By: Matt McCarter
There are a few phrases that have been floating around college campuses the last few years – “whiteness” and “white privilege.” These phrases have trickling down from academia into America’s popular culture and are quickly becoming part of our common vernacular – the King’s English. However, most of the people that these phrases are often used to describe don’t even really know what these words mean. This is dangerous to the hoi polloi because, according to the social justice warriors, their “whiteness” demands that they “check their privilege.” The problem is that asking someone to “check their privilege” is suggesting that their opinion should be disregarded regardless of its merit. Essentially, their voice is silenced solely because the person that voiced the opinions is speaking from a position of power and it is their “whiteness” that gives them that power.
Many of the folks who spend their time outside of the hallowed halls of academia look confused when asked to “check their privilege” and really don’t even know what the word “whiteness” means. According to Ian Tuttle in The National Review, “It’s not a person or a particular set of persons as much as an omnipotent, omnipresent force. The IT responsible for every slight and snub and perceived oppression since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.” Now, of course, Tuttle is using hyperbole to make his point but one thing is for sure: when the phrase “whiteness” or “white privilege” is uttered, it is used as a means of silencing the opposing viewpoints without regard to the merits of those viewpoints. It makes the viewpoints null and void based simply upon the physical traits of the person that voiced them.
While I understand the idea of “whiteness” and “white privilege” in an academic or intellectual sense, when I look around me and look at my own personal experience, I can’t seem to make heads nor tails of it. You see, I was born poor white trash in rural Missouri – the gateway to the Ozarks – the gateway to the South. The Missouri Ozarks are in what one might call the trans-Appalachian region of the United States. James Baldwin wrote “Being white means never having to think about it.” If that is the definition of whiteness or white privilege then it is no wonder that someone like me – white trash from trans-Appalachia – is so confused about the idea.
In a way, much like African-American people, the rural poor – the white trash – also have some kind of what W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness.” Like African-Americans, we also always must wonder what the “norm” for white people is supposed to be. You see, for us, this “whiteness” that they talk about is not us – if it is anyone, it must be the urban/suburban middle class white folks that look down on us whenever they want to feel better about themselves. Whiteness is the invisible norm that gets us called “rednecks” and “white trash” when we don’t conform to that norm. When we are called “redneck” or “white trash,” our “whiteness” is being called into question. We get outed as imposters when we don’t conform to the norm. It should go without saying that if you must pass and can get outed for passing, then you probably aren’t white – or at least aren’t the white that they are talking about.
Another definition of this privilege claims that “white privilege is a set of advantages and/ or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others.” There were no advantages to being white in Iron County, Missouri. The median family income in Iron County was $38,037. In Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown was killed and ignited much of this talk about “white privilege, “the median family income was $38,935. Poverty was as much a problem in Iron County as it was in Ferguson. The only substantial difference is that there are half as many people in Iron County and that the poverty is spread out more.
Essentially, Iron County is better at hiding its poverty. The bulk of the jobs in Iron County come from what Angela Davis calls the “prison industrial complex,” nursing homes, and tourism. The real white people – the mostly suburban middle class whites from the St. Louis metro area – dump their prisoners, juvenile delinquents, and geriatric patients on us and, on weekends, they drive down from St. Louis to commune with nature. We get the privilege of taking their discarded trash (both people and empty alcoholic beverage containers) and their crumbs. I don’t think that was the kind of privilege that those who coined the term “white privilege” had in mind.
Another definition of this enigma called “white privilege” is thinking that your clothes, manner of speech, and general behavior are racially neutral when in fact they are white. I guess that means that if I wore some camouflage Carharts and said “that dog won’t hunt” in a faculty meeting, no one would think I was any different than the “normal” white people in the meeting. In this case, I imagine that even the minority faculty members would have more in common with the “white folks” than I do. Especially if they grew up middle class and urban or suburban. Furthermore, when it comes to clothes, manner of speech, and general behavior, we rednecks and white trash are routinely ridiculed for our fashion sense, language, and behavior. The only time that these things seem normal is when we are around other rednecks and white trash.
