In the last 24 hours I found myself (once again) in a Facebook post-thread-reply orgy. At one point, a scary-smart straight white guy asked me to define “white privilege” for him “and then apply it to the following rant:
“What of white-privilege – that fine institution that welcomes other people’s bigoted opinions without violent retaliation (think Islam & Communism), ended slavery (which still exists in Africa and Asia), doesn’t behead or necklace gay people (still happening in Africa), and is the only culture that will censor and admonish its own members publicly ([himself]) – must I pack it up and go somewhere less unappreciative? Or should I stay here and use it to empower as many people as I can influence?”
I offered to derive a definition of white privilege from his rant instead of creating a definition and then applying it to his rant:
“White privilege is the ability to identify with the actions of the skin-pigment group to which biology assigned you only insofar as it’s convenient, believing that the world will overlook this selective individualism since whiteness (being strongly represented in media and in corporate in its infinite, nuanced human complexity) is the unsuspicious, trusted default. For this reason, white people are often thought of and treated as individuals while everyone else is thought of more often as part of a group.
“That privilege, which you wouldn’t see as such because it’s only right that you be treated as an individual, allows you to cherry-pick the best of which your immediate racial compatriots have done in the deceptively recent past, hold that up as representative of whiteness in general, then ask me to apply an alien definition of white privilege that won’t match up to the picture of whiteness that white privilege has allowed you to put up anyway. Then I look like an idiot trying. I might be wrong and it might be due to our own social failing as black people, but from where I stand, most white okes have the luxury of more interior, #DawsonsCreek type struggles, which come with having been afforded more room and education to define and assert your individuality. I envy that.”
I also said,
“What gives you away is the paternalism (which bordered on but didn’t cross over into a patronizing tone) when you ask whether you should ‘pack it up and go somewhere less unappreciative.’ So you admit that you have the option of global mobility, to an extent, and it is by sheer graciousness that you deign to stick around where you are accused of being the bad guy by virtue of your skin, and try to show people that you are an individual white guy who isn’t as bad as some groups of white guys have been. You’re typing this from the United States where a great number of black men have a relationship with the police force that is precisely the opposite of that privilege: they cannot just pack up and go though many probably wish, desperately wish, that they could. Just to feel safe in the black skins that get them accused of being the bad guy.”
Parts of my response were inspired by American John Metta’s I, Racist, where he explains that
“Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people. White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are ‘you,’ I am ‘one of them.’ Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it. What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that ‘people in The North are racist’ is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.
The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says ‘Racism still exists. It is real,’ and a white person argues ‘You’re wrong, I’m not racist at all. I don’t even see any racism’.”
He also says,
“Even the fact that America has a growing number of violent hate groups, populated mostly by white men, and that nearly all serial killers are white men cannot shadow the fundamental truth of white male goodness. In fact, we like White serial killers so much, we make mini-series about them.”
He describes black people’s relationship with the system by saying they are “systematically challenged in a thousand small ways that actually made it easier for you to succeed in life.”
“Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.”
It is often argued that it is black people who keep racism alive. This argument is often made by people who can afford to individualate from the group they come from, its past, its guilts and its issues. But not its privileges, for it is by those privileges that they afford real estate at a respectable distance from everything negative about the group.
We all owe a debt to whiteness for inventing (or discovering) the precious but high-maintenance commodity that is the individual in all of his infinite, nuanced complex humanity. When my Facebook friend identifies white privilege as “that fine institution that welcomes other people’s bigoted opinions without violent retaliation….doesn’t behead or necklace gay people (still happening in Africa), and is the only culture that will censor and admonish its own members publicly” and whose individuals have the right to “pack it up and go somewhere less unappreciative” as well as the option to “stay here and use it to empower…many people,” he is admitting that it is whiteness that invented, refined, perfected and redeemed the individual from the mire of historic group guilt and, by extension, individual complicity.
But what he and many white people cannot admit is that to do so, whiteness required resources, time and sweat, which it took from non-white people-groups at those points in history when whiteness had perfected the exploitation of non-white bodies within those groups before turning around, calling such exploitation uncivilized and pointing out how it still happens “in Africa.”
If we cannot call this the hypocrisy that it is, it is because the greatest gift whiteness afforded its children was a clear conscience through a liberal education and upbringing; as individuals, they never have and never would have done what some of their ancestors and other white people have done. It is not polite to ask how this gift of moral white whiteness was bought because those kinds of conversations have separated white abolitionist from white church, white integrationist from white separatist, white father from white son and white brother from white brother. So it is that the denial of even whiteness as a construct has this alibi: white people have not agreed on what to do with the other races for long enough, they argue, that they should not even be viewed as a group.
This is why the Western emergence of the individual is viewed with suspicion by other people-groups: white people have not, as a group, admitted that they could only navel-gaze upon and develop the inviolable individual with his human rights (i.e. humanism) while slaves of colour were doing all the manual labour out of sight in those distant colonies. When I talk of human rights to black people, I am speaking in the language of the Oppressor who has denied that he is such.
When today individuals in the West deny the bulk and consequences of past group exploitation perpetrated by ancestral groups from which they have unhinged with a change of mind but not a questioning or disinheritance of privilege, they can’t expect to be taken seriously when they advocate for human (women’s and gay) rights. The about-turn is not accepted at face value by African and Asian countries: it is regarded as another step in another conspiracy to destabilize non-western people-groups and tribes, or at the least dictate a new ethic to them in the implementation of a moral neo-colonialism.
