Earlier this summer the question of white privilege was a hot topic in the news and on social media. Around here in my part of the rural west, many of the men I talk with were angry and perplexed about it. What white privilege could they be talking about? They didn’t know of any and could not imagine having benefitted from it, whatever it might be. They don’t even remember those words we used to hear so often when we were young adults: “I’m free, white, and twenty-one.”
They had a point. Many of them had grown up in households that had struggled to provide a decent home life. With not much money, but a fair amount of determination, they had gone on to get an education and “make something of themselves.” Where’s the so called white privilege in that? From their point of view, they were absolutely right. Within the context of the communities in which they were raised, everyone had about the same access to whatever resources were available. There were economic differences that gave an edge to some and not others, but it was never a very big edge. Boys had more choices about their future than girls, but that was just the way things were. Ethnic differences were mainly between European immigrant groups with a few Asians and Hispanics thrown in. Everyone claimed to be some brand of Christian, whether or not they went to church.
How can you see white privilege if everyone you knew in your formative years had access to those privileges, and you were unaware of anyone who didn’t? You can’t. You don’t even know they are there. They are invisible.
Can they be made both visible and understandable to them now? It isn’t easy. Conditions that exist beyond the boundaries of their internalized communities are abstractions. Moreover, my guess is that those internalized communities exist almost exclusively in their childhood memories. They form the lenses through which they view the world about them today. It’s made all the more difficult when white privilege is used as a cudgel to attack the moral character of ‘men’ who have never seen themselves as anything other than hard workers who helped build the communities that others now want to have for nothing.
We are doing better in some parts of the nation thanks to better education that is willing to explore, without apology, some of the darker corners of American history while not diminishing that which is worthy of celebration and honor. That gives promise to younger generations. We are also doing better in some areas of the media and entertainment that tell the stories without sensationalizing them or assigning moral culpability to those who have had no control, or even knowledge, of great systemic injustices.
On the other hand, the current political landscape has also unleashed the remnant of those who know full well what white (male) privilege has been and still is, and who are determined to keep it that way in the face of a nation in which they will no longer be in the majority either numerically or in voting power. They are not dumb; their masterful use of propaganda to incite fear fueled reactionary political action has been very successful.
It’s a prickly problem, and I don’t know what the answer is. Many years ago I attended a lecture by Schlesinger when he was asked what he thought the answer would be. He said “sex.” Sooner or later romance will integrate us in ways that laws can never do. Maybe he was right.