By W. Carson Byrd and Matthew W. HugheySeptember 28 at 8:30 AM
This month, Jennifer Cramblett lost her “wrongful birth” lawsuit, which centered on a troubling ideology that has been creeping into mainstream discussions in ways not seen in decades. Cramblett claimed that the sperm used to inseminate her came from the wrong donor, leading to a biracial child, which she had not wanted. Her lawsuit claimed that this mix-up in the lab caused her and her family personal injuries of various kinds.This lawsuit was shadowed by a troubling logic: the idea that race is a biological reality with particular traits and behaviors that can be avoided through proper breeding practices. In doing so, Cramblett’s claims echoed arguments made in a darker era of global history of “scientific” racism.
Here’s how the argument goes. Some people are born with outstanding talents, easily mastering basketball, mathematics, languages or piano, if given the right environment in which to grow. What biologist or social scientist could argue with that? But alongside that genetic understanding, an old and pernicious assumption has crept back into the American conversation, in which aptitudes are supposedly inherited by race: certain peoples are thought to have rhythm, or intellect, or speed or charm. That’s a fast track toward the old 19th- and early 20th-century problem of “scientific” racism.
Consider a recent paper that argues that ethnic conflict throughout history is a result of genetic diversity among communities. The authors argue that genetic diversity is the dominant force behind conflict among groups. It pushes religious communities into battle, causes distrust among neighbors and dictates support for problematic social policies. Such an argument places the history and future of human conflict in genes, as if human interaction and environmental influences cannot match their power.
In the recent issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, we invited experts in anthropology, evolutionary biology, government, law, medicine, public policy and sociology to examine the return of racial essentialism and biological determinism. Those are separate but related. Racial essentialism is the concept that people of different racial and ethnic groups possess specific traits and behaviors unique to their group. Biological determinism is the belief that race is a genetic reality that regulates how we behave.
Two of the studies included in the volume look at how misguided beliefs in genetically distinct races with differing capabilities underlie our everyday conversations about race and inequality.
The first study, “A Level Playing Field? Media Constructions of Athletics, Genetics, and Race,” examines news media coverage implying that genetic differences lead particular racial groups to succeed more often at sports, and focuses on how that belief shows up within journalism. Collaborating with University of Connecticut doctoral student Devon Goss, Matthew W. Hughey researched nearly 24,000 English-language newspaper articles across the globe from 2003-2014. Among the articles that discussed race, genetics and athletics, Hughey and Goss found that nearly 55 percent of these media narratives uncritically parroted and perpetuated the belief that African-descended groups excel in athletics, such as sprinting, because of genetic racial differences — despite the research debunking that belief.
For instance, in the wake of the 2012 Olympics, nearly one-third of the news articles that evoked race, genetics and athletics posited that African American and West Indian sprinters are fastest because they descend from testosterone-heavy ancestors who survived the brutal conditions of transatlantic slave trade—a belief that found resonance and widespread acceptance in a BBC-produced documentary entitled, “Survival of the Fastest.” But there is no gene or allele for “speed,” and no direct link between testosterone and speed (while sprinters may have high testosterone, not all high-testosterone people can sprint).
Sociological data suggest that the social behavior of both slaves and slaveholders better explains mortality rates than do physiological qualities of health, speed or strength. In particular, groups of rebellious young men were were most likely to die than those who passively acquiesced, while the economically well-off slaveholders were more likely to kill slaves than those who could not afford to lose property. In sum, the social forces of organized rebellion and the political economy of slavery are better explanations for mortality rates than abstract appeals to “genes” or “natural selection.”
Hughey’s and Goss’s work finds that such explanations have actually proliferated in an era that many argue is “colorblind” or “post-racial,” from MSNBC’s Chris Matthews who proudly said that he forgot, for a moment, that Obama was black, to a 2011 New York Times article that referred to interracial marriage as “a step toward transcending race,” to the claim that “all”— not “black” — lives matter, as presidential candidate Rand Paul recently insisted.
White supremacist groups use news from increased research on genetics and racial differences to explain not only athletic results, but larger racial inequalities in the world. For example, Dylann Roof — the alleged Charleston, S.C., massacre shooter — wrote in his manifesto: “Negroes have lower IQs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in generals. These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior.” These ugly racial stereotypes of group capabilities that have varied throughout U.S. history, even as these stereotypes supported white supremacy: whether through the late 1800s contention that African Americans are biologically predisposed to go extinctor through the “black brawn vs. white brains” contention that African Americans are cognitively inferior but physically superior to whites and should be kept in professions that emphasize physical rather than mental prowess. People of varying social and political views employ these explanations in order to legitimate the claim that racial inequalities occur naturally.
We’ve been through this before. It sounds like the Social Darwinist and eugenics movements of the early 20th century, whereby scientists in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., proposed eliminating the poor, disabled and people of color through sterilization — a vulgar pseudo-science that young German scientists learned from and then employed during the Third Reich.
Those racial assumptions lead to problematic policy decisions, another studyfound. Through a series of statistical models using survey data collected from more than 2,200 whites in the United States, W. Carson Byrd in collaboration with Victor E. Ray of the University of Tennessee found that whites generally believe that personality traits and behaviors are influenced more by environmental influences than by genetics. However, these same respondents believed that genetics were slightly more influential over the traits and behaviors of blacks than whites.
We then looked to see how these beliefs might predict attitudes toward opposition for policies often used to address racial inequality. Some white people believed that black people’s traits and behaviors were genetically determined — and they also believed that racial inequality results from failed individual efforts. Those who believed both were, surprisingly, more willing to support policies that reduced racial economic gaps, such as affirmative action. Why do these beliefs combine and increase support for policies that, depending on the specific policy, fully 60-90 percent of whites have solidly opposed for over 40 years?
The answer: It’s natural. This set of beliefs presents racial inequality as resulting from one person’s individual efforts — efforts that are genetically limited. Gone are any consideration of social and political factors like past or present discrimination, New Deal and postwar law and policies that helped whites acquire property and excluded people of color, the “school-to-prisonpipeline,” or any other structural cause.
If white people believe that genetic limitations cause blacks’ traits and behaviors, and lower social positions are a result of individual efforts overwhelmingly dictated by such genetic causes, then they arguably view affirmative-action policies as helping genetically inferior people in an equal-opportunity and colorblind society. This dangerous synthesis of beliefs limits policy redress of racial inequality, as the fact that inequality is the result of man-made efforts is dispensed for a supposedly scientific answer: Inequality is a genetic reality.
Recent controversies illustrate how such beliefs about race, difference and inequality can influence discussions of societal development and policies. A highly-praised volume by journalist Nicholas Wade, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” posited that recent genetic and genomic research suggests that Africa’s underdevelopment was a result of genetic inferiority of the communities on the continent, eschewing the devastating effects of colonialism.
Former Heritage Foundation policy analyst Jason Richwine’s highly criticized immigration reform approach, a proposal based on his doctoral research, used deterministic beliefs that IQ scores could select who could immigrate to the United States, and framed Latino immigrants as permanently less intelligent than whites.
Such views exacerbate racial inequality, twist history and circumvent effective policy strategies, as these two studies and the other contributions to the recent issue of the Annals indicate.
W. Carson Byrd is assistant professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. Matthew W. Hughey is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut.
Researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business have found that white people respond to evidence that they are privileged by their race by insisting that they face greater hardships in life.
In a study published in the November issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery point out that progress on racial equality is limited by the fact that many whites deny the existence of inequities.
“Despite this reality, policy makers and power brokers continue to debate whether racial privilege even exists and whether to address such inequity,” the researchers noted. “One reason for this inaction might be an unwillingness among Whites to acknowledge racial privilege — acknowledgment that may be difficult given that Whites are motivated to believe that meritocratic systems and personal virtues determine life outcomes.”
“However, claiming personal life hardships may help Whites manage the threatening possibility that they benefit from privilege.”
The researchers argued that understanding the reaction to evidence of racial inequality was important because whites who did not feel that they personally benefited from their ethnicity would be less willing to support policies that were designed to reduce racial inequality.
Subjects in the study were separated into two groups. The group that was shown evidence of white privilege “claimed more hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege,” the study found.
A second experiment suggested “that people claim more life hardships in response to evidence of in-group privilege because such information is threatening to their sense of self.” Researchers observed that whites who read self-affirming statements before completing the survey claimed less hardships, and they found that self-affirmations could actually reverse the denial of white privilege.
“Furthermore, Whites’ claims of life hardships mediated their denials of personal privilege, supporting our hypothesis that hardship claims help people deny they personally benefit from privilege — that White privilege extends to themselves,” Phillips and Lowery wrote. “Importantly, these denials of personal privilege were in turn associated with diminished support for affirmative action policies — policies that could help alleviate racial inequity.”
Researchers recommended that efforts to reduce racial inequalities also include the education of advantaged populations.
“Our work suggests that privilege reduction efforts might need to focus not only on convincing or educating advantaged group members about privilege, but also on reducing the feelings of self-threat this information induces,” Phillips and Lowery explained. “The existence of hardships does not reduce racial privilege, since racial privilege entails comparison to someone of a different race with equivalent hardships. People may erroneously think privilege entails complete ease in life and that the presence of any hardships denotes an absence of privilege.”
In conclusion, the study postulated that whites may claim hardship “to maintain not only a positive sense of self, but also the material benefits associated with racial privilege.”