White privilege is the freedom to deny that constructs exist because once you have the resources and mobility to opt in and out of the group, its guilts and its prejudices, you have no reason to admit that constructs have been constructed, let alone that you have unduly benefited from them. White privilege is the gift of not knowing about white privilege whilst benefiting from it.
A few months ago I told leaders at the church I was affiliated with that I was going to come out and get vocal about homophobia. The pastors graciously offered to formulate a church stance in relation to my decision, if I could convince them theologically that embracing openly gay people and offering them the sacrament of marriage was the right thing to do. In the end, I think what stopped them from accepting the scriptural hypothesis I offered them was who they were: as a group of white individuals, they were unwitting deniers of constructs even while they used their more sanitized permutations to hold their group together.
While they alleviate the effects of practical suffering, I have not heard them preach consistently, cohesively and deeply from a single lexicon be it that of feminism or Calvinism or Queer Theory or Arminianism. I believe they are scared to admit this world of invisible ideas exists and they have to pick one and all its ramifications; they deny the existence of invisible ideas even as they preach an invisible God.
They are sorry for homophobia but cannot denounce (or recognize) church heterosexism as a construct. They do not recognize constructs, at least not in their ugly totality. Their individuality and his innocence from group guilt is too precious a commodity to trade in for the sickening truth of how their individuality was afforded and removed from the constructed world and its connection to slaves that constructed it in the concrete while philosophers were deconstructing it in the abstract, making the world “safe for democracy” and democratic individuals. They suffer from what has been called “white fragility” and I did not have the steel to break it to or for them.
To have white privilege is to be given from birth the tools needed to move through the world without having to reckon with the power of constructs. The final straw was the church’s good-hearted attempt to acclimatize me to a theology of “pure grace” that said that because of Jesus’ atonement for my sins, I was pure in God’s eyes. In not so many words, they said I was as good as straight. But when the blood of Jesus is used not only to redeem white individuals from the guilt of their fathers’ sin (from which individuals still unwittingly benefit today) but also transform gay black individuals with a chip on their shoulder into good-as-straight white-as-snow individuals, then there is no room to discuss the devastation caused by still-existing, persistent constructs, or, for that matter, the price paid for anyone’s ability to remain above the fray. Lambs remain silent as they are sent off for slaughter by the good intentions and white fragility of those entrusted with ministering to the hurt in the world. They put band aids on gunshot wounds. The Atonement they appropriated in their further distancing of the individual from their group’s guilt was also used to sterilize (in every sense) and separate me from my right to speak up about group suffering. There are no groups in Christ because Christianity is a matter of the individual heart.
The white church needs a God who can turn gay people straight even if it’s in their imagination or by legal fiction; such a God supports white Christians’ right to deny the construct and effects of heterosexism, the denial of non-straight bodies and blackness, along with the denial of all constructs and their effects. All I had to do was nod along. I did so while they were watching. And when they weren’t, with more pain than I could explain (but no surprise whatsoever) I turned and left them in the numbing hands of their out-of-touch God.
I imagine the rise of gay visibility to mean the dwindling of heterosexist white congregations. For once whiteness parted ways with constructs and group accountability; once enslavement and colonialism went out of vogue and colonies had attained liberation, the white male Jesus also lost relevance to his white beneficiaries and pioneers. Christianity once bought colonialists the moral right to annex and enslave; today, it is a lukewarm, toothless faith system that neither denounces the entire package of constructs that allowed it to do this, nor repents to help build a better world based on the destabilization of sexist and racist constructs. Christianity exists now, in part, because the idea of God has been incubated by non-white groups who saved it from the humanistic de-grouping of white individuals. That, or the idea of God has ricocheted between the West and the rest of the world enough times and with enough tweaks to keep him (or her, or it, or them) tenable through one revival after another. But as more black people afford to become individuals, more of them will trash God altogether.
Until then, we have to make-do with “God,” that is, an invisible realm of constructs and indescribably powerful ideas that privileges (straight white male) persons while blinding them to their scope and extent of that privilege. We cannot as yet afford to adopt white atheism in relation to this God: like apartheid police or the boys in blue using black men as target practice, he is still out to get us. Whether we believe in him does not stop him from believing in us.
We cannot afford the luxury of white atheism.
This morning, I saw a post by author Gillian Schutte:
“Just to be clear I am of the opinion that the killing of Cecil the Lion and the killing of Black people is part of the same ‘phallocratic homophobic self-centred resource extraction murderous entitled white male settler bullshit’ syndrome. They do not care about the wild life, the ecosystems, the feminine and black lives. The only women that matter to them are patriarchy-servers contorted into barby bodies and high heels with the sole purpose of patting their phallic egos. The only good black to them is one who can be exploited oppressed bribed monetised deified and eaten. The only appealing land is land with resources that can be raped by them. The only interest in wild life is whether killing a majestic lion will make them feel something akin to being truly alive because they are dead with power. It is a form of sickly ego driven cannibalism and emptiness. They will destroy our world with their voracious vacuous idiocy. The police who do their bidding are there to serve this vampirish brutal class of pac men.
Having said all that why have over 1 million Americans signed a petition for a lion and ignored the deaths of so many fellow citizens. WHY? Because they are part of the same syndrome I have just described in that they willingly serve it. That is the syndrome I will rail against with all my might. They will not have my humanity and none of us should stay silent on the issue of the denigration and devaluation of black lives around the globe.”
I rest my case.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.