Another aspect of this so called “privilege” is seeing one’s image on television or in the movies and knowing that you are being represented. Anyone who has ever heard Ned Beatty say “You shore got a purty mouth” knows that is not true. In fact, by and large, any representations of me and mine – whether it be the cartoon hillbillies or the television show My Name Is Earl – are negative and exaggerate what we might call redneck or white trash stereotypes. There hasn’t been a television show free from these stereotypes since The Waltons were on in the 1970’s. Therefore, if this “white privilege” does exist, it certainly must not apply to all the people who must check the Caucasian box on the census form.
In addition, there are other characteristics of white privilege. If people assume that you lead a constructive life and that you are not a criminal or on welfare, then you are “privileged.” Do people really think this about rednecks and white trash? Granted, there is a pastoral aspect to life out in the country and that often gets in the way of people seeing the country for what it is – a place that is just as impoverished and just as affected by globalization and the flight of routine production work to developing countries as the city centers. Poverty is rampant in the rural parts of trans-Appalachia. So is drug abuse. Oxycontin is called “hillbilly heroin” because of rural Americans abusing this prescription medication. Anyone who has bad teeth (even though well water does not have fluoride in it and rural dentists are hard to come by) must be a methamphetamine addict. Even The Riverfront Times, the alternative magazine for the hip, the intellectuals, and artsy folks from St. Louis, call where I live Methopotamia.
We also are routinely accused of welfare fraud and sometimes accuse each other of it. We are also routinely called lazy and have been since before this country was a country. And when I tell people that I should be the poster boy for government cheese because, at one point, I got food stamps and government handouts helped me to get a PhD, they look amazed. Sometimes they even congratulate me on this monumental achievement. Do you think that they would say the same thing if I’d said I grew up in a country club and should be the poster boy for Shrimp Cocktail?
The phrase “white privilege,” if it doesn’t come from minorities, is generally uttered by those middle class do gooders who, in my experience, would believe they were morally superior to me and mine even if one of us hadn’t uttered something that upset the apple cart of white privilege apologetics. We rednecks are used to getting lectured by middle class do gooders. What is interesting about these middle class do gooders is that none of them know anything about our experience in the world and yet, often pass judgment on us for not seeing the world the way that they do. Diversity is a good thing, unless you are diversely white and don’t conform to the norm established by the mostly urban and suburban (and probably Yankee) middle class do gooder. In that case, anything short of getting in lock step with Casper the Friendly Liberal is verboten.
And, in marching in lockstep with Casper, we are to be mindful of our privilege. This command seems somewhat similar to Paulo Friere’s idea of conscientization or “perceiving one’s self as a socio-historical being susceptible to transformation.” This invites me to explore who I am and how I got here. At least that’s what it does explicitly. However, it is not really about me exploring who I am and how I got here. It is about me embracing my so called “whiteness” and throwing myself in with those urban/ suburban middle class do gooders who feel the need to “check their privilege.” This command – to “check my privilege” – serves as a reminder that I ought to feel responsible for all the white males who seem to pull all of the strings in American society even though I am nothing like them and share nothing with them except skin color.
That is right. Implicitly, checking my privilege is supposed to serve as the fountainhead of white guilt and remind me that I ought to feel personally responsible because the world is run by mostly white males and has been almost since the inception of Western Civilization. Being mindful of our privilege is supposed to lead to self-flagellation and guilt. Something must have went terribly wrong because I know precisely where I came from and I don’t feel any of it. I did not get the memo about how my big fat redneck privilege has been oppressing people of color and will continue to do so unless I repudiate it. If all I must do is repudiate whiteness and white privilege, then its no problem… why should I worry about hanging onto something that doesn’t exist for me anyway? I repudiate white privilege. Those mostly urban and suburban white middle class do gooders shouldn’t have any special benefits just because of who they are.
