White Obliviousness

If you reject the idea of white privilege, please move on, because you will find nothing here to suit your purpose.

The flurries of “criming while white” stories merely scratch the surface of illustrating white privilege. These stories just point out a double standard. They don’t show much beneath the surface about the structural racism that support double standards. Consequently, when the hashtags stop trending, our country faces the sad possibility of a memory wipe. White people have the luxury of forgetting. That’s white privilege, the privilege of forgetting and obliviousness.

Profiling and police brutality, as overt examples of racial injustice, are tangible and concrete things. Although this situation is hardly new, it took long years for white people to notice the problem, to accept, and to act. White privilege explains the delay

Why is white privilege so hard to talk about? Because privilege is “fugitive” and “elusive,” as Peggy McIntosh describes in her well-known essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” You can’t discuss something if its very essence is sustained, concerted obliviousness.

So what does sustained obliviousness mean, exactly? Well, obliviousness is not the same as denial; it’s not the addict’s or liar’s straightforward dismissal of racism. Just like addicts tap dance their way around their denial to sustain their addictions, some folks provide alibis and convoluted rationales for why people of color “are the way they are.”

Also, obliviousness is not the same as ignorance, which comes from a lack of exposure to something. True, many white folks do lack exposure to the lives of people of color. Some people got exposure to difference through multiculturalism and diversity training. These experiences let open-minded people witness the breadth and richness of our society so that we can embrace our differences. The actual success of the multicultural movement is a topic for another time. While that movement explains how racism works and encourages people to think beyond racism toward equity, it often overlooks racism’s opposite or corollary, which is privilege. For all our lives, we’ve all been exposed to the benefits of white privilege, both subtle and immense, but we white folk just never take notice. We remain oblivious.

It is a deeply personal process for each person to figure out the how and why of white privilege.

See..we still haven’t talked about it in a concrete manner, , that slippery, elusive thing of privilege…

Let’s try with some trivial examples that don’t necessarily involve race. (Can you ever not involve race?)

1. Think about all the awkwardness of experiencing something foreign. If you visit a new country, you cannot travel freely without forethought, planning, and the aid of others. You spend energy “translating” your personal way of being in order to move through a culture different from yours. As a tourist, you have lost a degree of mobility and independence. The locals, however, simply by an accident of birth, have freedom of movement because they have the privilege of local knowledge. Fortunately, most tourists can return home.

2. Consider a physical disparity such as left-handedness. There are no suitable desks for lefties in the classroom. Other students never worry about where to sit, teachers never count the kind of desks students need, and deans are oblivious to the handedness of their students. South Paws spend their lives taking the extra step of adapting to a right-handed educational system. By an accident of birth, right-handed people have the benefit of skipping that step. Fortunately, we do not assign a great deal of social meaning and power to left- or right-handedness.

Now, exchange handedness for other examples, such “friends with money,” or those who don’t consider disparate finances when socializing. The friend without money always worries; the friend with money remains oblivious. The point is not the disparity alone, nor is it anyone’s degree of empathy, because friends do care about each other. The point is obliviousness. For those with money, the price of a dinner out is typically off their radar, and they are generally unaware of the additional psychic weight someone less well off carries when it comes time to pick up the check. Discomfort, indebtedness, awkwardness, any number of things. Thankfully, we can set aside hurt feelings or end friendships.

3. Think about someone disconfirming your validity as a person. For example, imagine a boss who fails to learn your name and makes you feel invisible; or ignores your accomplishments and mistakenly attributes them to coworkers; or forgets to invite you to meetings or work events; or discounts your suggestions or needs when creating company policies. Your boss, intentionally or not, has the benefit to dismiss your relevance. That sucks for our morale. Gratefully, we can set aside hurt feelings, and just focus on doing our jobs.

BUT

1. Institutional racism defines where we can travel. White privilege confers freedom of movement and obliviousness keeps it in place. People of color do not have freedom of movement. We live in a state of apartheid.

2. Institutional racism arranges the structures of education and the workplace. Institutional racism confers a wealth of unearned benefits to white people, while it gives “left-handed desks” that simply don’t fit most people of color.

3. Structural racism is enacted by oblivious administrators, bosses, and friends. Like the disconfirming boss, structural racism operates through disconfirming policies and practices that ignore and demoralize people of color. (Remember, we’re not talking about outright deniers of racism in this post, just the oblivious friends… )

Put simply, white people are the norm around which everything is constructed. It is easy to recognize the lack of parity that we commonly call racism. If you are sympathetic, the oppressions that people of color face are clearly visible. The corollary of this oppression, white privilege, is more difficult for white people to accept. White privilege, the way white people unknowingly benefit from racism, is more difficult for white people to acknowledge. Even though you might not make the law, write the ticket, hold the job interview, or enforce the policies, you still benefit from their existence. Obliviousness ensures their perpetuation. Erasure and invisibility are foundational to American society. After all, slavery was never mentioned in the constitution until its abolition. Sustained invisibility is required to perpetuate these foundations.

Now you know. So, do you tap dance? Or do you think black lives matter enough to check your privilege?

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