derailment (n): a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo
When talking about race in the U.S., it’s not uncommon for the conversation to derail at the point the discussion turns to entitlement and white privilege. Conversations about affirmative action are a breeding ground for responses like, “No one ever gave me anything,” or “I worked hard for what I have, why can’t they?”
The first comment implies that affirmative action is “giving” something to people of color or to women, when really the concept depends entirely upon an applicant for employment or school admission meeting the qualifying criteria of a job or school. The second comment, really a rhetorical question assumes that people of color and women benefiting from affirmative action policies did not work hard. Employers and schools are not encouraged in any way to “lower” standards.
Once a person qualifies for a position, they are qualified for that position. One cannot be “more qualified” than another person. Anything beyond that basic level of acceptance is used to differentiate equally qualified applicants. Say Kate, Nikki and I all meet the following requirements for a job running a lemonade stand:
- Applicant must be able to use a calculator
- Applicant must be able to squeeze lemons without letting seeds fall into the pitcher
- Applicant must be able to accurately measure sugar and water in varying amounts
Each of us takes a test to determine our skill levels at each of those requirements. Each of us is able to do all of them. But Nikki is faster on the calculator. Kate can squeeze more lemons than I can in a shorter period of time. I have the best handwriting and an outgoing personality. We are all “qualified” for the job, but each offer something in addition that might make us a more desirable candidate. If any one of us gets the job, we earned it. If the two not chosen walk away, they can leave thinking the same thing, “but, we earned it.”
I’ve had moments like that in my life, where I thought a job, a spot, a coveted internship was mine. I believed I was entitled to it yet clearly someone at HR disagreed. My sense of entitlement usually fades after something like that. I move on, realizing I had no claims on that position. Despite my best effort, it really wasn’t up to me who got the job.
But when it comes to disputes about affirmative action, we tend to hang on to that initial sense of entitlement and disappointment. We white people decide to use people of color as scapegoat for what we see as an injustice. That sense of entitlement is exactly what white privilege is all about. The fact that we can look at people of color as “taking” anything from us implies that we had it to begin with.
The second thing that is problematic about this line of reasoning to me is that it leans too hard upon that good ol’ belief in American individualism. You know what I’m talking about, the one that says if a person pulls up on his or her bootstraps, success is imminent. “I think I can, I think I can.” It’s all on me to make my way in this world. I don’t need any handouts.
But the truth is, no one goes it alone. At the very onset of life, we are dependent upon other people to conceive us, to carry us through nine months of development, to feed and clothe us once we’re on the outside. As children and as adults we are nurtured and taught and kept safe by families, communities, and government. We’re all informed by history, whether or not we are conscious of it.
Even if you went out into the frontier completely naked with nothing but your wits to help you survive, odds are the capacity of your wits would have been in some way shaped by whomever you had contact with before you went rogue. You may even stumble upon a trodden path or some tool or marker (or, please God, pants or a bathrobe) left behind by another traveler who had that same idea long before you did. Even if it were possible that no human being helped you out, God is still sustaining your very life. I think Jesus said it best in his own time spent in the wilderness:
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Matthew 4:4
None of us are self-existing, or these days with grocery stores and an entire industry based on hospitality, self-subsisting. None of us got here of our own volition, and no one will get through life alone. Anyone who says otherwise is a proud fool.
There can be no doubt that historically people of color in America have been victimized for the profit and well-being of white people. Even the most fervent derailers concede that. Clearly, somewhere along the line, white people “took” something from people of color, regardless of the fact that they did not freely offer it. Why then is it hard to conceive of the idea that as a result of that systemic oppression there might just be remnants of those systems still in place in our government, in our markets, and in our social psyches?
White privilege is still an active force in our society, and for as long as it is, every white person in America, regardless of class has some degree of opportunity afforded them by their race. Clearly, all of us white folks have been “given” something, whether we asked for it or not.
Since this is already a rather long post, I’ll spare you my attempt at a catchy closing paragraph and leave you with this comic by Barry Deutsch and a link to a great analysis of the concepts therein. Keep in mind it is a concise history…