“Whites’ claims of hardship might also serve to legitimize the racial advantages they enjoy, and thereby justify a system that benefits their group.”
The fourth time a Poughkeepsie police officer told me that my Vassar College Faculty ID could make everything OK was three years ago on Hooker Avenue. When the white police officer, whose head was way too small for his neck, asked if my truck was stolen, I laughed, said no, and shamefully showed him my license and my ID, just like Lanre Akinsiku. The ID, which ensures that I can spend the rest of my life in a lush state park with fat fearless squirrels, surrounded by enlightened white folks who love talking about Jon Stewart, Obama, and civility, has been washed so many times it doesn’t lie flat.
After taking my license and ID back to his car, the police officer came to me with a ticket and two lessons. “Looks like you got a good thing going on over there at Vassar College,” he said. “You don’t wanna it ruin it by rolling through stop signs, do you?”
I sucked my teeth, shook my head, kept my right hand visibly on my right thigh, rolled my window up, and headed back to campus.
One more ticket.
Two more condescending lessons from a lame armed with white racial supremacy, anti-blackness, a gun, and a badge. But at least I didn’t get arrested.
Or shot six times.
My Vassar College Faculty ID made everything okay. A little over two hours later, I sat in a closed room on Vassar’s campus in a place called Main Building.
In the center of my ID, standing dusty orange and partially hidden by shadows of massive trees, is a picture of Vassar College’s Main Building. Black women students took the building over in 1969 to demand, among other things, that the administration affirmatively reckon with its investment in anti-blackness and white racial supremacy. A multiracial group of students led by Cleon Edwards occupied Main again in 1990, after Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly told a Jamaican Dutchess County official, “If you don’t like it in this country, why don’t you pack your bags and go back where you came from?”
I sat in a room in Main that day with a senior professor and two high-ranking administrators. We were having one of those meetings you’re not supposed to talk about. Near the end of the meeting, this senior professor affirmed his/her commitment to “African Americans” and said I was a “fraud.”
I tucked both hands underneath my buttocks, rested my left knuckle beneath my ID as tears pooled in the gutters of both eyes. I’d been hungry before. I’d been beaten. I’d had guns pulled on me. I never felt as pathetic, angry, and terrified as I felt in that room.
I came into that meeting knowing that the illest part of racial terror in this nation is that it’s sanctioned by sorry overpaid white bodies that will never be racially terrorized and maintained by a few desperate underpaid black and brown bodies that will. I left that meeting knowing that there are few things more shameful than being treated like a nigger by—and under the gaze of—intellectually and imaginatively average white Americans who are not, and will never have to be, half as good at their jobs as you are at yours.
I sat in that meeting thinking about the first day I got my ID. It was nine years earlier and I remember walking to the gym, maybe 100 yards behind Main Building and being asked by a white boy in yellow flip-flops if I could sell him some weed.
I just looked at his flip-flops.
And he just looked at my black neck. And when I told him that I taught English, he contorted his bushy brow, said “Word,” and trotted off.
Later that year, maybe 30 yards to the left of Main Building, security routinely entered my office asking for my ID despite my name on the door and pictures of me, my Mama, and them all over my desk. In that same building, one floor lower, after I got my first book deal, I was told by another senior white member of my department that it was “all right” if I spoke to him “in ebonics,” Later that year, a white senior professor walked in at the end of one of my classes and told me, in front of my students, “Don’t talk back to me.”
I wanted to put my palm through this man’s esophagus and burn that building down, but I thought about prison and my Grandmama’s health care. So I cussed his ass out and went about the business of eating too much fried cheese and biscuits at a local buffet.
A few summers later, right in front of Main Building, two security guards stopped me for walking past the President’s house without identification. They threatened to call the Poughkeepsie police on me. I told the officers, “Fuck you” and “Show me your ID” for a number of reasons, but mostly because I’d sold one of them a car a few years ago, and Vassar’s security officers don’t carry guns.
Like nearly every black person I know from the deep South who has one of these faculty ID’s, I anticipated reckoning daily with white racial supremacy at my job.
I didn’t expect to smell the crumbling of a real human heart when I went to the police station to get my student, Mat, who had been missing for days. Mat was a beautiful Southern black boy suffering from manic depression and bipolar disorder.
I didn’t anticipate hearing the hollowed terror and shame in my student Rachel’s voice at 2 in the morning after she was arrested by Poughkeepsie police for jaywalking while her white friends just watched.
I didn’t expect to feel the cold cracked hands of administrators when we pushed the college to allow Jade, a black Phi Beta Kappa student from DC, back into school after they suspended her for a full year for verbally intimidating her roommate.
I didn’t expect to taste my own tears when watching three black women seniors tell two heads of security and the Dean of the College that they deserve to not have security called on them for being black women simply doing their laundry and reading books on a Sunday afternoon. I didn’t expect the Dean of the College and the heads of security to do absolutely nothing after this meeting.
I didn’t expect to have to wrap my arms around Leo, a Chicano student who stood shivering and sobbing in front of Poughkeepsie police after getting jumped on Raymond Ave by kids he called “my own people.” Didn’t expect to take him to the police station and have the questioning officer ask Leo, “Why do you use the term ‘Latino’? Can you tell me what country the boys who jumped you were from?” The officer told Leo that his partner was Colombian and could tell where a person was from just by looking at them. Leo told me that he felt “most Chicano, most Latino, and most like a Vassar student” that night.
I didn’t expect that.
I didn’t expect to see my student Orion, a black boy from Boston, sitting palms down on the sidewalk in front of a police car a few Thursdays ago on my way from the gym. I got in the face of the two interrogating officers telling them, “He didn’t do nothing” and “Leave my student the fuck alone,” when I found out he was being accused of trying to steal a security golf cart.
I didn’t expect the same two security guards who’d stopped me for walking in front of the President’s house to tell the officers interrogating Orion that the golf cart was theirs and Orion was “a good kid, a Vassar student” who was just going to get a slice of pizza.
By the time one of the heads of Vassar security, in the presence of the current Dean of the College, told one of my colleagues and me that there was “no racial profiling on campus” and that we were making the black and brown students say there was, I expected almost everything.
I expected that four teenage black boys from Poughkeepsie would have security called on them for making too much noise in the library one Sunday afternoon. I expected security to call Poughkeepsie police on these 15 and 16-year-olds when a few of them couldn’t produce an ID. I expected police to drive on the lawn in front of the library, making a spectacle of these black boys’ perceived guilt.
A few days after Vassar called police on those children, a police officer visited one of the boys while he was in class and questioned him about some stolen cell phones and iPods at Vassar. When the kid said he didn’t know anything about any stolen cell phones, the officer told the 15-year-old black child, who might have applied to Vassar in three years, to never go back to Vassar College again.
I didn’t expect that.
Vassar College, the place that issues my faculty ID, a place so committed to access and what they call economic diversity, did its part to ensure that a black Poughkeepsie child, charged with nothing, would forever be a part of the justice system for walking through a library without an ID.
There is no way on earth that a 15-year-old black child visited by police officers at school for walking through a library while black is going to be OK.
And neither are we.
My Vassar College Faculty ID affords me free smoothies, free printing paper, paid leave, and access to one of the most beautiful libraries on Earth. It guarantees that I have really good health care and more disposable income than anyone in my Mississippi family. But way more than I want to admit, I’m wondering what price we pay for these kinds of ID’s, and what that price has to do with the extrajudicial disciplining and killing of young black human beings.
You have a Michigan State Faculty ID, and seven-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed in a police raid. You have a Wilberforce University Faculty ID and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police for holding a BB gun. I have a Vassar College Faculty ID and police murdered Shereese Francis while she lay face-down on a mattress. You have a University of Missouri Student ID and Mike Brown’s unarmed 18-year-old black body lay dead in the street for four and a half hours.
“We are winning,” my mentor, Adisa Ajamu, often tells me. “Improvisation, Transcendence, and Resilience—the DNA of the Black experience—are just synonyms for fighting preparedness for the long winter of war.”
Adisa is right. But to keep winning, to keep our soul and sanity in this terror-filled coliseum, at some point we have to say fuck it. We have to say fuck them. And most importantly, we must say to people and communities that love us, “I love you. Will you please love me? I’m listening.”
We say that most profoundly with our work. We say that most profoundly with our lives. The question is, can we mean what we must say with our work and our lives and continue working at institutions like Vassar College.
Listening to our people and producing rigorous, soulful work are not antithetical. My teachers: Noel Didla, Paula Madison, Brittney Cooper, Rosa Clemente, Osagyefo Sekou, Eve Dunbar, Imani Perry, Darnell Moore, Kimberle Crenshaw, Mark Anthony Neal, Mychal Denzel Smith, dream hampton, Marlon Peterson, Jamilah LeMieux, Luke Harris, Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, and Carlos Alamo show me this everyday.
They also show me that though there’s an immense price to pay in and out of so-called elite American educational institutions, the depth of this price differs based on sexuality, gender, race, access to wealth, and the status of one’s dependents.
I paid the price of having sorry gatekeepers at Vassar question the validity of my book contracts, question my graduation from undergrad, question my graduation from grad school, question whether or not I was given tenure as opposed to earning it. And like you, when questioned so much, of course I outworked them, but scars accumulated in battles won sometimes hurt more than battles lost.
I gained 129 pounds. I got sick. I kept hurting someone who would have never hurt me. I rarely slept.
