Posts Tagged ‘white privilege’

An interview with Nancy DiTomaso:

What inspired your study of white attitudes towards race and racial inequality?

In order for me to understand the issues of race in the U.S. –particularly racial inequality– I decided that I needed to understand a puzzling phenomenon: Why is it that the issues of race and racial inequality are so prevalent in public discussion, in news media, in scholarly work, yet when you talk to people about race, no one seems to think there’s a problem? This is particularly true among whites….

In general, whites in the U.S. articulate a value system that says that color blindness is a good thing– that noticing race, mentioning race, calling attention to race is a bad thing. And so people would like to think of themselves as colorblind. Most people claim that it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, green, purple or blue. What really matters is the best person for the job, the best student for the school, etc. Now, they don’t necessarily act that way in their own lives. They in fact do notice race– we have lots of studies that indicate that that is one of the first things that you notice about someone. But the etiology is that it isn’t something one should notice, and therefore we aren’t going to mention it, we aren’t going to talk about it. In fact, whites get very uncomfortable if people call attention to it….

Whites may talk about race, racism and race relations in terms of a collective process, or a community will, but they never applied it to themselves. When people do think about issues of racial inequality, they attribute it to “those racists over there.” It never applies to them. They hold onto the notion that racial inequality is created primarily by racism, and if they don’t feel that they’re racist, then they don’t have to participate in a solution.

I learned some unexpected things from these interviews– namely that inequality gets reproduced through advantages to whites, as much or more so than it does through discrimination against minorities. While some people make the argument that these are just different sides of the same coin, I will argue that there are very important differences. While discrimination against blacks or other minorities is illegal, favoritism or advantage towards white is not….

How are whites advantaged in the job market when discriminatory policies have been banned?

Essentially I found that everybody got every job, throughout their entire lives, because somebody helped them. They know someone or they know someone who knows someone, etc. This is so pervasive that I came to understand that almost every job is wired– meaning that there isn’t an equal opportunity for people to go out there and compete for a job. Almost every job, in one way or another, is reserved for someone’s friend, or someone’s colleague, or someone who knows someone, or someone like me.

Most of the people that I talked to are subject to what psychologists call “attribution error.” Attribution error has to do with how you attribute the outcomes of certain things. Most people understand what happened in their lives as the result of their own individual efforts, their own personal characteristics, because they were honest, hardworking, tried hard, motivated, able to change, etc. And the situational context– the help they got, the resources available to them, the advantages that they had– are not particularly noticeable to them. In fact, in most cases they didn’t offer that information. If they did offer it upon further probing, they would usually minimize it or discount it.

The extra help and advantages were essentially invisible. These advantages would not immediately come to mind when I asked them, “How did you get that job?” Many times in the interviews I would have to say, “Did you know anyone there? Did anyone help you? How did this come about?” Then people would say, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I just happened to run into this fellow that I used to go to high school with that worked there. He came over and put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘You should hire this guy. He’s a good guy.’”

When I asked people what the most important factor was in getting to where they are in life, they would say things like hard work, honesty, motivation, ability to change, persistence. These were all things that they identified as their personal characteristics. It wasn’t attributed to someone helping me, my family having resources, someone helping with school tuition or the down payment on a house or car. These facts would be revealed when I asked specific questions, but they didn’t see those as important factors.

Furthermore, having this kind of help or advantage in terms of getting jobs was not just true of the people in fact who had tried hard, worked hard and persisted. It was also true of the people who had screwed up, who had flunked out of school, who had gotten fired from jobs, who had gotten in trouble with the law, who had gotten into drugs and alcohol. Even those people knew someone who could get them back on track, find them a job or at least get them in the door. When I asked them about their particular circumstances, people defined said, “You know, I got myself together.” Or they would say “Yes, that just got me in the door, but then I had to prove myself.” So even people who objectively didn’t necessarily have the qualifications or the capabilities were still able to attain those jobs because somebody helped them.

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Larry Adelman writes:

Many middle-class white people, especially those of us who grew up in the suburbs, like to think that we got to where we are today by virtue of our merit– hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of others, we close down when we hear the words “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking goes, why don’t “they”? After all, it’s been almost 40 years now since the Civil Rights Act was passed.

What we don’t readily acknowledge is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history in this country– a white history.

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Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of ‘‘Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: And Other Conversations about Race, responds:

Many people say “But I’m not racist. I don’t have prejudiced beliefs. As a white person, am I racist, simply because I live in a society in which I’m systematically advantaged?”

For me the relevant issue is not, “Are you racist?” but are you actively working against that system of advantage? Active racism is what I think many people would stereotypically think of as “racist behavior”: name-calling, acts of racial violence, intentional discrimination, cross burning, etc.

