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Review of The Book, "White Privilege"

Updated on November 9, 2013

Ethnicity; The Bearer of Culture

The first piece in the book which seemed to truly sound a new chord and provide a novel insight for me was the distinction drawn between ethnicity and race. (Dalton, p.15) Though I’m aware of the differences, the way in which they were delineated cast a new hue on my perception of each construct. “Ethnicity is the bearer of culture,” (Dalton, p.16) while “Races exist in relation to one another. Whiteness is meaningless in the absence of Blackness; the same holds in reverse.” (Dalton, p.16) Put simply like this, and in examination of the historical record, race is an ever present means of division based on superficial physical differences. It speciously uses ethnicity to authenticate it and is used to situate certain immigrant classes into the domain of the, “non-white,” whenever so doing is beneficial to the “true white,” establishment.

“Indeed many of the older immigrants…had themselves been perceived as non-white just a generation earlier.” (Barrett & Roediger, p. 40) This idea of becoming white only as one group adequately assimilates and a new group of more recent immigrants presents itself to take their place as the “non-whites,” shows just how historically muddled and inconsistent the concept of race truly is. It also demonstrates the willingness of the very recently oppressed to claim their whiteness on the backs of the newly oppressed.

By far the most impressive essay, in its exhaustive research on, and scope of, institutional oppression in the U.S. was George Lipsitz’s contribution. While I had been aware that government policies fostered a vicious cycle of sabotaging the efforts to struggle upward of anyone who was not seen as white by the popular zeitgeist of particular time periods, I had not known all the specific and shamefacedly conspicuous facts that so thoroughly besmirch our history.

The litany of injustices laid out in this article is sobering. The self-justifying nature of white hegemony creates the most greedily defensible logical tautologies. “Desire for slave labor encouraged settlers in North America to view, Native Americans and, later, African Americans as inferior people suited, ‘by nature’ for the humiliating subordination of involuntary servitude.” (Litsitz, p.72) I find the factual cases and practices enumerated by Lipsitz to be well summarized later in a deduction by Robert Jensen. “The United States…is a white supremacist society...based on an ideology of the inherent superiority of white Europeans over non-whites…that ideology also has justified legal and extralegal exploitation of every non-white immigrant group, and is used to this day to rationalize the racialized disparities in the distribution of wealth and well-being in this society.” (Jensen, p.127)

Tim Wise’s points concerning why we should all, whites included, want to end white privilege took us away from the obvious ethical prerogatives that need to be addressed to some very good points concerning pragmatic ways in which privilege and oppression damage society as a whole. These points include encouraging the, “surplus,” laborers to organize so that these groups cannot undercut the collective bargaining power of unskilled, “white,” laborers. Also he points out that relegating certain groups to substandard education self-evidently damages us all and further that by allowing the prison industrial complex to thrive from the unjust and excessive incarceration of minorities we divert tax dollars from Universities and other culturally progressive institutions. “The price we (whites) pay for being one step ahead of others is enormous.” (Wise, p.134)

Section four of the book, being the section that addressed what we can do and how we can overcome the fear of doing it, I found to be the most encouraging. “Being an ally to people of color is an ongoing strategic process in which we look at our personal and social resources, evaluate the environment we have helped to create and decide what needs to be done.” (Kivel, p. 157) For all of our sakes doing what needs to be done is an ethical and practical imperative.

A Minority; We All Are

As a white heterosexual male I'm especially poorly situated to experience marginalization. The only minority to which I belong is Atheism. This functions more as a source of frustration to me, especially in this country, than one of hurt or insecurity. I find it extremely disconcerting that no Atheist could hope to be elected to a major public office and often irritated when asked where I am able to ground my morality if not in an Abrahamic god.

There is a level of discrimination I feel associated with this personal cultural affiliation. I sometimes feel only as if I am being tolerated and simultaneously pitied for having missed the good news. This serves only as a source of further personal ire, as I’ve studied this revelatory “news” in more depth than most believers and I find it not only metaphysically unlikely but morally rather unpalatable as well.

My most prominent source of privilege which has led me to occasionally marginalize and oppress others has been my education. I do forget sometimes that having been allowed the educational opportunities that I have has been mostly a matter of luck: a combination of my parents’ middle class status, their influence on me to read and be inquisitive, and whatever favorable genetic influences they imparted to me.

As I result I have at times invalidated the view-points of others based on this privilege. Although their viewpoint may have been valid I have dismissed them because I didn’t want to seriously entertain their perspectives for personal or egotistical reasons. This could certainly be classified as a kind of oppression and marginalization on my part.


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