Finally! At least one white person is well on their way of understanding whiteness and white privilege and how both operate to suppress and subjugated people of color.
Of course, some folks are pushing back against the video’s message. The blog Sherry Talks Back is at least one I’ve found to present the most…interesting argument against the young woman’s video. In her analysis, The Paralysis of “White Privilege,” Sherry essentially takes the young woman to task for ignoring the class component of her anti-racist, anti-white privilege message.
One, wearing an “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirt, or chanting it, is an act of solidarity with victims of racism, not an assertion that everyone faces the same oppression. Trayvon’s own mother has called for multiracial crowds of protesters to identify with Trayvon and the fact that thousands have done so is a testament to a growing disgust with racist police, courts and actions.
Wearing these t-shirts and chanting that you are anybody other than who you actually are is a collective means of expressing outrage at the system, sympathy with victims of injustice and unity with others who feel the same way. It’s why it became so popular among abolitionists to wear “I am Troy Davis” t-shirts in the run-up to that innocent Black man’s execution in September 2011, and why his sister Martina Correia insisted everyone wear one. Visual solidarity is powerful.
The video woman argues that white people wearing these t’s must think that they are making Trayvon into a white, middle class person — presumably like themselves — in order to render him sympathetic in the eyes of racists.
Isn’t it possible, even likely, that people protesting racism wearing these t-shirts actually oppose racism and don’t seek to justify it? If not, then everything we do is called into question as possibly its opposite; nothing we do matters, nothing we say or argue has any validity, but must be suspect as meaning its complete opposite. This is possible, I suppose, but it’s a also a recipe for doing nothing, saying nothing, challenging nothing — paralysis.
Two, arguing, as the video woman does, that white people could only wear “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts exposes the essentially reactionary core of this argument. Like Zimmerman, who is Latino, white people have been indoctrinated in racism and though video woman, according to her account, has managed to escape the worst of its clutches through great parenting, education and critical thinking, she along with all other whites are condemned to only identify with oppressors, never the oppressed. In fact, to identify with the oppressed, she argues, is an act of immaturity. Au contraire!
Racism, according to this thinking, is not the result of a ruling class’s need to structure oppression in order to gain profits and spread crappy ideas that divide the working class majority from itself. The social construction of racism by those in power centuries ago in order to justify slavery is absent in this analysis.
Instead, racism is conceived as a sort of ideological cancer of no clear origin that metastasizes in all white people, regardless of what they do, think or say. And like a dystopic nightmare, there’s no way out.
Third, according to her “white privilege” argument, there are no distinctions between whites in positions of power and the majority without. In fact, there’s no accounting for how a Black president could preside over a racist system in which a Latino man has killed a Black man and was let off by a mostly white police force led by a Black police chief.
She refers to “the system,” but has no class outlook in which to analyze how the system works and in whose interests. Because if all white people benefit— which includes the majority of people on food stamps, on unemployment and living in poverty in the United States — then these benefits are rather illusory, aren’t they?
She goes on to say:
The video ends with an argument for whites — again, all conceived of as middle class in the midst of the worst depression since the worst depression — to jettison racist ideas and use their “privilege” to fight the system. While I certainly agree with challenging racism, the video ideologically disarms any antiracist white person from actually joining the struggle — whites better not show up to Trayvon marches wearing “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts!
This video reflects a politically confused way of talking about race as if it were simply about bad ideas in people’s heads and not conscious structures of oppression kept in place by the 1% in the interests of the 1%.
Worse, it’s often counter-productive because by reducing racism to bad ideas and telling all whites they’re beneficiaries, the privilege argument demands ordinary white people relinquish privileges that they do not have, rather than unite to win what’s been stolen from all of us.
Perhaps the most telling thing about this “white privilege” argument is that many radicals have had their sights for justice set so low that it has come to be thought of as a privilege not to be gunned down in the night on a snack errand while wearing a hoodie because of the color of your skin. Isn’t that simply a human right?
While I understand and actually agree with a good bit of Sherry’s assessment, I find her dismissal and criticism of this video troubling.
As an aside, let me say this: the Occupy Wall Street movement has breathed new life into the argument of how class discrepancies and divisions have ripped apart the American Dream. This movement has shifted the debate to how ordinary Americans have been cheated out of a system–promised to them if they just worked hard and paid their bills–that was set up to benefit the 1 percent all along.
What this movement has also done is to minimize or erase all forms of discussions surrounding the racial component of the class system. The majority-white participants in the movement have pretty much shut down any attempts by people of color to inject the discussions surround race/ethnicity into the debate. Sherry’s argument is yet another attempt to do such a thing.
Now that I got that out of the way, let me continue on…
Simply wearing a “I am Trayvon Martin” shirt and/or hoodie doesn’t mean shit to a person of color. It is not an act of solidarity with people of color, particularly black people in this case. While it is a superficial collective way of expressing outrage with the system, that means of expressing solidarity doesn’t mean shit if white people don’t actively engage to dismantle that system.
Believe it or not, Sherry, all white people benefit from whiteness and white privilege. In order to dismantle that system of whiteness and white privilege, the burden is on white people to do more than wear “I Am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts to express their outrage at the system. Since people of color did not invent and justify whiteness and racism, it is white people’s responsibility–both rich and poor white people–to begin working to bring down the wall of white privilege and whiteness that assaults people of color on a daily basis.
Sherry also criticizes the video for not mentioning the class component and how poor white folks are also oppressed by a system set up by the 1 percent and protects the interest of those in the 1 percent. In a nutshell–that’s a cop-out as it allows white people to minimize racism’s impact on people of color. I find that sophomoric kind of thinking troublesome because white people, both rich and poor, have leveraged their white privilege and racism to subjugate and oppress people of color. While the class component should unite people in their efforts to dismantle the economic system that doesn’t do the 99% justice, one can’t shy away from the elephant in the room: white people, both rich and poor, have historically refused to implement real change that would result in the reduction of the white privilege and power that grants them superiority of marginalized people of color.
Whiteness preaches to poor white folks that their solidarity with rich white people lies in the fact that they are white, which makes them superior to people of color. Understanding how powerful being white and worshiping whiteness has on one’s advancement, poor white people have generally been reluctant to speak out against the same system of oppression set up to also benefit them.
Sherry also criticizes the woman in the video for calling for all white people–both rich and poor–to “relinquish privileges that they do not have, rather than unite to win what’s been stolen from all of us.” The problem with Sherry’s thinking is she would rather focus on the class struggle and for all people to unite behind the overthrow of the 1% while at the same time neglecting how both white privilege allows white people in the 99% to retain their power in society.
I find it offensive and somewhat condescending that Sherry would even proclaim white people in the 99% don’t have privileges. Any person of color can and will tell Sherry that both poor and rich white folks are well-aware of their racial privileges and how to leverage said privileges to their advantage.
Sadly, it is a privilege for white people not to be racially profiled, confronted and shot dead. It is a privilege for white people–both rich and poor–not to have their race and skin color equated to criminality and evilness, and used by practitioners of whiteness to justify their racist beliefs and actions.
At the end of the day, all white people, both rich and poor, wouldn’t dare trade places with any person of color in society as that would mean an automatic deduction of their power and privileges.