But there is a lot of behavior that also supports a system of advantage that we might describe as passively racist. For example, in education – if I am teaching a course in which I exclude the contributions of people of color, only talk about white people’s contributions and only talk about white literature. And I never introduce my students to the work of African Americans, Latinos or Native Americans. I may not be doing that with the intention of promoting a sense of cultural superiority, but in fact the outcome of leaving those contributions out is to reinforce the idea that only white people have made positive cultural contributions.

I know a young woman who went to her English professor and asked, “Why is it that there are only white writers on our list? This is a 20th Century American Literature course. How come there aren’t any writers of color?” Her professor, to his credit, was quite honest and said “I’m teaching the authors I studied in graduate school.” It wasn’t malice on his part. He didn’t wake up one day and say, “Over my dead body will there be writers of color on my syllabus.” He was simply teaching the authors with whom he was most familiar.

Another example of individuals supporting racist systems can be found in our lending institutions. I might be an individual loan officer who considers herself to be quite progressive, very open minded; a person with limited, if any, prejudice. And yet I might work for a bank that has the practice of charging higher percentage rates to people who live in particular neighborhoods — specifically neighborhoods that have been redlined. So when a person of color from that neighborhood comes to see me, my own inclination might be to give that person a favorable loan. But if the policy of the bank is to give loans at a particular rate in a particular neighborhood, I might enact that policy, apart from my individual attitude, and in my decision-making reinforce the institutional racism embedded in that practice.

If we want to interrupt these cycles, we have to be quite intentional about it. Even without any malicious intents, such passive acts of giving into certain institutions or traditions will perpetuate systems of advantage based on race.

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The Wall Street Journal had a story last week about a study that shows disparities between white and black perceptions of bias (emphasis mine):

White Americans saw an even steeper decline in anti-black bias: from 9.1, in the ’50s, to 3.6, in the ’00s. But more striking, according to the researchers, was the sharp increase in perceived anti-white bias: Among whites, it shot up from 1.8 to 4.7.

White Americans, in short, thought that anti-white bias was a greater societal problem by the ’00s than anti-black bias.

The researchers described the pattern—which did not vary markedly with regard to age or education levels—as evidence that white Americans see race relations as a zero-sum game, in which one group’s gains must be offset by another’s loss.

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I’ve been really shocked by the virtually instantaneous racist responses to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan (e.g., Angry Asian Man’s depressing roundup of some of these). A number of people, including several public figures, have either made jokes about the disaster or suggested it’s some sort of karmic or divine retribution for Pearl Harbor. In addition to being horrifically callous, these responses inexplicably don’t seem to consider the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the firebombing of Tokyo (which killed more people than both nuclear attacks combined), or the continued American military presence in Japan to be sufficient “payback” for an attack now nearly seventy years past. Further, they reflect lingering stereotypes of Asians as a “yellow menace” and perpetual foreigners – so foreign that for some, even a disaster on this scale doesn’t warrant any real sympathy for the Japanese people.

Somewhat more subtle but also racist and wildly inappropriate are speculations about why there has supposedly been no looting in the wake of the tsunami. Not only does this claim appear to be false (follow up here), it also echoes racist tropes about the model minority, the passive or emotionally cold Asian, and Asians as completely identical and homogenous. Some assertions about the lack of looting are very blatantly motivated by racial prejudice, as evidenced by the many people using the cover of online anonymity to hold up the racial homogeneity of Japan and the absence of large numbers of black people as the reason for low crime in the aftermath of the earthquake. Beyond being prejudiced, this false claim harms people by erasing the realities of crime in Japan. More importantly, it erases the voices and experiences of Japanese survivors further victimized by people who use the chaos created by natural disasters as an opportunity to rob, defraud, or assault people with impunity – for example, it erases the experiences of numerous women who were raped or sexually assaulted in the weeks following the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Also making the rounds is a video by a white UCLA student who complains about ‘hordes of Asians” at “our school,” mocks Asian and Asian American students for talking on cell phones in the library (complete with Charlie Chan-style “Asian” accent and fake “Chinese,” and claims that Asian students are ignorant of proper “American manners.” You know, because people of Asian descent can’t possibly be American like white people are, and UCLA rightfully belongs to white people. You can watch the video here, but you’re not missing out on much if you don’t.

I loved Beau Sia’s response to the video because, rather than personally attacking the student, he explores the anxieties, fears, and ignorance that inform her rant, turning it into a teaching moment instead of just a reactive one (credit Angry Asian Man for that last insight).

after watching “asians in the library,” and many subsequent postings in response, i wrote this. rather than attack alexandra wallace for her thoughts, i decided to write a persona piece in her voice, as a means to address some of the greater issues revealed in her rant. in the end, this poem isn’t really about her and what she said, but more the thoughts and beliefs people hold, without considering the entire history that may have led them to think and believe in the manner that they do. my hope is that we can all use this moment to recognize that we all need to improve our ability to understand and share this world with each other. this is just a small contribution to furthering that conversation. thank you for listening.

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