Race Social Science 400 Words Short Discussion In 24 Hrs Social Science homework help

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FEATURE

My college class asks what it means to be white in America — but
interrogating that question as a black woman in the real world is much
harder to do.

By Claudia Rankine

July 17, 2019

n the early days of the run-up to the 2016 election, I was just beginning

to prepare a class on whiteness to teach at Yale University, where I had

been newly hired. Over the years, I had come to realize that I often did

not share historical knowledge with the persons to whom I was speaking.

“What’s redlining?” someone would ask. “George Washington freed his

slaves?” someone else would inquire. But as I listened to Donald Trump’s

inflammatory rhetoric during the campaign that spring, the class took on a

new dimension. Would my students understand the long history that

informed a comment like one Trump made when he announced his

presidential candidacy? “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending

their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and

they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re

bringing crime. They’re rapists.” When I heard those words, I wanted my

students to track immigration laws in the United States. Would they connect

I Wanted to Know What
White Men Thought About
Their Privilege. So I Asked.

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the treatment of the undocumented with the treatment of Irish, Italian and

Asian people over the centuries?

In preparation, I needed to slowly unpack and understand how whiteness

was created. How did the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted

citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person,” develop over the years

into our various immigration acts? What has it taken to cleave citizenship

from “free white person”? What was the trajectory of the Ku Klux Klan after

its formation at the end of the Civil War, and what was its relationship to the

Black Codes, those laws subsequently passed in Southern states to restrict

black people’s freedoms? Did the United States government bomb the black

community in Tulsa, Okla., in 1921? How did Italians, Irish and Slavic peoples

become white? Why do people believe abolitionists could not be racist?

I wanted my students to gain an awareness of a growing body of work by

sociologists, theorists, historians and literary scholars in a field known as

“whiteness studies,” the cornerstones of which include Toni Morrison’s

“Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” David

Roediger’s “The Wages of Whiteness,” Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Whiteness

of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race,”

Richard Dyer’s “White” and more recently Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History

of White People.” Roediger, a historian, had explained the development of the

field, one that my class would engage with, saying, “The 1980s and early ’90s

saw the publication of major works on white identity’s intricacies and costs

by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, alongside new works by white writers

and activists asking similar questions historically. Given the seeming novelty

of such white writing and the urgency of understanding white support for

Ronald Reagan, ‘critical whiteness studies’ gained media attention and a

small foothold in universities.” This area of study aimed to make visible a

history of whiteness that through its association with “normalcy” and

“universality” masked its omnipresent institutional power.

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My class eventually became Constructions of Whiteness, and over the two

years that I have taught it, many of my students (who have included just

about every race, gender identity and sexual orientation) interviewed white

people on campus or in their families about their understanding of American

history and how it relates to whiteness. Some students simply wanted to

know how others around them would define their own whiteness. Others

were troubled by their own family members’ racism and wanted to

understand how and why certain prejudices formed. Still others wanted to

show the impact of white expectations on their lives.

Perhaps this is why one day in New Haven, staring into the semicircle of oak

trees in my backyard, I wondered what it would mean to ask random white

men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself — a middle-aged

black woman — walking up to strangers and doing so. Would they react as

the police captain in Plainfield, Ind., did when his female colleague told him

during a diversity-training session that he benefited from “white male

privilege”? He became angry and accused her of using a racialized slur

against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave, and a reprimand

was placed permanently in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear

myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after

white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for

Trevor Noah or Stephen Colbert and just forgot my camera crew? The

running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to

converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is

white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers

except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did

not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage, even if my fantasies of these

encounters seemed outlandish. I wanted to try.

Weeks later, it occurred to me that I tend to be surrounded by white men I

don’t know when I’m traveling, caught in places that are essentially

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nowhere: in between, en route, up in the air. As I crisscrossed the United

States, Europe and Africa giving talks about my work, I found myself

considering these white men who passed hours with me in airport lounges, at

gates, on planes. They seemed to me to make up the largest percentage of

business travelers in the liminal spaces where we waited. That I was among

them in airport lounges and in first-class cabins spoke in part to my own

relative economic privilege, but the price of my ticket, of course, does not

translate into social capital. I was always aware that my value in our

culture’s eyes is determined by my skin color first and foremost. Maybe

these other male travelers could answer my questions about white privilege.

I felt certain that as a black woman, there had to be something I didn’t

understand.

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Just recently, a friend who didn’t get a job he applied for told me that as a

white male, he was absorbing the problems of the world. He meant he was

being punished for the sins of his forefathers. He wanted me to know he

understood it was his burden to bear. I wanted to tell him that he needed to

take a long view of the history of the workplace, given the imbalances that

generations of hiring practices before him had created. But would that really

make my friend feel any better? Did he understand that today, 65 percent of

elected officials are white men, though they make up only 31 percent of the

American population? White men have held almost all the power in this

country for 400 years.

