White Privilege: A License not to Think

What's wrong with this image? If you're not white, just about everything. 

It began innocently enough—a Facebook remark from someone who said he didn’t understand the hullabaloo over the football team nickname “Redskins.” It’s just a name, he suggested, and those getting excited about it are victims of Political Correctness (PC) run amok. In a sincere effort to educate, not excoriate, I responded that were he a Native American, he might feel quite differently about tags such as the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Blackhawks, or Cleveland Indians. How would be respond to a team named the Atlanta Honkies, I asked. I should have stayed the course on politeness. When he responded that he’d find it “funny,” I suggested that this was because he had grown up with privilege.

That led to an outburst on how both he and his parents had worked hard and sacrificed, as if the only sort of privilege possible in America is measured in monetary terms. I confess inward chuckling when I hear this from conservatives. It amuses me no end when they unwittingly espouse Marxist ideas, but I wasn’t about to go into the radical materialist assumptions embedded in reducing humankind to homo economicus. Instead, I blithely continued on the educational course and suggested he look up critical race theory and perhaps Google Tim Wise. For this I was denounced as a leftwing intellectual. (Well you got me there! I was under the impression that thinking was a good thing, but apparently it’s passé.)

Assuming that you do wish to think, I’d recommend the above course as a starting point for understanding the thorny issues of race and identity. One of Wise’s steady drumbeats is that white privilege operates most perniciously when we don’t think about it—it’s like the oxygen we breathe in that we take it as a given unless we’re choking. We may indeed start to choke on white privilege. Let’s try a more familiar phrase: “The horse has already left the barn.” Whether we wish it, like it, see it, or deny it, the United States of America is a profoundly multicultural nation–perhaps the most multicultural land on the planet since the height of the Roman Empire. We have become the Ku Klux Klan’s worst nightmare: a land that’s white, but also black, brown, yellow, and red. At some point in the very near future, the rainbow is going to outnumber the whites. Rail at leftwing loonies all you want, but it’s not going to change the demographic arc. The refusal to look at the trends is itself a form of white privilege­—if you haven’t looked, it’s because you haven’t had to. You will.

Maybe I should have stuck to the politeness theme. Or maybe not. Here’s another way in which white privilege works: you assume that someone who is telling you something is actually seeking your approval. On the mascot controversy, native peoples are not asking anyone for a favor; they are telling whites that they’re fed up with being disrespected. They’re telling us that they own their identities and that we don’t have the right to market or parody them. They’re telling us they’re not going to buy the “it’s just name” assertion, and they’re telling us that, no, they don’t plan to shut up about it.

Concerning the last point, there’s nothing new about the Redskins controversy; it’s been going on for decades. You’d think, at some point white-owned teams might get the idea that Native Americans are going to continue to press the issue morally and legally.  The University of North Dakota is facing possible NCAA sanctions for stubbornly refusing to change their Fighting Sioux nickname. Florida State University took a more productive course and sought permission to use the Seminoles name. (It was granted.) If local tribes say no, though, they need to find a new mascot. Lots of schools have done so, including Dartmouth University, St. John’s University, and the University of Massachusetts. It’s possible, even likely given that sports have more clout than morality, that some teams will stubbornly refuse to dump insulting monikers. That’s called power, folks, not ethics.

If you still don’t get it, let me go back to civility. Doesn’t someone have a fundamental right to be addressed as they wish? Isn’t that just a basic rule of respect? I used to be called “Bob.” I never liked it (for completely personal reasons) and at some point I became “Rob.” Those who cared made the adjustment. This personal rule extends collectively and it bleeds into the realm of what you can and can’t do if you want to get on it society. We’ve miles to travel as a culture before justice pours down like rain, but in my lifetime, homosexuals went from being called “fags” to being gay. “Niggers” became Negroes, then became Afro Americans and African Americans. These changes did not  occur becasue straight white people woke up and decided to be nice; they happened because those communities told us enough is enough.There are still far too many media portrayals of mincing queens, pimps, and ghetto thugs poisoning our society, but figures such as effeminate swishers, Buckwheat, Steppin’ Fetchit, Little Black Sambo, and Aunt Jemima went away because those images were hurtful (and political dynamite).

In essence, the price of cultural peace is at least a modicum of respect. You simply couldn’t get away with naming a 21st century team the Atlanta Houseboys. If you think such a name would be “funny” and that all of this is just PC humorlessness, try it on for size. How about the Louisiana State White Trash? The Boston Drunken Irishmen? The Miami Fat-assed Trailer Park Whores? The University of West Virginia Toothless Cretins?  Do these offend? I hope so. Now do you get it? Still having trouble? How about this? I’ve seen reams of stuff written by nervous parents about bullying. You tell me the difference between bullies and stadiums full of people badgering Native Americans every fall weekend.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So well said. I loved the closing with your suggestions for some team names to think about!