You see, I checked the origins of my so called privileged existence. My peeps got here before the American Revolution. Just after getting off the boat in Virginia, my first American ancestor was invited to fight in a war. We won the war but since we were the Celtic fringe – the white trash of England and now the white trash of America – we were sent out on to the frontier to try and scratch out a living while at the same time, trying not to get killed by Indians. They started out in Kentucky but wound up settling in Missouri before it became a state in 1820. After settling in Missouri, long after that first American landed in Virginia, my great great great grandfather (who was named after Andrew Jackson), finally had a farm of his own. My great grandpa, Dewey, wound up landless wandering the streets of St. Louis. My grandfather struggled to feed his eight brothers and sisters during the Great Depression and died almost penniless in the 1980’s. I imagine that my father will share that same fate someday. I am hoping that things will be different for me. Maybe that hope is supposed to be white privilege. The problem is that hope didn’t come from being white, it came from being a college graduate and if there is any privilege that comes from that, I believe that it has been earned and was not inherited.
My father’s side of the family can trace their lineage back to before our country became a country and yet, I am the first one in our family to graduate from college with even a Bachelor’s Degree. On my mother’s side of the family, they can trace their lineage back to my great great grandfather being some sort of horse trader that fled Georgia for fear of being killed. They’ve been here quite awhile, too, but I am still the first person to graduate from college with a Bachelor’s Degree on that side of the family as well. Where, in this story, does white privilege rear its head? Those who claim that white privilege is responsible for the outcomes of those who are forced to check the “white” box on the census form would have you believe that for the last several hundred years, it has been one long drawn out vanilla holiday for white folks. My experience shows that isn’t true for us white trash.
I believe that is where a lot of the rural working class hostility toward “whiteness” and “white privilege” comes from. My experience is not unique. There are other people out here beyond the pale in rural America that have also worked hard and become moderately successful despite their origins. Is it no wonder that they feel angry when the urban/ suburban middle class liberal diminishes everything that they have personally accomplished despite their circumstances? Hard work is a virtue way out here and when some city slicker tells me that when I reap the fruits of my labor, I am not reaping what I have sewn. No, I owe the fruits of my labor to the invisible St. Whitey of Caucasia who made all this stuff happen even before I was born. Believing in God is anathema to Casper the Friendly Liberal but I must believe in that ever present and omniscient fairy godfather – St. Whitey of Caucasia?
That is the problem with this idea of “white privilege.” Putting rural Americans in the same category of “whiteness” as those from urban and suburban America assumes that they share a similar experience with their urban and suburban counterparts and can be defined by that narrative. The people who decide what “whiteness” and “white privilege” mean and that we rural folks have it and have benefitted from it don’t know what our struggles have been or what those who came before us went through so that we might have a farm or an education. And, assuming we have benefitted from these “technologies of power” and “systems of oppression” negates everything that they or those who came before them went through to wind up where we were.
Finally, when nothing else works, the proponents of white privilege claim that it can exist without people even knowing about it and that it maintains the racial hierarchy in America. They make it sound like if you don’t believe in white privilege, then you don’t believe in gravity or the laws of physics. They make it sound like we all should at least believe in white privilege in the same way that some folks believe in Jesus. The truth is that behind every success is a story and that story doesn’t always boil down to race or gender. Often, class is what drives these success stories. However, upper and middle class white people don’t really want to talk about the “privilege” that comes with class. They don’t want to talk about how a zip code can perpetuate privilege as much, if not more, than skin color. However, it’s a lot easier to blame their “whiteness” than it is to blame the neo-liberalism that they, themselves, have perpetuated unapologetically for the last thirty years or more.
“Whiteness” and “white privilege” only seems to be true for those mostly urban and suburban white do gooders. Based on their behavior, they want it to be true for them so I say let them have it. Just keep me and mine out of it. My “whiteness” doesn’t tell the story of where I am from and how I got where I am today and saying that it does is insulting to me and all of those who came before me. My family has been here since before the American Revolution and that is a legacy that I am proud of not something that I think I must apologize for. I “checked my privilege” and I couldn’t find it because it wasn’t there.