I kept fighting. And praying. And I got my work out. And I worked on healing. And I taught my kids. And I served my community. And I got hit again. And I swung at folks who weren’t even swinging at me. And my best friend, who was also reckoning with the “Vassar” part of her Vassar Faculty ID, and I took turns lying to each other, sealing off our hearts in favor of arguments and unpaid labor. And when I earned leaves that I should have spent at home in Forest, Mississippi, with the 85 year-old woman who gave me the skills of improvisation, transcendence, and resilience, I stayed at Vassar College and guided tons of independent studies, directed flailing programs, and chaired hollow committees.
My family needed me home. My soul needed to be there. But I was afraid to be somewhere where my Vassar College Faculty ID didn’t matter worth a damn. I was afraid to let the Mississippi black folks who really got me over see all my new stretch marks, afraid they’d hear the isolation and anxiety in my voice, afraid they’d find the crumpled bank receipts from money taken out at casinos. I was afraid to show my Mama, Auntie, and Grandma that I felt alone and so much sadder than the 27-year-old black boy they remember being issued a Vassar College Faculty ID 12 years ago.
A half an inch below my name on my bent ID is a nine digit identification number, and in the top left corner, hanging in the blue sky, is a 27-year-old black boy wearing an emerald green hoodie. An army green sweater-hat cocked slightly to the left is pulled over my eyes. A black book bag is slung across my right shoulder.
When I took the picture of that ID, I felt so healthy. I felt so worthy of good love. I didn’t feel delivered but I felt proud that I could take care of my Mississippi family. I felt that every beating I’d gotten with shoes, extension cords, switches, belts, belt buckles, fists, and the guns of police officers was worth it. I knew that our mamas and grandmamas and aunties beat us to remind us that there was a massive price to pay for being black, free, and imperfect. I knew they beat us partially so that we would one day have a chance to wield ID’s like mine as a weapon and a shield.
Twelve years after getting my Vassar College faculty ID, I sit here and know that the nation can’t structurally and emotionally assault black kids and think they’re going to turn out OK.
Vassar College can’t structurally assault and neglect black kids and think they’re going to turn out OK.
I think about time travel and regret a lot. If I could go back and tell my Mama anything, I would tell her that I love her, and I thank her, and I see her and I know that white racial supremacy, poverty, heteropatriarchy, and a lifetime as a young black woman academic with a hardheaded son are whupping her ass, but black parents can’t physically and emotionally assault their black children—even in an attempt to protect them from the worst of white folks—and think they are going to turn out OK.
We are not OK. We are not OK. We have to get better at organizing, strategizing, and patiently loving us because the people who issued my Vassar College ID, like the people who issued Darren Wilson and Robert McCulloch their badges, will never ever give a fuck about the inside of our lives.
I have a Vassar College Faculty ID. I write books that some people care about. I teach my students. I take care of my Grandma. I have more access to healthy choice than most of my cousins. And I, like a lot of you, am not OK. I am not subhuman. I am not superhuman. I am not a demon. I cannot walk through bullets. I am not a special nigger. I am not a fraud. I am not OK.
Unlike Mike Brown and Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice, I am alive. We are alive.
We are so much better than the sick part of our nation that murders an unarmed black boy like a rabid dog, before prosecuting him for being a nigger. We are so much better than powerful academic institutions, special prosecutors, and the innocent practitioners of white racial supremacy in this nation who really believe that a handful of niggers with some special IDs, and a scar(r)ed black President on the wrong side of history, are proof of their—and really, our own—terrifying deliverance from American evil.
Kiese Laymon, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, is the author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in Americaand the novel Long Division. He has two new books, a novel called And So On and A Fat Black Memoir, forthcoming from Bloomsbury. He is currently an Associate Professor of English at Vassar College.
My grandmother was born in the 1930s, the seventh living child of black sharecroppers in Greenville, South Carolina. She spent her adulthood raising four children, caring for her husband, and working 30 years on factory lines to help pay the mortgage on the family home in Manchester, New Hampshire.
More than her job on a line assembling delicate aviation instrumentation, she was most prideful of a position in a garment factory screen-printing images on T-shirts.
Even after she had to quit working in order to take care of her grandchildren, she would judge the T-shirts she bought us at K-Mart by the quality of their screen-printing. She would recount the variety of visual calamities that could overtake an image if you weren’t careful enough when lifting the ink-filled screen. She even kept old T-shirts she had made to illustrate how and why I should always avoid ruining my own work.
Like my grandmother, my grandfather did factory work. He was a leather tanner, and when I was about 12, he came home from work extra heavy. At the dinner table, he told my grandmother, brother and me about a work accident that happened.
“I try to teach these young kids how to mix the acids and chemicals together the right way,” he told us between bites of chicken-fried-cube steak and instant mashed potatoes. “Today, some kid was running with some acid and poured it into another bucket, and it splashed back in his face and on his hands. He’s done for!”
Even at the age of 12, I could see buried within my grandfather’s story the lesson that a young, inexperienced white man was burned because he refused to listen to my more knowledgeable black grandfather.
I am the first woman in my family to ever attend college, the only person in my family with a PhD. I’m thankful that my grandparents imagined and worked for a less physically dangerous workplace for me. Yet, after a decade of work within the ivory tower, it seems to me that it’s people of color—and particularly black women—who get figuratively burned at the workplace.
Just a few days before Michael Brown was murdered for jaywalking in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, I stepped down from being one of the youngest Associate Deans of Faculty at an “elite” liberal arts college in the U.S. I left my position because the kind of institutional leader I have to be is one critical of white supremacy and her own complicity within it. As a black woman and a scholar of black literature, history and culture, I grow less convinced, however, that this position is compatible with many American institutions—small and large, corporate, non-profit, or governmental.
My stint in college administration began shortly after my tenure, when I was approached to take on the role of Associate Dean of the Faculty at my institution. I took the position in part because I was interested in the sort of professional mobility administrative experience might offer. I was also interested in finding a way out of the sort of indignities that I had been suffering at the hands of many of my colleagues for years. For instance, just weeks after I joined the faculty as a new professor, a senior black female colleague told me that members of my department would never support me for tenure because I was a black woman and had nothing to offer white people.
During my second semester at the institution a white senior colleague broke confidentiality and protocol in order to give me details about departmental deliberations regarding my hire. And just last spring, I sat in a room as a group of men discussed whether or not I had suffrage—me, a tenured faculty member who was, at that time, serving as Acting Dean of the College. These are just sprinkling of instances among countless others, all issued with the intent to diminish my right to be a black woman with full-citizenship rights at the institution.
The reigning discourse is to call these sorts of interpersonal violations “micro-aggressions,” but I prefer workplace hazing, because it captures the power relations and institutional tradition that such violations constitute. Moreover, hazing suggests the violence many black and brown faculty, particularly those of us who are women, encounter as we run the gauntlet of life within the academy. Attacks from faculty colleagues, students and administrators leave many of us scarred and fatigued. And in some instances, some faculty of color and women so internalize this violence that they become the worst perpetrators of workplace hazing on other less powerful, marginalized community members.
When I accepted the position as Associate Dean of the Faculty, I told myself this role might also allow me the opportunity to shift the culture of faculty hazing at my institution. What I didn’t tell myself is that I had so internalized the presumptions of my inadequacy that had been produced by years of hazing that I would work myself beyond my job description in order to prove my institutional worthiness. And of course, the institution benefited.
Throughout my time as Associate Dean I taught a course each semester, which was not part of my job description and, thus, uncompensated. I told myself that teaching was fulfilling in ways administrating wasn’t, and that faculty-administrators must remain tied to the primary work of the institution (educating students) in order to truly know the institution.
But these were partial truths. I continued to teach because I knew many of my colleagues didn’t trust that I was up to the work of the office and would use any evidence that didn’t entail my excessive excellence and institutional service to suggest I wasn’t fit to hold my position. I ended up teaching a year’s worth of courses during my two-and-a-half years working administration, giving a year’s worth of work (salary) back to my institution.
When a lower-level administrator left her post, I was asked to take on the duties of running her area in order to support institutional salary savings. I took on that work without asking for any extra compensation. At the same time, I continued to advise students, serve as an informal mentor to the students of color and give lectures and speeches when asked by students and offices around campus. I routinely had groups of black students over to my tiny faculty apartment to remind them that they were welcomed and valued at our institution.
I wanted to give them a feeling I rarely had.
I’m not complaining. I said “yes” to all of this work. But like many black women, I carried the internalized burden of trying to outperform negative gendered racial biases in order to prove my institutional worth. The institution benefited, and in many ways, I did too. I was entrusted with more institutional responsibility and opportunities to grow my administrative skill set—the key assets to the administrative mobility I had hoped for.
So when I was asked to serve as the Acting Dean of the College, I jumped at the opportunity. During that semester, I got to help facilitate the work of many tireless administrators who provide very necessary student support services. Together we worked to create safe trans-student “friendly” bathroom access, increase counseling support for students, create better sexual assault protocols, and consider ways to be more inclusive of a diverse student population.It was important and good institutional work, and I am thankful for the opportunity to do it.
Yet the higher one climbs up the administrative ranks, the more forward thinking one must be. It’s captivating to think you’re laying the foundation for the future of an institution. But what happens when larger principles of social justice—and the lived lives of all of our students—seem out of the purview of the state of the endowment 30 years into the future?
For me, the tension between present and future priorities made itself most apparent when campus security called the local police to campus to detain and question a group of black male teenagers without identification. The kids were reported to have been horsing around in the campus library on a Sunday afternoon during quiet hours. Within minutes of the call, a town police car pulled up on the library lawn. The college students watched as these four black teenagers were questioned by police.
