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.
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.