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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

September 18, 2008

Written by C.N.

The Presidential Campaign and White Privilege

The presidential campaign is in full swing, but as I’ve written about before, the question of race has been bubbling slightly beneath the public surface for about a year and a half now, ever since Barack Obama first announced his candidacy to be our next President.

For example, there have been blatant examples of the influence of race — several incidents in which racism has reared its ugly head in regards to his campaign, but also more subtle ones — a recent CBS News article notes that “Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.”

But one particular aspect of this issue that hasn’t really gotten much attention is the topic of White Privilege. For those who aren’t familiar, White privilege is basically the idea that Whites have an invisible and taken-for-granted set of advantages and rights that no other racial/ethnic group has. It’s also a touchy subject because for someone who’s White, it’s very hard to recognize but easy to deny.

To try to illustrate this concept as it applies to the presidential campaign, writer and activist Tim Wise has written an absolutely brilliant post at the Red Room blog that must be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. Nonetheless, here are some excerpts:

For those who still can’t grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are constantly looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list will help.

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar “challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.

White privilege is when you can call yourself a “fuckin’ redneck,” like Bristol Palin’s boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you’ll “kick their fuckin’ ass,” and talk about how you like to “shoot shit” for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.

White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action.

White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready to potentially be president, and people don’t all piss on themselves with laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and constitutional law scholar, means you’re “untested.” . . .

White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto was “Alaska first,” and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family, while if you’re black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately think she’s being disrespectful.

White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work they do–like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor–and people think you’re being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a class she took in college–you’re somehow being mean, or even sexist. . . .

White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government . . . and everyone can still think you’re just a good church-going Christian, but if you’re Black and friends with a Black pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense) that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you’re an extremist who probably hates America.

Yes, Tim’s post is very liberal and very partisan. But in my humble opinion, also absolutely right on the money.

It finally exposes this uneasy social undercurrent that people of color have known about for a while, but that most Whites will not acknowledge even exists — why some acts, when committed by high-profile Whites, get excused and even praised, but when similar acts are committed by people of color, get criticized and ridiculed.

In other words, Tim Wise’s piece lays out the fundamental reality of the American racial landscape — much of the U.S., its people, and its social institutions, are still in deep denial about how insidious racism still is today and how it continues to be firmly but quietly embedded in how we as Americans live our lives on an everyday basis.

And in November, it will play a subtle but significant role in influencing who many of us will choose to be our next President.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Presidential Campaign and White Privilege" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/09/the-presidential-campaign-and-white-privilege/> ().

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