They will tell you with a straight face that they are not racist. It's just, they will say, that they know about hard work. They know about American history, which under their unacknowledged reading is basically the story of hard working people who succeeded (as their parents, who were not rich, were farmers and laborers did) and lazy people who ended poor and living in neighborhoods where people shoot each other. To me, this is exactly the feeling that the birthday party metaphor is good at capturing. I think it's also the basic sentiment that is tugged at by pundits, politicians and the bankers to appeal to these people. None of this is news, and perhaps I've gone on too long about the obvious.

Tyler said...

But here's more. In Portland, Oregon, I lived on Killingsworth Avenue which, when I was there, was the line of demarcation in the city between the young white gentrification and the established black population. This was (is) a population that was under siege. North Portland is basically a peninsula, bordered by rivers, and the black population has been compacted further and further into it as the young, eco-friendly, progressive, white, relatively affluent, hipsters/neo-hippies ("New Homesteaders," in Western parlance) gentrify their way north. Here, to speak about the white psychology, the birthday metaphor isn't as illuminating; I haven't thought this through all the way, but I think this is because the metaphor doesn't touch on condescension. I guess what this means is that I see the basic functioning of whiteness among people like that (perhaps a certain kind of white liberal in general) as a combination of a faint tinge of guilt, a dose of fascination, and a measure of pity. Does that whiteness feel threatened by some imagined minority gains? Does it feel that the downturn in the economy is particularly unfair to it (as opposed to others)? Not as much, I think. Instead, it seems to function as a kind of deep unease matched with a smug complacency. The complacency comes from the certainty that their world view creates happiness. Exercise, organic food, sprituality, microbrew beer, and a relaxed attitude towards pot is what will work for everyone. I'm not making fun here - there is a real feeling of enlightenment (which is why people love to mock it.) The unease comes from the condescension, which is to say that these people are faced by the unreality of their beliefs daily (living as they do at the edge of North Portland.) They are faced with the fact that theirs is a radically privileged position, and they cannot help but see the racial aspect of it; the conclusion that this drives them to is that they must help "those people" be more like themselves. Thus, they don't object to their own gentrification of the neighborhood (how polite of them) because they see that gentrification as helping the black population improve what is now, by the necessity of economic force, a shared, integrated neighborhood. This, to me, is an imagining of privilege as enlightenment, and as something that can be shared. The unease comes from their faint recognition of and resistance to the deep flaw in this view, which is, of course, that it's directly predicated not on enlightenment but on social and racial circumstance. Perhaps this is just another naming of paternalism. Anyway, to make a long story short (too late) I think that CDV's birthday analogy is not complicated enough to serve here because it doesn't touch on the habit of certain whiteness of saying "I will certainly extend the presents to you, as long as you be more like me. Which I kind of realize will not work. But which I really kind of do think will work."

Tyler said...

Finally, there's Baltimore, where I live now. Here you have a city in which segregated (racially as well as by class) neighborhoods are piled in on top of each other in incredibly close proximity. Thirty blocks will take you from poor black to rich white to poor white to university campus to poor black again. The play of whiteness, as I've begun to see it, is incredibly complex. The white kids at Johns Hopkins, where my fiance teaches, are basically convinced that we live in a "post-racial" society. The poor kids, black and white, at the community college where I teach, are convinced that, post-racial, or not, they are getting fucked. Among the kids in that group, my sense is that whiteness operates as a feeling of a kind of associative magic. That is, it not so much a privilege as a marker shared with people of privilege. They are not the birthday boy, but the birthday boy's lieutenant, his pet, his slightly disdained buddy. They have a pride of position, and they get the presents after the birthday boy is done playing with them and before the other kids get to touch them; but what they are defensive about is not so much the direct privilege (because they do have some class solidarity) but the dream that if they stay in line and do what the birthday boy tells them, they too will someday share in it. It's the perceived threat to this dream that I see being played out: "The blacks are poor, and the only thing separating them from me is the fact of my race."

Those are my Sunday morning thoughts, all, of course, open to reconsideration, revision and retraction.

Thanks for the good conversation, sorry for the extreme length of the comments,


Anonymous said...

@Tyler...get out of my head. I am a black female born, raised, educated and living in the South and I have observed every behavior in your comment. However, I think this best describes today's Tea party and their ilk:

"...but what they are defensive about is not so much the direct privilege (because they do have some class solidarity) but the dream that if they stay in line and do what the birthday boy tells them, they too will someday share in it. It's the perceived threat to this dream that I see being played out: "The blacks are poor, and the only thing separating them from me is the fact of my race."

The anger,resentment and pessimism are products of the realization created by an equal opportunity recession. The dream will NOT be "played out." They are angry because they KNOW they have been played. No matter if he let them hold it, play with it or admire it from a far, the present always belonged to the birthday boy. However, it will never be admitted. Jack said it best..."You can't handle the truth." How else can you explain the birthday buddies' insane practice of showing up on election day regularly and proudly to vote against their self-interest.

chaunceydevega said...

@Tyler. Thanks for the great sharing. There is a common thread to all of your accounts--whiteness and its racial heliocentrism and arrogance. We see that with conservative racism and also with liberal racism. Culturally ingrained narcissism is damn hard to make one immune from or cure. As a man I do the same with gender and have to work hard to check myself. As a straight person I have to do the same relative to sexuality.

@Anon. There are psychics lurking about here! Be cautious ;)

Michael Henry Grant said...

Mr. Devega & Thrasher -

Thanks very much for the welcomes! I've got heaps to write this week for school, so I have to step back from writing lengthy comments on the internet for at least a few days, but I appreciate the friendliness and I'll try and keep up with my reading. :)


wildredhenry said...

Having lived the defacto life, and being the 'other' without meaning to, it is easy to concieve a diffeent perspective in the conscience world, today. Awareness can be staggering when one doesn't see the changes. The 'spoiled brat' doesn't see itself as spoiled when asking for, or demanding privilage as a given.

However, once the needle of influence and status moves, then contrasts become more acute.

It has been said, "Scratch any white deep enough, and he will reveal his prejudices." I have known this to be true. Regetfully. There are exceptions to the rule, and I have know them, also.

chaunceydevega said...

@MHG. Thanks. Come back again. A seat is always open.

@Wild. Cool name by the way. I like this "It has been said, "Scratch any white deep enough, and he will reveal his prejudices." I have known this to be true. Regetfully. There are exceptions to the rule, and I have know them, also."

We are all exceptions. At times we all also stick to the rule. Isn't being human tough work?

Hope to hear your wisdom again.