[The grief that white Americans can’t share.]

I knew that my friend was trying to communicate his struggle to find a way

to understand the complicated American structure that holds us both. I

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wanted to ask him if his expectation was a sign of his privilege but decided,

given the loss of his job opportunity, that my role as a friend probably

demanded other responses.

After a series of casual conversations with my white male travelers, would I

come to understand white privilege any differently? They couldn’t know

what it’s like to be me, though who I am is in part a response to who they are,

and I didn’t really believe I understood them, even as they determined so

much of what was possible in my life and in the lives of others. But because I

have only lived as me, a person who regularly has to negotiate conscious and

unconscious dismissal, erasure, disrespect and abuse, I fell into this

wondering silently. Always, I hesitated.

I hesitated when I stood in line for a flight across the country, and a white

man stepped in front of me. He was with another white man. “Excuse me,” I

said. “I am in this line.” He stepped behind me but not before saying to his

flight mate, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days.”

Was his statement a defensive move meant to cover his rudeness and

embarrassment, or were we sharing a joke? Perhaps he, too, had heard the

recent anecdote in which a black woman recalled a white woman’s stepping

in front of her at her gate. When the black woman told her she was in line,

the white woman responded that it was the line for first class. Was the man’s

comment a sly reference? But he wasn’t laughing, not even a little, not even

a smile. Deadpan.

Later, when I discussed this moment with my therapist, she told me that she

thought the man’s statement was in response to his flight mate, not me. I

didn’t matter to him, she said; that’s why he could step in front of me in the

first place. His embarrassment, if it was embarrassment, had everything to

do with how he was seen by the person who did matter: his white male

companion. I was allowing myself to have too much presence in his

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imagination, she said. Should this be a comfort? Was my total invisibility

preferable to a targeted insult?

During the flight, each time he removed or replaced something in his case

overhead, he looked over at me. Each time, I looked up from my book to meet

his gaze and smiled — I like to think I’m not humorless. I tried to imagine

what my presence was doing to him. On some level, I thought, I must have

dirtied up his narrative of white privilege securing white spaces. In my class,

I had taught “Whiteness as Property,” an article published in The Harvard

Law Review in 1993, in which the author, Cheryl Harris, argues that “the set

of assumptions, privileges and benefits that accompany the status of being

white have become a valuable asset that whites sought to protect.” These are

the assumptions of privilege and exclusion that have led many white

Americans to call the police on black people trying to enter their own homes

or vehicles. Racial profiling becomes another sanctioned method of

segregating space. Harris goes on to explain how much white people rely on

these benefits, so much so that their expectations inform the interpretations

of our laws. “Stand your ground” laws, for example, mean whites can claim

that fear made them kill an unarmed black person. Or voter-registration laws

in certain states can function as de facto Jim Crow laws. “American law,”

Harris writes, “has recognized a property interest in whiteness.”

On the plane, I wanted to enact a new narrative that included the whiteness

of the man who had stepped in front of me. I felt his whiteness should be a

component of what we both understood about him, even as his whiteness

would not be the entirety of who he is. His unconscious understanding of

whiteness meant the space I inhabited should have been only his. The old

script would have left his whiteness unacknowledged in my consideration of

his slight. But a rude man and a rude white man have different

presumptions. Just as when a white person confronted by an actual black

human being needs to negotiate stereotypes of blackness so that he can

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arrive at the person standing before him, I hoped to give the man the same

courtesy but in the reverse. Seeing his whiteness meant I understood my

presence as an unexpected demotion for him. It was too bad if he felt that

way. Still, I wondered, what is this “stuckness” inside racial hierarchies that

refuses the neutrality of the skies? I hoped to find a way to have this

conversation.

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culture.]

The phrase “white privilege” was popularized in 1988 by Peggy McIntosh, a

Wellesley College professor who wanted to define “invisible systems

conferring dominance on my group.” McIntosh came to understand that she

benefited from hierarchical assumptions and policies simply because she

was white. I would have preferred if instead of “white privilege” she had

used the term “white dominance,” because “privilege” suggested

hierarchical dominance was desired by all. Nonetheless, the phrase has

stuck. The title of her essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal

Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s

Studies” was a mouthful. McIntosh listed 46 ways white privilege is enacted.

“Number 19: I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting

my race on trial”; “Number 20: I can do well in a challenging situation

without being called a credit to my race”; “Number 27: I can go home from

most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather

than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or

feared”; “Number 36: If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask

of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.” I’m not

clear why McIntosh stopped at 46 except as a way of saying, “You get the

picture.” My students were able to add their own examples easily.

