February 8, 2019 § 5 Comments
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about Jordan Peterson, who I dismissed as a professional bore. A friend of mine shared it on his wall on Facebook and holy hell ensued. One commentator took great exception to my point that ‘frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist’ and, oh-so-wittily demanded a citation.
I come at this question after spending most of my adult life working from a place of anti-racism, of insisting that we recognize our diversity and that we work to a world where none of this even matters anymore because it’s the de facto response to all things.
The very term ‘white privilege is heavily loaded. It does two things. First, it points a finger at white people. Second, it suggests to white people who have a difficult time due to class or gender or sexuality that they have something they generally consider themselves to lack: privilege.
White people get defensive when the finger is pointed at them. I know, I am a white person. The general defensive response from a white person is to claim that they have nothing to do with slavery, genocide of the indigenous, etc. And, moreover, this all happened in the past. But racism isn’t an historical exhibit in a museum, it’s still very real and prevalent.
And then there’s the question of class. Poor white people do not generally have privilege, that’s part of the problem of being poor. I grew up poor, and it marked me in certain ways, including a distrust of power and authority. And then there’s people like me who worked to escape that poverty. To say we have had privilege our whole lives sounds like a denial of our own hard work to get to where we are.
But calling out white privilege is none of this. For one, privilege (whether in terms of race, gender, or sexuality) is not a one-size-fits-all hat. It is relative. I always think of the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of ‘hegemony.’ Cultural hegemony, as Gramsci conceived of it, explained how and why the ruling class maintained power and why the working classes did not revolt. This means that the ruling class imposed its own world view, its own cultural mores, and so on on culture and society and normalized them. Thus, ruling class ideals were the normal, anything else was deviant. And thus, the union movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries in North America was about accessing some of that hegemonic power for the skilled working classes. The union movement of that era was not about the overthrow of capitalism, but the amelioration of it, allowing these skilled working class men and their families to access some of the benefits of hegemony. But it was still a relative slice of the hegemony pie.
Privilege, as the term is used today, is pretty much the same as Gramscian hegemony. As I argued in this piece, we live in a culture created and dominated by white people. White people, in other words, are hegemonic. And, as David Roediger argues in his excellent The Wages of Whiteness, the process of racial solidarity was forged in the United States in the 19th century, the colour line was created through a process of essentially convincing the white working classes that while their lives may be difficult, at least they weren’t black. That is obviously a simplification of Roediger’s argument, but it is also the basics.
And so now, in the early 21st century in the United States (and Canada) we live in an increasingly multicultural, diverse world. Two of Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto and Vancouver) have minority white populations. Around 35% of Canada’s population is comprised of people of colour. South of the border, 44% of the American population is comprised of visible minorities. More than that, 50% of the children in the US under the age of 5 are people of colour. So the times are changing, but not quick enough, really. The fact we still use terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘visible minorities’ reflects that.
So we still live in a white world. To me, this is blatantly obvious looking at the world around me. In Canada, indigenous men and women are continually assaulted by the police and private citizens. In the United States, it is African Americans who find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun with police and private citizens on the other end. More subtle forms of racism exist, like crossing the road to avoid black men. Or calling the police because an African American person is walking down the street. But racism also exists in other forms, against other groups. And all non-white ethnic groups are forced to live in a white world in the US and Canada.
To use another loaded term, this is white supremacy. For me, white supremacy isn’t the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Spencer (that’s just outright racist idiocy), it is simply the fact we live in a white world.
To return to my original point that to deny white privilege is itself a racist conclusion. Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes white privilege very well in a 2012 Atlantic article, where he writes
But I generally find it [white privilege] most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc.
In the other words, because I don’t fear being shot by the police due to my skin colour (amongst other things), I have privilege based on race. That neither I nor Coates fear being sexually assaulted on our walk home from work is privilege based on gender. And so on.
Thus, to wilfully deny that white people enjoy a certain hegemony in our culture is racist, because it denies an entire cultural framework. That cultural framework means I am far less likely to get harassed by the police if I wear my hood up walking down the street. It also means that white people are sentenced far more leniently for crimes than black people. It means that poor white people don’t get red-lined like poor black people by financial institutions when seeking a mortgage. And to deny that is not only wilfully ignorant, it is a product of that privilege, and therefore, racist.
But at the end of all of this, the very terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ are, as noted, loaded. Spring-loaded, really. Thus, perhaps we should re-frame the discussion to centre around hegemony. That is far less likely to put people’s hackles up, to make people defensive from the start. And if we don’t start from a position of defensiveness, we’d be far more likely to get somewhere.
August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments
I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income. That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086. Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.
On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society. The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US. But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party. But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances. But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted. The people here are the forgotten people of the country.
Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history. And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England. Americans like to think they live in a classless society. They don’t. At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests. For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless. And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.
By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance. This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity. In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.” And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this). In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.
Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live. There are people in this county who are well-off. There is even a very tiny middle class. But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor. Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair. The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.
But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all. This is a politically mobilized group in my county. During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent. Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting. Angrily, but they’re voting. They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.
A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.
But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.
September 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
Sometimes I’m shocked by segregation, in that it still exists. It exists in Canada. Don’t believe me? Look at East Vancouver, the North Side of Winnipeg, the Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto, or Saint-Michel in Montreal. But, in the US it is even more shocking. Boston was the most racist place I’ve ever seen, the casual racism of Bostonians towards black people, the comments on BostonGlobe.com. Or the fact that people told me that The Point, an immigrant neighbourhood of Salem, MA, was a place where “you can get shot.” Or the simple fact that residential segregation was very obvious in and around Boston. Unless you take public transit (as in the bus or the subway), you could live your entire life in Boston without noticing people of colour there.
Down here in Alabama, though, it’s not a simple question of race, class is also central to residential segregation. I live in a small city (so small, in fact, that my neighbourhood in Montreal is about the same size as this city in terms of population). I live in a neighbourhood that is comfortably middle-class, veering towards upper-middle class the closer you get to the university. But, in the midst of this, there are a few blocks that look like something you’d expect to see in the 1920s in a Southern city. These images below are from one of these streets, a block behind my house. These houses are essentially a version of a shotgun house. The block behind me is about 70% black, 30% white. It is also full of abandoned houses, empty lots, and lots with the ruins of homes. The street itself is about a car-width wide, and where I come from, would be called a back alley.
What is perhaps most shocking to me is how an apartment complex (which my neighbours all eye suspiciously) ensures this segregation with fencing designed to keep the riff raff out. To me, the very clear segregation of this block is shocking. Almost as surprising and shocking this block is in the midst of my neighbourhood. For example, the final photo is of the next block over from this street.