Many students were shocked by the sight of the a police car, an officer and four scared young black boys on the lawn of a campus considered to be a progressive bastion. As with most predominantly white institutions, black teenagers are, sadly, a rarity on our campuses. And many students within these sorts of elite spaces have been sheltered from racial violence due to their whiteness and/or socio-economic status. The students who haven’t been sheltered often escape into these “liberal,” liberal arts colleges expecting a respite from the violent face of anti-blackness that plagues our nation.
Yet racial profiling often intensifies rather than relents in elite, predominantly white institutions located in cities and towns that are predominantly black, brown, and poor.
In the face of this incident, as the singular, young, black female high-ranking administrator, I found myself a part of a crisis that had been brewing decades. For years before my six-month time as Acting Dean, black faculty and students had raised racial profiling as an issue. Little had been done over the decades to address their concerns. There wasn’t even a formal mechanism in place to acknowledge these incidents.
After talking with impacted students, I worked to put into place a system for documenting racial profiling incidents on our campus. Unlike the classroom, which can breed critical self-reflexivity, there was no space within the administrators’ managerial function to reckon with a history of racial profiling writ large on our campus community, city, or nation. All of my work around racial profiling was a loose-fitting Band-Aid that came too late and too little.
Living in the wake of the deaths of so many black and brown, cis- and trans- men and women around this nation, I remember my grandparents’ lessons in quality work and the willful neglect of black voices and knowledge. The national reckoning on display in the wake of the Ferguson grand-jury decision illustrates that decades-long racial problems can’t be treated with Band-Aids. They, and we, require thoughtful structural overhauls.
We—from the highest ranking administrator to faculty, staff and students—have to be vigilant in bending ourselves toward equity and care for the most marginalized members of our communities. We cannot avoid implicating ourselves in the way we have contributed and benefited from race and gender inequity and inequality.
These issues must be seen by administration not singularly, but as part of the institutional fabric, formulated within a national fabric sickened by white supremacy, misogyny, heteropatriarchy, and old-fashioned elitism. It’s a matter of having a leadership and communities able to wrestle deeply with the fact that racial and gender violence are foundational to all American institutions and, as such, must be driven out through constant, caring vigilance.
When I called my grandfather to tell him that I stepped down from being a dean and went back to being a faculty member, his first question was, “Why would you give up such a good opportunity?” His second question was, “Were they racist?” The two questions haunt me. I wonder if my grandmother were alive, if she would have told me that I’ve ruined my work.
I’m sure my grandparents never imagined the academic factory. It’s a space where preparation, attention to detail and precision can only work when all institutional players are prepared to accept and work for radical change, especially when it comes from bodies with bodies of knowledge historically undervalued. Pushing these issues down the line for the next administrator or next administration does long-term personal and institutional damage.
Though my grandfather’s experience at the tannery happened decades ago, the warnings and calls for improvement issued by people of color are still being ignored. I refuse to be one of those administrators ignoring those calls, and I refuse to be another unheard black woman. “Social justice” and “social responsibility” are not tags in a course catalogue, or what happens after social unrest. They are the living and breathing bedrock for a compassionate and thriving community. They are utterly attainable goals—when leaders of powerful institutions actually listen.
The idea of “privilege”—that some people benefit from unearned, and largely unacknowledged, advantages, even when those advantages aren’t discriminatory —has a pretty long history. In the nineteen-thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “psychological wage” that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor blacks; during the civil-rights era, activists talked about “white-skin privilege.” But the concept really came into its own in the late eighties, when Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley, started writing about it. In 1988, McIntosh wrote a paper called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” which contained forty-six examples of white privilege. (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” No. 24: “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”) Those examples have since been read by countless schoolkids and college students—including, perhaps, Tal Fortgang, the Princeton freshman whose recent article, “Checking My Privilege,” has been widely debated.
McIntosh is now seventy-nine. She still works at Wellesley, where she is the founder and associate director of the SEED Project, which works with teachers and professors to make school curricula more “gender fair, multiculturally equitable, socioeconomically aware, and globally informed.” (SEED stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity.) In the next few months, she’ll give talks about privilege to groups at the American Society for Engineering Education, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, the Ontario Nurses Association, and NASA’s Goddard Space Center. McIntosh was born in Brooklyn, grew up in New Jersey, and went to a Quaker boarding school. She attended Radcliffe and got a Ph.D. in English from Harvard. (Her thesis was on Emily Dickinson.) With privilege so often in the news lately—there’s even a BuzzFeed quiz called “How Privileged Are You?”—I thought I’d ask McIntosh what she thinks about the current debates about privilege, and how they compare with the ones of past decades.
How did you come to write about privilege?
In those days, I worked at what was called the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. I was hired to conduct and administer a monthly seminar for college faculty members on new research on women, and how it might be brought into the academic disciplines. I led that seminar for seven years, and it was always expanding. Eventually, it expanded to twenty-two faculty from places like New York, New Jersey, and New England. We were asking, What are the framing dimensions of every discipline, and how could they be changed by the recognition that women are half the world’s population, and have had half the world’s lived experience?
I noticed that, three years in a row, men and women in the seminar who had been real colleagues and friends for the first several months had a kind of intellectual and emotional falling out. There was an uncomfortable feeling at the end of those three years. I decided to go back through all my notes, and I found that at a certain point the women would ask, “Couldn’t we get these materials on women into the freshman courses?” And, to a person, the men would say, “Well, we’re sorry, we love this seminar, but the fact is that the syllabus is full.” One year, a man said—I wrote it down—“When you are trying to lay the foundation blocks of knowledge, you can’t put in the soft stuff.”
The thing was, he was a very nice man. All the men who attended the seminars were very nice men—also quite brave men, because they’d catch flak on their campuses for going to a women’s college to do a feminist seminar. And I found myself going back and forth in my mind over the question, Are these nice men, or are they oppressive? I thought I had to choose. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be both. And I was rescued from this dilemma by remembering that, about six years earlier, black women in the Boston area had written essays to the effect that white women were oppressive to work with. I remember back to what it had been like to read those essays. My first response was to say, “I don’t see how they can say that about us—I think we’re nice!” And my second response was deeply racist, but this is where I was in 1980. I thought, I especially think we’re nice if we work with them.
I came to this dawning realization: niceness has nothing to do with it. These are nice men. But they’re very good students of what they’ve been taught, which is that men make knowledge. And I realized this is why we were oppressive to work with—because, in parallel fashion, I had been taught that whites make knowledge.
This is when you came up with the forty-six examples of white privilege?
I asked myself, On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer. The first one I thought of was: I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
Other people had been writing about privilege before you—why did your paper attract so much attention?
I think it was because nobody else was writing so personally, and giving such clear examples, drawn from personal experience, which allowed readers to understand this rather complicated subject without feeling accused.
How did people respond?
Well, at first, the most common responses were from white people. Their most common response was “I never thought about this before.” After a couple of years, that was accompanied by “You changed my life.” From people of color, from the beginning, it was “You showed me I’m not crazy.” And if they said more than that it was along the lines of “I knew there was something out there working against me.”
But there was a negative reaction to it, too.
The right wing wanted to paint it as craziness. But there were so many people saying it wasn’t crazy that I was able to put them aside. David Horowitz named me one of America’s ten wackiest feminists; that used to get to me. Now I think, If you’re going to do work for racial justice, you’re going to get attacked.
Have those reactions changed much? It’s been more than twenty-five years.
The truth is that it hasn’t changed much, except in the universities. The colleges and the universities are the places where you get a hearing. They’re where you learn to see both individually and systemically. In order to understand the way privilege works, you have to be able to see patterns and systems in social life, but you also have to care about individual experiences. I think one’s own individual experience is sacred. Testifying to it is very important—but so is seeing that it is set within a framework outside of one’s personal experience that is much bigger, and has repetitive statistical patterns in it.
Is that the challenge—or the usefulness—of the idea of privilege, as you see it? That it asks you to combine an individual view of life with an abstract one?
When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systemically. But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.
At SEED, thinking about privilege is deeply personal group work. We do an exercise where everybody reads out loud from something they’ve written based on Jamaica Kincaid’s story called “Girl,” which ran in The New Yorker in the seventies. In “Girl,” Kincaid lists voices in her head from her early childhood, telling her how to be a girl. Everybody reads either their boy piece or their girl piece, and, listening, you get a systemic view of varieties of gender conditioning. One very sad thing—very major to me—is that almost all the men who are now over forty read, “Boys don’t cry,” or something like “Put the damn worm on the damn hook.” And that’s a lie—a huge social lie that makes men of that age have to act tougher than they feel. It’s a tragedy for the entire world, and it’s inflicted on boys; they’re not guilty of it. Usually the boy’s crying, or about to cry, when he’s told boys don’t. This is wreckage to the psyche.
You seem to relate to the idea of privilege in a very compassionate way. But isn’t that hard, since the effects of privilege are so unjust? Isn’t it natural for privilege to make people angry, rather than openhearted? I imagine Tal Fortgang in a college seminar, and the rancor that must accompany conversations about privilege in the classroom. How do you defeat that?