My students and I also studied the work of the white documentary

filmmaker Whitney Dow. In the last couple of years, Dow has been part of

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Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and

Empirics (Incite), which gathered data on more than 850 people who identify

as white or partly white and the communities in which they live. He filmed

more than a hundred of their oral histories. This work, like McIntosh’s, was

another way of thinking about the ordinariness of white hierarchical

thinking. I asked Dow what he learned in his conversations with white men.

“They are struggling to construct a just narrative for themselves as new

information comes in, and they are having to restructure and refashion their

own narratives and coming up short,” he said. “I include myself in that,” he

added after a moment. “We are seeing the deconstruction of the white-male

archetype. The individual actor on the grand stage always had the support of

a genocidal government, but this is not the narrative we grew up with. It’s a

challenge to adjust.”

The interviews, collected in Incite’s initial report, “Facing Whiteness,” vary

greatly in terms of knowledge of American history and experiences. One

interviewee declares: “The first slave owner in America was a black man.

How many people know that? The slaves that were brought to America were

sold to the white man by blacks. So, I don’t feel that we owe them any special

privileges other than that anybody else has, any other race.” While this

interviewee denies any privilege, another has come to see how his whiteness

enables his mobility in America: “I have to accept the reality that because

I’m a man, I — whether I was aware of that or not at any specific time —

probably had some sort of hand up in a situation.” He added, “The longer I’m

in law enforcement and the more aware I am of the world around me, the

more I realize that being of Anglo-Saxon descent, being a man and being in a

region of America that is somewhat rural, and because it’s rural by default

mostly white, means that I definitely get preference.” This interviewee, who

while recognizing his privilege, and who according to Whitney Dow had been

“pretty ostracized because of his progressiveness” in the workplace, still

indicates — through his use of words like “probably” and phrases like

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“because it’s rural by default mostly white” — that he believes white

privilege is in play in only certain circumstances. Full comprehension would

include the understanding that white privilege comes with expectations of

protection and preferences no matter where he lives in the country.

[How privilege became a provocation.]

How angry could I be at the white man on the plane, the one who glanced at

me each time he stood up the way you look at a stone you had tripped on? I

understood that the man’s behavior was also his socialization. My own

socialization had, in many ways, prepared me for him. I was not

overwhelmed by our encounter because my blackness is “consent not to be a

single being.” This phrase, which finds its origins in the work of the West

Indian writer Édouard Glissant but was reintroduced to me in the recent

work of the poet and critical theorist Fred Moten, gestures toward the fact

that I can refuse the white man’s stereotypes of blackness, even as he

interacts with those stereotypes. What I wanted was to know what the white

man saw or didn’t see when he walked in front of me at the gate.

It’s hard to exist and also accept my lack of existence. Frank Wilderson III,

chair of African-American studies at the University of California, Irvine,

borrows the sociological term “social death” to explain my there-but-not-

there status in a historically anti-black society. The outrage — and if we are

generous, the embarrassment — that occasioned the white passenger’s

comment were a reaction to the unseen taking up space; space itself is one of

the understood privileges of whiteness.

I was waiting in another line for access to another plane in another city as

another group of white men approached. When they realized they would

have to get behind a dozen or so people already in line, they simply formed

their own line next to us. I said to the white man standing in front of me,

“Now, that is the height of white male privilege.” He laughed and remained

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smiling all the way to his seat. He wished me a good flight. We had shared

something. I don’t know if it was the same thing for each of us — the same

recognition of racialized privilege — but I could live with that polite form of

unintelligibility.

I found the suited men who refused to fall in line exhilarating and amusing

(as well as obnoxious). Watching them was like watching a spontaneous play

about white male privilege in one act. I appreciated the drama. One or two of

them chuckled at their own audacity. The gate agent did an interesting sort

of check-in by merging the newly formed line with the actual line. The people

in my line, almost all white and male themselves, were in turn quizzical and

accepting.

After I watched this scene play out, I filed it away to use as an example in my

class. How would my students read this moment? Some would no doubt be

enraged by the white female gate agent who let it happen. I would ask why it

was easier to be angry with her than with the group of men. Because she

doesn’t recognize or utilize her institutional power, someone would say.

Based on past classes, I could assume the white male students would be

quick to distance themselves from the men at the gate; white solidarity has

no place in a class that sets out to make visible the default positions of

whiteness.

As the professor, I felt this was a narrative that could help me gauge the level

of recognition of white privilege in the class, because other white people were

also inconvenienced by the actions of this group of men. The students

wouldn’t be distracted by society’s abuse of minorities because everyone

seemed inconvenienced. Some students, though, would want to see the

moment as gendered, not racialized. I would ask them if they could imagine a

group of black men pulling off this action without the white men in my line

responding or the gate agent questioning the men even if they were within

their rights.

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As I became more and more frustrated with myself for avoiding asking my

question, I wondered if presumed segregation in business or first class

should have been Number 47 on McIntosh’s list. Just do it, I told myself. Just

ask a random white guy how he feels about his privilege.

