Hilarity, Whiteness, and Privilege

Humor is such an incredibly powerful tool!  It has a way of making the most difficult of subject matter approachable.  In his sketch, “Being White,” Louis CK hilariously points out the reality that few want to admit.  No, white people are not better.  “Being white is clearly better.”  Warning, contains graphic language.

An important part of confronting oppression in our society is recognizing, deconstructing, and challenging the privilege that those in power have over other groups.  In a classic work on white privilege called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh lays out a series of privileges that white people enjoy in the United States that other races cannot necessarily boast.  Though the piece was written in 1988, the list is still incredibly poignant.  In considering number 7, “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race,” I cannot help but think of the recent Texas History Textbook Standards controversy.  The new standards arguably diminish the role of people of color and women in American History while giving further attention to white leaders from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.  What parts of the list really stand out to you?

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widelyrepresented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
20. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
21. 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.
22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the place I have chosen.
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.
25. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

In thinking about the above video, I think Louis CK does a tremendous job in a short comedy sketch pointing out a few of the many realities of white privilege.  As white people, those of us with less melanin in our skin have enjoyed incredible privilege throughout history, and CK is right . . . white people are the only ones who can afford to “fuck with time machines.”  In watching and laughing about CK’s sketch, though, the part that inspired me to write this blog post was his introduction of the cross section of male privilege and white privilege.  So many times when facilitating the Wall, students (most often white students) want to discuss why it is okay for black people to call a white person a “cracker” but not for white people to use the “n-word” or why it is okay for black people to use the “n-word” amongst each other.

I find this conversation honest and earnest but somewhat troubling considering that it focuses on a question that is relatively minor, particularly in contrast with the statistics that I provide about unemployment differences between whites and blacks in the United States.  It is important, though, not to dismiss the conversation because it is one that troubles a lot of white people!  I think Louis CK says it best, though, when he alludes to history, noting that when a white person is called a “cracker,” it is doing little more than bringing him “back to owning land and people.”  The reality of the words that we use is that many words an often violent history of racial oppression.  “Cracker” does not.  Is it possible for a person of color to be an asshole and call me a cracker?  ABSOLUTELY!  Does that carry anywhere near the same weight as me using the “n-word?”  Hardly.  The “n-word” and similar racial epithets have a history dripping with violence, oppression, and subjugation, a history that frankly is not over!  An incredible privilege of being white is that there really is no such word for us, partially because being white has largely meant that we have been free of much of the oppression and subjugation of racial history.

Now, the second part of the conversation that students (most often white) want to have relates to black people using the “n-word” with each other.  Now, before offering any form of a defense, it is important to note that this is a controversial debate among black people!  I mean, the NAACP has been working to bury the “n-word.” In thinking about this controversy, I love the debate between Oprah and Jay-Z on the topic, ending with them simply agreeing to disagree. I think that Jay-Z has a strong point, though, that for many black people, reclaiming the “n-word” has been an empowering process that has allowed black people to have the power in redefining the terms of use of a word that has hurt black people for such a long time.  By reclaiming the word and using it as a term of endearment, it is possible that not only are black people taking the power away from white people who use the word vindictively, but they are giving a hurtful word a positive new meaning.  That being said, I am still not a fan of the use of the term in hip hop and rap music or among my students (I wouldn’t allow the word used in my classroom when I taught), but it is not my place as a white man to say to people of color how they should use the language that so long my people used to oppress their people.  To do so would be drawing on my own white privilege and furthering the disempowerment of people of color.

I suppose I will close with this . . . I am somewhat tired of the conversation because after all that can be taken from the message of the Wall, I would hope people walk away self reflecting, and to immediately wonder why it is okay for other people to use a word but not for me to use it indicates that we are not immediately looking inward.  Instead, we are looking outward.  I suppose I hope that we all will continue to look inward at the privilege that our identities do or do not afford us so that we can deconstruct those and work toward a new understanding of power and privilege.

Peace be the Journey.

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11 thoughts on “Hilarity, Whiteness, and Privilege

  1. Tyler Neuroth

    Jamie, there are some fantastic points made in this article. I read this and find that the terms that are discussed do carry so much of a different meanning to those with the titles. Any term tied with a racial or any group of people’s identity simply reidentifies that person as being part of a particular group. When that happens there are obvious differences in what those groups have currently, and even large differences in what they’ve had or been recognized as in the past. I think thats how those terms really fit into our culture and how some words can be more hurtful than others.

    But I am in complete agreeance with you, words, which serve as little more than reminders should be shadowed by the greaters concerns that arise from the statistics presented during The Wall… These numbers have obvious disconnects, and we must work together as a world population to correct these problems.

  2. Craston Artis

    I grow tired of that conversation as well. I use the “n-word” because I have grown accustomed to using it and feel it is my prerogative. I assume the “right” to use it was earned by my ancestors. That said I do feel its use is akin to carrying the yokes of our oppression and totally agree with those that say no one should say it. So my habit trumps my belief. I love the Louis bit, it gives me hope for white people!! Seriously, it is a hard thing to put down your own lens and see things that others recognize and live. We count on comedians to be observant in that way and he uses that talent well.

  3. […] as noted before, I think it is important to infuse these tough discussion with humor, I wanted to parallel this […]

  4. From working at a summer camp that does a lot of anti-racism work, I can tell you that humor and ease is a good way to confront issues of race with kids. Although we do some serious activities with them, we also read stories that deal with race in a non-“scary” way (that is, it makes kids think about it in a way that challenges their thinking without them realizing). I’ve also done an impromptu skit about race using zucchini and summer squash…
    One thing that remains difficult, however, is that my summer camp is still enrolled with mostly white privileged kids from white privileged families. Then the worry is what about that one kids who is different? The kid who is black, hispanic, has two mommies? It makes me think of 21 on the list ( 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.). I had an especially hard time one session when we only had one child of color in our group, and he also happened to have some behavioral issues, so the way we handled him was different from the way we handled other kids. We were on the same page with his mom about how she wanted his antics to be handled and we loved this kid dearly, but I often wondered about how the other kids in the group perceived the relationship. Issues such as these never disappear, but I hope that the other work we did with the group helped them to see that we were working on issues of race and social justice.

  5. […] to write about privilege, especially after I received some great feedback from one of my posts on White Privilege.  Based on the suggestion of a friend, I was going to write this week on the concept of Straight […]

  6. […] is very much on my mind, and I have been thinking over a few of my past posts about white privilege and privilege in general.  If you haven’t yet checked them out, I would love to hear your […]

  7. […] Knapsack.“  She helped me to see that I had been using her list white privileges all wrong, even on this blog!  She said that if she could go back and rewrite the intro for her original list, she would make […]

  8. […] should everything be in bounds to us?  The question being asked is, in essence, the epitome of White Privilege.  As White folks, we tend to think that every door should be open to us, every conversation should […]

  9. […] White Privilege manifests itself in many forms.  One very simple way to see privilege, though, is to look at the ways that White parents are privileged to teach their children to interact with police versus how parents of Color must teach their children to interact with police.  The former is “with respect” because “the police are your friend.”  This is how I was taught to think of the police.  The latter is “with respect” because “at best, they will harass you or arrest you for no good reason; at worse, they will kill you.”  And the police involved will suffer little-to-no consequences. […]

  10. […] The question of why White people can’t use the n-word is, in essence, the epitome of White privilege. […]

  11. […] The question of why White people can’t use the n-word is, in essence, the epitome of White privilege. […]

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