The key thing is to let people testify to their own experience. Then they’ll stop fighting with each other. One of my colleagues at SEED says, “Unless you let the students testify to what they know, which schools usually don’t let them do, they will continue to do just what the dominant society wants them to do, which is to tear each other apart.” The students who are sitting there fighting with one another aren’t allowed to have their lives become the source for their own growth and development. Adrienne Rich wrote, at the beginning of women’s studies, “Nobody told us we have to study our lives, make of our lives a study.”
It seems as though, for you, talking about privilege shouldn’t lead to arguments; it should be a kind of therapy.
I wouldn’t say therapy, because psychology isn’t very good at taking in the sociological view. But it has to do with working on your inner history to understand that you were in systems, and that they are in you. It has to do with looking around yourself the way sociologists do and seeing the big patterns in the rest of society, while keeping a balance and really respecting your experience. Seeing the oppression of others is, of course, very important work. But so is seeing how the systems oppress oneself.
I have been profiled my entire life as innocent. When disruptive in class, I was told that I was eccentric, that I needed to work on my focus. Growing up, I looked for fights and conflicts yet I never fit the profile of a juvenile delinquent. The chip on my shoulder never signified a thug; I was just a kid with a bad temper who needed to mature and grow out of it.
When I was pulled over in Emeryville, CA for speeding for several miles and asked multiple times by the police officer if there was a reason for my speeding, I told him the truth. “Officer, my ice cream is melting.”
No stop and frisk. No pretext stop. No humiliating search. No fear of how to hold my hands. No ticket. I, like Adam Lanza and James Holmes, the two most notorious mass shooters of the past year, am white male privilege personified. We are humanized and given voice and innocence over and over again.
The most recent shooting in Newtown highlights whiteness and the ways it has been rendered invisible after every mass shooting. Described as a “nerd,” who “still wears a pocket protector,” Adam Lanza has been reimagined as a character straight out of The Revenge of the Nerds series and not a cold-blood killer. He carried a brief case, not a gun; he read The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men, not Guns and Ammo; he wore button down polos, not fatigues. His life was not extraordinary but was that of an average kid. From the reading list to the sartorial choices we have been sold a Normal Rockwell painting. The Associated Press painted a picture of Adam that imaged him as a character ripped out of a Brady Bunch script: “He was an honors student who lived in a prosperous neighborhood with his mother, a well-liked woman who enjoyed hosting dice games and decorating the house for the holidays.”
While identified as “reclusive,” and “shy,” as “quiet and reserved,” as “weird” and a “loner” outcast, Lanza has been consistently described as an average kid who had problems and difficulties. At worst, he was odd and painfully shy. “He didn’t have any friends, but he was a nice kid if you got to know him,” said Kyle Kromberg. “He didn’t fit in with the other kids. He was very, very shy.” Yet, the constant quest to figure out what caused him to snap, to speculate about the effects of his parents’ divorce or medications, all refashions Lanza as a good kid, a victim of sorts. He just snapped so there must have been a reason. Yes, he was strange, but do good (white, suburban, upper-middle class) kids shoot up an elementary school? Thus, reports the New York Post: “Bloodthirsty child killer Adam Lanza might have snapped, and carried out his unspeakable atrocities after learning that his mom wanted him thrown in the loony bin, according to published reports today.”
The narrative following Adam Lanza and Newtown might as well recycled the media coverage surrounding James Holmes and the Aurora, Colorado shooting. Described as “smart” and quiet, as “nice,” and “easy-going,” the narrative sought to not only humanize James Holmes, but also imagine him as good at his core. It worked to tell a story of a normal kid, whose life turned toward evil for some yet-to-be-explained reason.
Because these are told as stories of individuals with specific reasons for killing others, there is no reason to talk about race, class, or gender; there is no reason to talk about society, nor is there any reason to think that Aurora, Newtown, or Columbine are becoming Chicago or Detroit.
“Stuff like this does not happen in Newtown,” Renee Burn reminded America. Stephen Delgiadice shared a similar level of shock: “It’s alarming, especially in Newtown, Connecticut, which we always thought was the safest place in America.” Reflecting a level of acceptance of violence elsewhere, bloodshed in their own white and middle-class neighborhoods, call into question the utopic fantasy promulgated by many in white suburbia. “We thought it was safe here,” reflected Mike Hajzer. “But it’s not so true. It’s as if nowhere is safe.”
Adam Lanza killed 26 people; he destroyed the lives of many, but he also put in jeopardy the dreams and fallacies that led many to the suburbs.
Adam Lanza killed 26 people; he destroyed the lives of many, but he also put in jeopardy the dreams and fallacies that led many to the suburbs. He put the allure and meaning of whiteness in jeopardy. “Is there anything more innocent than a child eating popcorn and sipping Coke with the lights of a movie screen reflecting off his face?” wrote Bert Weissafter the shooting in Aurora. “Is there any place I can feel my children are totally safe? Rather than being excited to share this movie together, now I’ll spend a considerable amount of time addressing what happened in that theater with my sons. Frankly, I wish someone could explain it to me. As a parent, I wish I could postpone the reality of conversations like this for just a little longer; keep my kids innocent for as long as possible.”
Ian Landau further captures this sense of innocence lost that pervades the media coverage in the aftermath of shootings in Aurora. He laments the lost sense of security, community, and the reason to live in places like Aurora and Newtown. “Traditionally in America movie theaters are a safe, family environment where everybody goes and settles down into the dark,” notes New York Psychiatrist Alan Manevitz. “You can watch a scary movie because you know you’re safe in the movie theater and can enjoy the experience. The Aurora shooting has suddenly turned that upside down. That presumption of safety gets shattered and you feel the vulnerability at that moment.”
The “it’s suppose to happen” in inner-city communities reframe is not surprising. Places like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown exist because of the fear-industrial complex. The white middle-class flocked from cities into the suburbs and rural communities partially due to fear of black and Latino youth, integrated schools, and urban crime. The continuously deployed the narrative of “it’s not suppose to happen in Newtown” and their neighborhoods mirroring “American family’s dream” embodies this entrenched belief. The efforts to imagine Holmes and Lanza as good kids turned evil, to scour the earth for reasons and potential solutions, works to preserve the illusion of safety, the allure of white suburbia, and the power of whiteness.
In imagining the killers as good kids who did a bad thing, who snapped because of a divorce, because of too much medication, because of inadequate mental health treatment, because of too much mental health care, because of guns, and because of who knows what, white manhood — the visible link that binds together so many of these shootings –always gets erased.
“Do you also think it’s odd that white men commit the overwhelming majority of mass murders,” wondered Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, “but that people don’t identify that as a causal factor? Instead we talk about mental illness and gun control. If it were Asian women or Jewish men or elderly African-American, it would be topic number one. But not white men.” In fact, the media response to mass shootings often reimagines white men as victims.
The national spectacle and the hyper focus on Newtown and Aurora especially in comparison to the scant coverage afforded to murders in Chicago or drone deaths in South Waziristan points to the value of whiteness. School shootings and other mass killings matter when there are white victims. Whiteness is thus reimagined as under attack. White suburban kids, white suburban families, white suburban communities and even white shooters are the victims—victims of Hollywood, victims of gun laws that don’t allow them to protect themselves in every context, victims of removal of prayer from public schools, and victims of soiling culture.
The consequences are clear in Newtown and Aurora, yet these are not the only victims. The killers themselves are reconstituted as victims. Arguing that, “maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline” and that “things are looking up” for women and people of color, Christy Wampole concludes that the Sandy Hook shooting was the consequences of the waning privileges afforded to white males:
Because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males. . . . Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.
While embodying “White delusional disorder,” and seemingly arguing that resistance to patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia has produced a generation of angry white males ready to shoot, Wampole yet again imagines whiteness as the default victim.
We use moments of tragedy to reassert the value in whiteness and the importance in protecting white bodies.
According to Danny Hoey, Assistant Professor of English at Indian River State College, the insatiable quest for explanation as to why the ubiquitous industry committed to uncovering motives, reasons and mitigating factors leads us to a clear conclusion: white men are victims and they are under attack: “So, naturally, we are supposed to forgive white males who commit mass murder because they feel as if they have lost their privilege? White America constructs victim narratives around itself to explain and rationalize its own failures.” The kids who died in Newtown, and in other schools are victims, but the threat to them, to society, wasn’t Adam Lanza or James Holmes.
Yet, we look elsewhere. We look for excuses and make moves to reposition whiteness as victim needing protection. We use moments of tragedy to reassert the value in whiteness and the importance in protecting white bodies. We work to ‘blame’ something or someone other than Mr. Holmes, Mr. Lanza, Mr. Klebold, and countless others? With a narrative about” good kids” in hand and an insatiable need to ask, “Why?” and “How could he have done such a thing?” we continually imagine violence, barbarism, and terror elsewhere. White Americans like to think of this kind of violence as an anathema to who we are as a country and as a culture and are reluctant to think that someone like those all American kids, like our kids, like us, could be mass murdering monsters living in our midst. In reality, this kind of violence is in many ways a part of our violent history and culture. We have to accept that there is a “typical” face of mass murder in the United States – it is not the black kid killing people in gang shootings, the Mexican cartel member, or the “Muslim terrorist.” It can be, often is, will probably remain the innocent, white, suburban boy next door.
