There was an amazing, squirmingly funny Saturday Night Live skit (Season 10, 1984), with Eddie Murphy, called “White Like Me.” In it, the Eddy Murphy character dresses in “white face,” and travels around New York City. He finds that the disparity in racial treatment is even larger than he expected—and it takes the form not so much of mistreatment of blacks, but privileged treatment reserved for whites.
Given that the “mockumentary” was done more than 30 years ago, you have to give Mr. Murphy some credit in seeing the turn that debates over race and privilege would take in the future.*
Check Your Privilege
Is “white privilege” an issue today? It may be. But something that really concerns me is that the concept of “white privilege” is often used as a shut-down argument, at least as it relates to hard work, success, and personal responsibility and freedom. Anyone who worries about taxes or regulations, and the likely effects of government programs on economic growth and employment is told, “Check your privilege!”
It’s a rhetorical ploy that allows us to shift the argument from the (empirical, evidence-based) ineffectiveness of certain approaches to a personal (moral, unanswerable) attack on an opponent. The argument turns to whether the person is privileged and goes downhill from there.
Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote a remarkable piece for the Huffington Post, entitled “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” It’s worth excerpting at some length:
Having come from a family of people who didn’t even graduate from high school, who knew not a single academic or intellectual person…it took me until my 30s to ever believe that someone from my stock could [be published]. Poverty colors nearly everything about your perspective on opportunities for advancement in life. Middle-class, educated people assume that anyone can achieve their goals if they work hard enough. Folks steeped in poverty rarely see a life past working at the gas station, making the rent on their trailer, and self-medicating with cigarettes and prescription drugs until they die of a heart attack…
Recognizing privilege doesn’t mean suffering guilt or shame for your lot in life. Nobody’s saying that straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied males are all a bunch of assholes who don’t work hard for what they have. Recognizing privilege simply means being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things you take for granted (if they ever can experience them at all).
She has a point. But how far do we take it? Is there any place for acknowledging hard work and perseverance?
How Different People View Success
I’ve noticed a pattern: successful (and we could argue about what that means) people almost always think that economic and social disparities are based on merit, not luck or privilege. People whose lives didn’t turn out as they hoped blame bad luck or discrimination, not lack of talent or effort.
Neither view is accurate, because people are not good, objective judges of their own cases.
That would have to include me, to be fair. So, maybe it’s worth considering Ms. Crosley-Corcoran’s point: Isn’t it true that I am privileged to have access to all the opportunities and unspoken, unnoticed advantages conferred by (lumping my privileges together) being a tall, white male with a full head of hair?
When confronted with this attack (and it is an assault on one’s conception of one’s self as a person), most folks start sputtering about their “story.” I’m no exception.
Privileged…and in Poverty
I grew up in rural central Florida. Our road wasn’t paved, and our chickens were free-range because that’s how poor people kept chickens. My father didn’t graduate from high school, and while things are always complicated, a good two-word description of him would be “abusive drunk.” When I was little, I dreamed of the day when I would be old enough and big enough to stop him from abusing my mother.
Instead, I went to college, working two jobs every summer. I also worked during the school year, waiting tables in a college eating house, silently abasing myself by cleaning up the plates and food scraps of people I saw every day as classmates.
Then I got a fellowship to grad school. At this point in my life, I rarely visited my “privileged” home. When I did, in those years after I was in college and grad school, I was told by my father and many other white people, “You’ll be back. It’s too hard to succeed. You’ll fail, just like I did.”
They were wrong–but why? Was it my “white privilege?” Was I wrong to attribute my “success,” (if that’s what it was) to my own merit and effort? It’s true that very few of my black classmates in high school “made it out,” the way I did.
A Different Definition of Success?
Perhaps my definition of success explains at least some of the differences between me and my classmates. My relief at having made it out reflected an idiosyncratic desire to leave. The folks who stayed were pretty happy to stay, because they liked their family and had roots in the area. My definition of success was different from theirs, and my notion of happiness is not one they shared.
I’m attending my 40th high school reunion soon, and I expect that I’ll find quite a few people who see me (perhaps rightly) as a failure, because I abandoned my family, my hometown, and my friends. My classmates stayed home, worked hard, paid their mortgages, and saved up to buy bass boats and dirt bikes to ride with their kids. They didn’t fail, after all.
I happen to know, from Facebook and talking to people, that more than a few of my high school classmates are now Trump supporters. Why? What has given this wealthy businessman such a broad national appeal? And what makes him resonate with my former high school friends, in particular?
It’s dangerous to generalize, but one factor may be because Americans are reacting to accusations of “white privilege.” Think about it: white privilege, in the way it is caricatured in Eddie Murphy’s “White Like Me,” means that all white people just give each other stuff, suspending the rules, while blacks and other minorities are held to a higher standard.
Contra Ms. Crosley-Corcoran, Trump supporters seem to hear Ms. Clinton “saying that straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied males are all a bunch of assholes who don’t work hard for what they have.”
And then there’s President Obama’s 2012 statement, one that got a lot of Americans really angry:
I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart…It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.
Let me tell you something. There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.… If you’ve got a business, that — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
Perhaps Trump supporters are taking the whole “white privilege” argument too far in the opposite direction. I’ll leave that to you to decide. But no matter what you think, there’s no doubt that a lot of people—no matter what their ethnic, family, or socioeconomic backgrounds—are getting tired of being told their success is undeserved. They feel like they played by the rules, worked hard, saved their money, and created opportunities for their families and their communities. Regardless of who they are, you can’t make them be ashamed of that.
I’m pretty sure my high school reunion is going to be weird. On the other hand, I’m probably the weird one.
* (I should note, if it matters, that “White Like Me” is a riff on the 1961 nonfiction book, Black Like Me, about a white person—J.H. Griffin—disguising himself as black and riding buses through the segregated South, and that THAT title, Black Like Me, is from a Langston Hughes poem, “Dream Variations.”