On my next flight, I came close. I was a black woman in the company of

mostly white men, in seats that allowed for both proximity and separate

spaces. The flight attendant brought drinks to everyone around me but

repeatedly forgot my orange juice. Telling myself orange juice is sugar and

I myself am overdetermined by my race. Is that avoidable?
Is that a problem? Had I made the problem or was I given
the problem? Photo illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

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she might be doing my post-cancer body a favor, I just nodded when she

apologized for the second time. The third time she walked by without the

juice, the white man sitting next to me said to her: “This is incredible. You

have brought me two drinks in the time you have forgotten to bring her one.”

She returned immediately with the juice.

I thanked him. He said, “She isn’t suited to her job.” I didn’t respond: “She

didn’t forget your drinks. She didn’t forget you. You are seated next to no one

in this no place.” Instead, I said, “She just likes you more.” He perhaps

thought I was speaking about him in particular and blushed. Did he

understand I was joking about white male privilege? It didn’t seem so. The

red crept up his neck into his cheeks, and he looked shy and pleased at the

same time. He brought both hands up to his cheeks as if to hold in the heat of

this embarrassing pleasure.

“Coming or going?” he asked, changing the subject.

“I’m returning from Johannesburg.”

“Really?” he said. “I was just in Cape Town.”

Hence your advocacy, I thought ungenerously. Why was that thought in my

head? I myself am overdetermined by my race. Is that avoidable? Is that a

problem? Had I made the problem or was I given the problem?

As I looked at the man in Seat 2B, I wondered if my historical positioning was

turning his humanity into evidence of white male dominance. Are white men

overly determined by their skin color in my eyes? Are they being forced, as

my friend suggested, to absorb the problems of the world?

On the long flight, I didn’t bring up white male privilege, jokes or otherwise,

again. Instead we wandered around our recent memories of South Africa and

discussed the resort where he stayed and the safari I took. I didn’t bring up

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Soweto or the Apartheid Museum that I visited in Johannesburg or the

lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala., which the Apartheid Museum

reminded me of. I wanted my fellow traveler to begin a conversation about

his privilege this time. For once. I wanted him to think about his whiteness,

especially because he had just left South Africa, a country that suffered, as

James Baldwin said, “from the same delusion the Americans suffer from — it

too thought it was a white country.” But I imagined he felt the less said about

race relations in the United States or South Africa, the more possible it was

for us to be interlocutors. That was my fantasy, in any case.

Back home, when I mentioned these encounters to my white husband, he

was amused. “They’re just defensive,” he said. “White fragility,” he added,

with a laugh. This white man who has spent the past 25 years in the world

alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege.

Certainly he knows the right terminology to use, even when these agreed-

upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition.

These phrases — white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation —

have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.

At that moment, he wanted to discuss our current president instead. “That,”

he said, “is a clear case of indignation and rage in the face of privilege writ

large. Real power. Real consequences.” He was not wrong, of course, but he

joined all the “woke” white men who set their privilege outside themselves —

as in, I know better than to be ignorant or defensive about my own privilege.

Never mind that that capacity to set himself outside the pattern of white

male dominance is the privilege. There’s no outrunning the kingdom, the

power and the glory.

I finally got up my nerve to ask a stranger directly about white privilege as I

was sitting next to him at the gate. He had initiated our conversation,

because he was frustrated about yet another delay. We shared that

frustration together. Eventually he asked what I did, and I told him that I

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write and teach. “Where do you teach?” he asked. “Yale,” I answered. He told

me his son wanted to go there but hadn’t been accepted during the early-

application process. “It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card,” he

added.

Was he thinking out loud? Were the words just slipping out before he could

catch them? Was this the innocence of white privilege? Was he yanking my

chain? Was he snapping the white-privilege flag in my face? Should I have

asked him why he had the expectation that his son should be admitted early,

without delay, without pause, without waiting? Should I have asked how he

knew a person of color “took” his son’s seat and not another white son of one

of these many white men sitting around us?

I was perhaps holding my breath. I decided to just breathe.

“The Asians are flooding the Ivy Leagues,” he added after a moment.

Perhaps the clarification was intended to make it clear that he wasn’t

speaking right now about black people and their forms of affirmative action.

He had remembered something. He had recalled who was sitting next to him.

[50 years of affirmitive action: what went right and what it got wrong?]

Then I did it. I asked. “I’ve been thinking about white male privilege, and I

wonder if you think about yours or your son’s?” It almost seemed to be a non

sequitur, but he rolled with it.

“Not me,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for everything I have.”

What was it that Justice Brett Kavanaugh said at his Supreme Court

confirmation hearing? “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the No. 1 law

school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my

tail in college.” He apparently believed this despite the fact that his

grandfather went to Yale. I couldn’t tell by looking at this man I was sitting

next to, but I wondered if he was an ethnic white rather than a …

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