I was the boy next door, schooled in America’s pedagogy of racial stereotypes, fear, and racism. Dropping off my friend in East Los Angeles, or visiting another friend in Gardena, CA often resulted in family members and white friends telling me “to be safe.” I recall one instance where I dropped my friend off, only to ask him to watch me to drive off to make sure I was safe. I wanted him to make sure that I was safe. Privilege, stereotypes and irrational fear were on full display. I fear, I profiled, and I lived within America’s racial logic. Yet, the danger to white America, to the nation, then and now, was not the black or Latino gangster, or the Muslim terrorist, but the white man who is capable of unimaginable death and destruction, the white man, who we will go to all lengths to embrace as our own, who we will continually aid and abet with innocence.
David J. Leonard is associate professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of “Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema” and “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press).”
This piece includes parts of a previously published piece from The Grio and builds on work that appeared on Huffington Post.
White privilege is a concept that far too many people misunderstand. These are the same people who argue that white privilege is made-up, that people of color and others who work to point out entrenched social injustice are just complainers.
People of color aren’t unfairly discriminated against, the argument goes, they are just unwilling to work hard to get ahead. Or maybe it’s their “inner city” mentality, to quote Congressman Paul Ryan.
But despite the wrongheaded belief that people of color are bootstrap pullers, structural inequality dictates that some people are beginning life sans boots. Peggy McIntosh explains the concept of white privilege as an “invisible backpack” of unearned rights and privileges that white people enjoy. “Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do,” reads a quote commonly attributed to Peggy McIntosh. “Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.”
Here are just a few of the things that are more or likely to be true if one happens to have been born white in America:
1.You are less likely to be arrested.
Research shows that white Americans are less likely to be arrested and jailed. While people of color only make up 30% of the total population, they are 60% of the U.S. prison population.
This discrepancy is particularly apparent when it comes to nonviolent drug offenses, where people of color are jailed at much higher rates, even though drug use in the white community is higher than in the African-American community.
According to Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have much higher rates of arrests. While only 14% of black people use drugs regularly, 37% of those arrested for drugs are black.
This trend holds true for children of color as well, who are more likely to be perceived as guilty. The so-called school-to-prison pipeline targets children of color, funnelling them into the criminal justice system early due to unfair zero tolerance policies in American schools.
“In Chicago, twenty-five young people were involved in [a] food fight in the cafeteria and instead of being punished by having to clean up the cafeteria, they were suspended from school and arrested,” notes the Advancement Project.
2.You are more likely to get into college.
The White House recently launched a new initiative called, My Brother’s Keeper, aimed at increasing opportunities for boys and young men of color. A key component of the initiative is increasing the number of men of color who graduate from high school and get into college.
According to a 2013 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, elite educational institutions are a “passive agent” in perpetuating white privilege. The report found that white students are still overrepresented in the nation’s 468 elite institutions. Even though many white and minority students are unprepared for college in equal rates, more white students are admitted to universities.
“The higher education system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations,” the Georgetown study noted. “Even among equally qualified white, African-American and Hispanic students, these pathways are not only separate but they bring unequal results.”
3.You are more likely to “fit in” and get called back for a job.
Having a name perceived as “black” is a burden during a job search. In 2012, an unemployed black woman made headlines for reporting that her resume on Monster.com began to receive interest from employers after she changed her name and race. Yolanda Spivey, an insurance professional, noticed that Monster.com’s “diversity questionnaire” section seemed to be hurting her employment options. After Yolanda changed her name to the fictitious Bianca White, however, she received calls with job offers immediately. And not only that, they were for better jobs.
“More shocking was that some employers, mostly Caucasian-sounding women, were calling Bianca more than once, desperate to get an interview with her,” Spivey wrote. “All along, my real Monster.com account was open and active; but, despite having the same background as Bianca, I received no phone calls. Two jobs actually did email me and Bianca at the same time. But they were commission only sales positions. Potential positions offering a competitive salary and benefits all went to Bianca.”
4.You are less likely to be perceived as a “thug.”
When Seattle Seahawks superstar Richard Sherman dared speak out after making a game-winning play to get his team to the Superbowl, the word “thug” was used 625 times in 24 hours of television broadcasts. Sherman, a Standford University graduate, called out his critics, noting that white male aggression is seen as acceptable in sports like hockey because the vast majority of players are white.
“The only reason it bothers me is that it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling people the n-word nowadays,”Sherman said. “Because they know. What’s the definition of a thug, really? Can a guy on the football field, just talking to people — maybe I’m talking loudly, or doing something I’m not supposed to be. But there was a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey, they just threw the puck aside and started fighting. I saw that and I thought, ‘Oh man, I’m a thug?’ So I’m really disappointed in being called a thug.”
5.You are less likely to be labeled “angry.”
The ability to express a full range of emotions without repercussions is a privilege. When someone who isn’t white (and let’s be frank, who isn’t male) expresses anger in a public or professional setting, it’s not usually called leadership (See: Chris Christies’ entire career).
As a black woman, I know that my spectrum of acceptable emotions is limited. I can’t get too angry, because I’ll be the angry black woman, a label that dogs many high profile black women including First Lady Michelle Obama. FLOTUS has been criticized for being too demanding by the Beltway media. “I guess it’s just more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here,” Obama said. “That’s been an image people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some kind of angry black woman.”
6.You are more likely to make headlines when missing.
#BringBackOurGirls was the rare moment when the world became collectively outraged by the plight of missing African girls, stolen from their classrooms by terrorists in Nigeria.
But this is generally not the case. The media has a habit of sensationalizing the cases of missing white young women and girls — cable news anchors shout their names from the mountaintops: Natalee Holloway, Elizabeth Smart, Susan Powell, Laci Peterson.
Sheri Parks, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, calls this the “Missing White Woman Syndrome.” Dr. Mia Moody, assistant professor of journalism and media arts at Baylor University, notes the same thing in her research, which looks at the way media frames coverage, with the result that pretty white woman are put on a pedestal, while minorities, the poor and the less traditionally attractive are conspicuously absent from the front page.
7.You are more likely to find adequate housing.
Former Clippers owner Donald Sterling made headlines after his racism was caught oh-so-dramatically on tape. But Sterling’s racism didn’t begin or end with a rant to girlfriend V. Stiviano. The first time Sterling (and his wife Rochelle Sterling) were accused of housing discrimination was decades ago, when they were ordered to pay a multi-million dollar settlement for refusing to rent apartments to people of color.
As ESPN commentator Bomani Jones emphasized in a recent column, this kind of refusal to rent to people of color has real consequences. “Discrimination in the housing market has been crippling to the attempts blacks and Latinos have made to empower themselves economically,” Jones said. “The worst examples are in the sales market — there’s a wealth of urban economic evidence showing how the inability to buy homes has affected the black-white wealth gap — but such behavior in the rental market is just as damaging.”
Indeed, although Congress made housing discrimination illegal decades ago, the insidious problem persists. The National Fair Housing Alliance reports that as many as 4 million African-Americans and Latinos experience housing discrimination each year.
The arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, who was treated as a threat by his own school and police for bringing in an electronic clock he’d made as an engineering project, was not an isolated event. This was completely in line with a problem that has been growing over the past year: Islamophobia, which is the fear-based hatred of Muslims, is out of control in American society.
To understand why a Texas school would arrest a 14-year-old student for bringing in a homemade clock, it helps to understand what came before: the TV news hosts who declare Muslims “unusually barbaric,” the politicians who gin up fear of Islam, the blockbuster film that depicts even Muslim children as dangerous threats, and the wave of hatred against Muslims that has culminated several times in violence so severe that what happened to Mohamed, while terrible, appears unsurprising and almost normal within the context of ever-worsening American Islamophobia.
Many Americans might be totally unaware this is happening, even though they are surrounded by Islamophobia: on TV, at airport security, in our pop culture and our politics, and inevitably in our schools. Perhaps, then, Mohamed’s arrest will be a wake-up call.
Even just in greater Dallas, 2015 has been a year of Islamophobia
American Islamophobia has grown so severe that, even looking just at the neighborhoods immediately surrounding Mohamed’s Dallas suburb, one can see, in broad daylight, the climate of hostility and fear America’s 2.6 million Muslims have been made to live in.
The trouble began in January, when American Muslim families did what is increasingly expected of them, what American media and politicians demand of Muslims every time there is a terrorist attack: They gathered to formally condemn violent extremism and to cultivate positive ties with their local communities. They did this by organizing an event in the suburb of Garland called “Stand With the Prophet Against Terror and Hate,” to raise money for a center dedicated to promoting tolerance.
In response, thousands of protesters mobbed the event, waving anti-Muslim signs and American flags for hours, forcing local Muslim families who attended to endure a gauntlet of hate. “We don’t want them here,” a woman at the protests told a local TV reporter. One man explained, “We’re here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people who are trying to destroy us.” They were not grateful that local Muslim-Americans had taken it upon themselves to combat extremism, but rather outraged that Muslims-Americans would dare to gather publicly at all.
A few weeks later, in early March, an Iraqi man who had just fled the Middle East to join his wife in Dallas stood outside their apartment photographing the first snow he’d ever seen when two men walked up and shot him to death. Police later ruled out the possibility that it had been a hate crime, but the murder drove home the fear among many Muslim-American families that they were unsafe.
Then, in May, a woman named Pamela Geller who is known for anti-Muslim hate speech organized an event with far-right political figures called the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest,” also in Garland, to encourage Americans to draw deliberately offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a show of hostility toward Muslims. The event’s organizers explicitly positioned it as “sounding the alarm about Muslim encroachment into Europe and America, and its potential impact on American culture,” according to Breitbart.
When two gunmen tried to attack Geller’s event (they were killed by police before they could harm anyone), some in the media compared it to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, elevating Geller’s hate speech into free speech advocacy.
