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No-so invisible white privilege in the era of Trayvon Martin

July 22, 2013

Teacher Musings:

I remember first hearing about Trayvon Martin’s death on my Facebook feed. His death struck me as so painful, so unnecessary, so WRONG. My heart broke for this child and his family, and I heard that same refrain I hear in my mind every time I hear about some kind of violent act in my city: “It could have been one of my students.”  Yet I was so lucky (unfairly lucky, as I will explain) to not face this thought “It could have been my son.”

There are so many things about Trayvon’s death, and the ensuing legal case, that have troubled the American public. I will be totally honest; I haven’t followed the whole case much more than listening to NPR reports. Yet, even with this limited listening, I see how this case is forcing white folks to confront the realities about our racist system, rather than whether or not too many people are just simply “racists.” Sure, a person might be able to argue that Zimmerman was wrong and to blame for shooting Trayvon, but that he/she would never do something like that because they are not racist. This idea that we are color-blind, or somehow “post-racial” was so obviously wrong to me, even before this whole horrible event.  But the fact that Zimmerman was set free almost immediately after the shooting, the realities of the mostly-white jury, the not-guilty verdict, all illuminate just a small piece of the racism inherent in our social and legal system.  Obama said it well at his press conference the other day:

“And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

In this comment Obama was speaking specifically about the stand your ground laws.  But I can easily see how this logic applies to any number of situations.  In fact, I see it most clearly when I think my own privileges as a white mother of white children, especially in light of all the African-American parents who have spoken up about what this case means for them and their children, such as this fantastic commentary from Toure.

In her seminal piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peggy McIntosh discusses the importance of understanding racism through the lens of white privilege.  Specifically, she says:

“To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subject taboo. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.” (emphasis added)

One of the ways white folks stay unaware of this limited “freedom of confident action” is by not examining their own privilege. In that vein I want to borrow the idea of McIntosh’s “knapsack of privilege” and list just a few of the privileges I have, as the white parent of a white son, that are not had by many, many other parents who love their kids just as much as I do:

  • I will never have to teach my son that he shouldn’t run in public for fear of being perceived as a criminal.
  • In driver’s ed my son will likely learn that, if he gets pulled over for speeding, he should get his license and registration out.  I won’t have to amend that by saying he should just keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times so that the police don’t think he is going for a gun
  • If my son goes out wearing baggy pants, a large jacket, or a hoodie, I won’t worry about him being shot because of how he looks.
  • If my son is ever out too late, I will fear for him, but I will be reasonably sure that he has not be arrested or detained or shot.
  • When my son asks me what “insert racial slur” means, because he heard it somewhere else, I will explain it to him.  But it won’t have been directed at him.
  • Most of my son’s teachers will look like him.

There are many, many more privileges I’m not listing here.  These are just the ones I came up with in a few minutes.  But, even with these few, it is obvious to me that I am not living in a color-blind or post-racial America.  Indeed, I’m living in an America where my son and daughter will inherit privileges and freedoms that are systematically denied to others simply because of their race. If you want to read some even stronger analysis of this system of racial oppression, check out this post and this one too.

At this point I come to the inevitable question, the question so many have been pondering for years and years and years.  What can I do about this?  What difference can I make?  I’m still trying to figure this out for myself.  However, I highly, highly recommend that everyone read this book (click the picture to purchase a copy on Amazon):



From → Reflection

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