And then there’s the arrest, this Monday, of Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth-grader in the Irving Independent School District, also a suburb of Dallas. Mohamed, a student with a love of science, had assembled a simple electronic clock as a sort of engineering project. He brought it into school to show it off to his engineering teacher, who was impressed.
But when another teacher discovered the clock, school officials asked police to arrest Mohamed, handcuffing and humiliating him in front of his fellow students. When he was first brought before police, an office remarked, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.” Even after it became clear that the clock was just a clock, police grilled the boy, accusing him of trying to build a bomb, and the school suspended him for three days. On Tuesday, the school sent out a letter to parents that blamed Mohamed for the incident, suggested he had broken the student code of conduct (against clocks?), and urged families to look out for any other “suspicious behavior.”
But this is not a story about Dallas. Rather, it is a story about widespread American problems that are playing out across the country, that occur regularly and repeatedly, and that have created the climate that made this incident and many others possible.
How American media creates a climate of anti-Muslim hate and fear
This Islamophobia did not come from nowhere; the story of America’s resurgent Islamophobia is in many ways a media story. Over the past year, much of the media has treated the rise of ISIS in the Middle East as an indictment of Islam itself, a sign that Muslims are somehow less human and more violent.
This media coverage plays into precisely the narrative that groups such as ISIS wish to set, in which Islam and its 1.6 billion worldwide adherents are conflated with a tiny minority of extremists — even though it is Muslims who are by far the most likely to be killed by extremist groups, and who are the most likely to take up arms against them. But such coverage also promotes openly bigoted ideas about Islam, helping to create exactly the sort of climate in which a 14-year-old boy would be dragged off in handcuffs for building a clock.
CNN has promoted a kind of “he said, she said” conception of Islam, in which it is valid and worthwhile to debate whether Muslims make for inferior people and societies, thus mainstreaming more overt bigotry. Host Chris Cuomo, for example, called Muslims “unusually violent” and “unusually barbaric.” The network has run chyrons such as “IS ISLAM VIOLENT? OR PEACEFUL?”
Hosts have repeated bigoted falsehoods, for example that female genital mutilation is an inherently Muslim problem (in fact, it is a regional practice that crosses religious lines) or that restrictions on women driving are “commonplace” in the Muslim world (in fact, it is restricted to one country, Saudi Arabia, that represents 2 percent of the global Muslim population). In one bizarre segment, during an interview with Muslim-American human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, CNN host Don Lemon interrupted him mid-sentence to ask, for no obvious reason at all, “Do you support ISIS?”
Fox News has taken this to the next logical step, telling its millions of viewers over and over that Muslims are a threat who must be feared and dealt with forcefully, even violently.
For example, Fox News’s Andrea Tantros, in making a point about “the history of Islam,” argued, “You can’t solve it with a dialogue. You can’t solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It’s the only thing these people understand.” Bill O’Reilly has declared that “Islam is a destructive force” and that the US is in a holy warwith certain groups of Muslims. Host Jeanine Pirro once issued a breathtaking seven-minute monologue calling for the United States to arm death squads throughout the Muslim world to kill all Islamists and members of Islamist organizations, though many of those organizations are avowedly peaceful and have millions of members, including women and children.
This problem extends to the left, as well. HBO host Bill Maher frequently rants against Islam and its adherents, saying, for example, that “vast numbers of Muslims want humans to die for holding a different idea” and share “too much in common with ISIS.”
Islamophobia in the media has consequences
Demonstrators protest police civil rights abuses in New York. (TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty)
The school and police officials in Irving, Texas, as appalling as their actions may have been, were only doing what the American TV media has been telling them to do all year: to view Muslims with fear and suspicion, and to do whatever is necessary to neutralize the threat they pose.
It is no coincidence that popular attitudes toward Muslims are becoming more hostile in the US: Americans are more skeptical about Muslims and Islam, express lower favorability toward Muslims, are more likely to support racial profiling of Muslims, and increasingly say that Muslim Americans cannot be trusted in positions of government authority.
Sometimes the media is so effective at engendering Islamophobia that you can see attitudes hardening right before your eyes. Maher, in defending his comments about Muslims in an interview with Salon, bragged about as much. Here is he describing how, over time, as he has pounded away at Muslims, his once skeptical audiences have grown to accept and even embrace his ideas:
What I think is interesting is that the audience, my studio audience, has really come around on this issue. When I used to talk about it, it was just either stony silence or outright booing and now I notice quite a shift. …
When I talked about it at the end of last week’s show, they stood up at the end — they cheered during it and they stood up at the end. And when I introduced the topic last night, I’d say about half the audience gave a cheer when I said we need to stand up for liberal principles.
That bears repeating: The audiences used to sit quietly or boo when Maher espoused his hateful and factually incorrect views on Islam. Now they stand up and cheer. That is the power of the American media, and it’s a power that is increasingly directed toward prejudice, hate, and fear.
The politics of Islamophobia are everywhere in America
Islamophobic attitudes initially spiked after President Obama’s election — a continuation of the dog-whistle politics that Obama is a secret Muslim, or at least suspiciously un-hostile toward Islam — but have been resurfacing more recently.
State legislatures are passing laws banning “Sharia” or “foreign law,” a barely veiled expression of official legislative hostility toward Islam and Muslim-American communities.
In late January, a Texas state legislator protested the state capital’s Muslim Capitol Day, meant to promote tolerance, by demanding that any Muslim “publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws” before entering her office. “We will see how long they stay in my office,” she said.
Her stunt likely seemed silly to many Americans — another far-flung legislator saying something outlandish — but it was neither isolated nor fringe, but rather part of a concerted and deliberate campaign to promote anti-Muslim fear and hatred that has coincided with anti-Muslim violence.
Elements of the Republican Party have been hijacked, at state and national levels, by a fringe group of anti-Muslim activists who see Islam itself as a threat. While some leading Republicans resist their agenda, others embrace it; Louisiana Gov. and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up “no-go zones” that police refuse to enter and where Sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an “invasion” and “colonization.”
These attitudes have contributed to the unwillingness to shelter Syrian refugees, with some politicians claiming that it will bring ISIS to our shores. They can also be seen in a February poll showing that 54 percent of Republican respondents believe that Obama “deep down” is best described as Muslim.
This shows up in popular culture, as well. In January, Warner Bros. released American Sniper, an Iraq War film that portrays Iraqis as an undifferentiated mass of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers who can only be confronted with violence.
In one scene, the film’s protagonist and namesake shoots an Iraqi woman and child to death — an act the film tacitly approves by later showing them as having carried a grenade. The morality of killing Iraqi civilians is raised only so the hero protagonist can shout down whoever has had the gall to question his decisions by explaining that those civilians were no innocents.
The film went on to become one of the most successful war films in American history, to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and to inspire a wave of death threats against Muslims and Arabs.
The politics of Islamophobia have a real effect on how American voters perceive US foreign policy toward Muslim-majority countries, which you may have noticed involves an awful lot of bombing.
It also influences how the 2.6 million Muslim-Americans living in the United States are treated. And that treatment has been, over the course of 2015, not just increasingly hostile but at times violent.
Violence against Muslims is on the rise in America
Craig Hicks, arrested for the murders of three Muslim American students in Chapel Hill. (Sara D. Davis/Getty)
Thankfully, so far most of that violence has targeted Islamic buildings rather than people — a series of mosques and Islamic cemeteries have been vandalized — though even this is rightly perceived by Muslims as a threat of more deadly attacks.
In November of 2014, someone opened fire on a California mosque as several worshipers prayed inside.
That December, a man in Kansas City wrote on his SUV that the Quran was a “disease worse than Ebola,” and then drove the vehicle into a 15-year-old Muslim boy in front of a local mosque, severing his legs and killing him.
The January terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo magazine, in Paris, provoked a wave of Islamophobic violence in France as well as many threats to Muslims here in the United States. (Tellingly, Vox’s coverage of that Islamophobia has drawn us more threats of violence, including threats of sexual violence against women writers, than any other subject I have ever covered. These threats have expressed hatred of Muslims and outrage at Vox’s criticism of anti-Muslim bigotry.)
Then, in February, came the Chapel Hill murders: A man known for both his anger problems and his hatred of religion shot to death three university students, all Muslim, in his apartment complex.
#MuslimLivesMatter and America’s treatment of a 14-year-old boy who likes electronics
The hashtag asked Americans to acknowledge the climate, one that many non-Muslims still refuse to see, in which Muslims are treated with open fear and suspicion. It was this climate, they argued, that had allowed the murders to happen, and that let them go initially ignored.
It is that same climate that led teachers at the Irving Independent School District to look at 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, and see not a bright young student trying to impress his engineering teacher but, rather, a dangerous threat.
It is that climate that led the Irving police to arrest, fingerprint, and interrogate Mohamed, even after it became abundantly clear that he had not built a bomb but a clock, and that led them to demand a provide a “broader explanation” for it. It is the same climate that led school officials, even a full day later, to see Mohamed’s arrest not as a terrible mistake but as an opportunity to send a letter to parents asking them to be on guard against “suspicious activities.”
This climate did not come from nowhere, and it is not isolated to Irving or to Texas or to the South. It came from CNN and Fox News, from Bobby Jindal and Bill Maher and Pamela Geller, from American Sniper and the film industry that decided to greenlight a mega-blockbuster that is laced with bigotry.
It comes from fear and prejudice, it affects 2.6 million Americans, and, make no mistake, it is getting worse. It will continue to get worse until American society can recognize this problem in itself and begin to honestly address it, even if it is uncomfortable, even if many of us struggle to look past headscarves and prayer rugs to see human beings.
The murders of the three students in Chapel Hill took us a step closer to seeing the problem of American Islamophobia and dealing with it, but it did not get us there. Perhaps the images of Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest, the news that this child now says he no longer wants to share the things he builds, will finally help us see that Ahmed’s arrest is an American problem, it is systemic, and, if we are to live up to our national ideals, we have to address it.
When national media was slow to pick up the story of what had happened in Chapel Hill, many Muslim Americans used the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter to call attention to the murders and, just as crucially, to the growing hatred toward Muslims in this country.
Posted: 09/16/2015 10:19 AM EDT | Edited: 1 hour ago
A ninth-grade student in Irving, Texas, was arrested and sent to juvenile detention Monday after bringing a homemade clock to school, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old at MacArthur High School who is Muslim, told the outlet he’s passionate about robotics and decided to link a circuit board, power supply and digital clock display together inside a pencil case. He brought the device to school hoping to impress some teachers, but the first one who saw the clock immediately told him “not to show any other teachers.”
Later that day, Mohamed was pulled out of class and taken to the principal’s office. He says he was threatened with expulsion, asked if he tried “to make a bomb” and led out of the school in handcuffs by police officers.
“They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?’” the student told the Morning News.
“I told them no, I was trying to make a clock.”
“He said, ‘It looks like a movie bomb to me.'”
After his arrest, Mohamed was transferred to juvenile detention, where he was fingerprinted and then released to his parents. He is currently serving a three-day suspension from school.
During a press conference Wednesday — held after the incident had generated outrage on social media and elicited responses from Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and a NASA engineer — the Irving Police Department said there was no evidence of intent to create harm and any case against Mohamed would be dropped.
The police also passed out a photograph of the clock he built.
Alia Salem, the director of the North Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the arrest an egregious and inappropriate response. Her group is meeting with an attorney Wednesday morning to consider legal action.
“The fact remains this kid is a really bright student, an award-winning robotics inventor and tinkerer,” she told The Huffington Post. “They automatically jumped to a conclusion that I don’t believe they would’ve jumped to had he been ‘Jimmy.'”
A letter sent out to parents by the Irving Independent School District on Tuesday didn’t mention that Mohamed brought a clock to school, but said the police department found a “suspicious-looking item.” They urged parents to speak with their students about the district’s code of conduct, specifically the section on items prohibited from school.
That list of items includes weapons, fireworks, knives and pepper spray, as well as “look-alike” weapons, but makes no mention of clocks being forbidden.
The hashtag #IStandWithAhmed began trending on Twitter after Mohamed’s arrest was first reported Tuesday, with thousands chastising the arrest and suspension. His family soon created a Twitter account with the same name, from which Momahed tweeted thanks Wednesday morning.
The Huffington Post has reached out to the Irving Police Department and the Irving Independent School District for comment.
This story has been updated to include information from the police press conference.
BARTOW, Fla. — A Bartow High School senior graduated Tuesday after her junior-year biology project landed her behind bars and nearly derailed her college plans.
Kiera Wilmot had no idea her science project would get her into so much trouble and possibly keep her from earning her diploma. She and her twin sister, Kayla, were set to finish high school together, but Kiera’s arrest and two felony charges almost stopped that.
“I brought in my advanced volcano project into my biology class for my teacher to approve,” explained Kiera. “My goal was to slow or stop the reaction time of the chemicals. I knew the two chemicals would react, but I had not tried it before and my friend said they would react and encouraged me to just try it in class. So I did when I should not have listened to peer pressure.”
She mixed two chemicals in a plastic water bottle and the lid popped off and smoke came out. No one was hurt, but school administrators had her arrested. She faced expulsion, but ended up with a 10-day suspension and finishing her junior year at the alternative school.
“It was a hard transition on my mom, sister and me,” said Kiera. “People called me a terrorist because it all happened one week after the Boston Bombings and they were comparing me to the Boston bombers. That never should have happened.”
“She has never been a discipline problem,”said Kiera and Kayla’s mother Marie Wilmot. “Never had any issues. And they took her in handcuffs and took her away even before I had a chance to come and see her and talk to her. I think that was deplorable.”
After thousands of dollars in court costs, a 10-day suspension, and international news coverage — her charges were dropped and she was allowed to finish her senior year at Bartow High and graduate with her best friend.
Both girls have been accepted to Florida Polytechnic University. Kiera plans to major in mechanical and robotic engineering. Kayla is interested in audio production. They are excited to be attending a brand new university together.
How many times have you heard someone say that they “don’t see color,” “are colorblind,” or “don’t have a racist bone in their body?” Maybe you’ve even said this yourself. After all, the dominant language around racial issues today is typically one of colorblindness, as it’s often meant to convey distaste for racial practices and attitudes common in an earlier era.
Many sociologists, though, are extremely critical of colorblindness as an ideology. They argue that as the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality have become more covert and obscure than they were during the era of open, legal segregation, the language of explicit racism has given way to a discourse of colorblindness. But they fear that the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination.
For the first half of the 20th century, it was perfectly legal to deny blacks (and other racial minorities) access to housing, jobs, voting, and other rights based explicitly on race. Civil-rights reforms rendered these practices illegal. Laws now bar practices that previously maintained racial inequality, like redlining, segregation, or openly refusing to rent or sell real estate to black Americans. Yet discrimination still persists, operating through a combination of social, economic, and institutional practices.
Concurrently, it is no longer socially acceptable in many quarters to identify oneself as racist. Instead, many Americans purport not to see color. However, their colorblindness comes at a cost. By claiming that they do not see race, they also can avert their eyes from the ways in which well-meaning people engage in practices that reproduce neighborhood and school segregation, rely on “soft skills” in ways that disadvantage racial minorities in the job market, and hoard opportunities in ways that reserve access to better jobs for white peers.The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently argued that the academic left errs in attacking colorblindness. He suggested that encouraging whites to be color conscious and to think of themselves in racial terms would encourage the nativism embraced by some Donald Trump supporters—that a heightened awareness of whiteness would produce a sense of persecution, and encourage some to rally in defense of white rights. He contends that there is some merit to colorblindness that has been ignored by what he describes as “the academic left,” which spends too much time focused on nitpicking colorblindness rather than drawing attention to “macroaggressions” such as “racially tinged hatred and conspiracy theories directed at the first black president” or the convenience of labeling Mexican immigrants rapists “despite the fact that first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans.”
As a presumptive member of the “academic left” that Friedersdorf critiques, I read the post with particular interest. I think that Friedersdorf makes some important points worth more detailed attention from both academics and those outside the academy who are familiar with the debates and concepts he references. For instance, academic debates can often become divorced from broader audiences. It is way too easy for academics in many fields to ground their conversations, disputes, and discussions among other like-minded scholars. He’s right to note that, by and large, academics can do a much better job engaging with folks outside of our ivory towers.However, there are some misrepresentations in Fridersdorf’s piece as well. Based on a single statement from one book chapter in an edited volume, Friedersdorf makes the sweeping generalization that “the academic left casts all proponents of colorblindness as naïve.” I’ve read books and articles by numerous sociologists who critique the colorblind ideology, and while they find problems with the ways this perspective allows individuals to ignore patterns of racial bias, I’ve never seen any studies that broadly categorize advocates of colorblindness in this way. What’s more important to sociologists are the consequences of how this ideology has implications for social inequality.
My colleague Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, for example, has written extensively about the idea of colorblindness, charting the ways that it functions as an ideology that legitimizes specific practices that maintain racial inequalities—police brutality, housing discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and others. His book Racism Without Racistsis part of a broad set of sociological research that draws attention to the ways that colorblind ideology undergirds bigger, more problematic social issues.
Yet, in addition to suggesting that the academic left casts all proponents of colorblindness as naïve, Friedersdorf also contends that they waste time picking apart this concept rather than addressing “macroagressions” like police brutality and growing expressions of virulent racist hatred. But Bonilla-Silva, among others, describes the ways that colorblindness sustains these very macroaggressions that Friedersdorf thinks are ignored. In other words, Friedersdorf suggests the academic left wastes time dissecting the concept of colorblindness, and would be better served focusing on more pressing, systemic processes of inequality. But a careful read of sociological literature in this area finds that there are more than a few members of the “academic left” who argue that colorblindness is problematic precisely because it offers a way to avoid addressing these exact social problems. Other sociologists like Jessie Daniels and David Cort focus explicitly on researching hate speech on the internet and the lower rates of crime among immigrants relative to native born Americans, respectively—the very issues that Friedersdorf, by his own admission, charges are important and believes are overlooked by the academic left. Sociologists are actually very involved in highlighting these macroaggressions—and in underscoring the ways colorblind ideology allows them to go ignored.
Advocates of colorblindness, like Friedersdorf, tend to claim that emphasizing whites’ group identity as whites (rather than as individuals) is counterproductive. Rejecting colorblindness and encouraging whites to see themselves as members of a distinct racial group, they argue, will produce nativism. They will cling to, rather than critique, the privileges that whiteness affords, which are jeopardized by a more multiracial society. Friedersdorf calls it naïve to believe that upon focusing on their status as members of a racial group and the privilege and power that affords them, “masses of white people will identify more strongly with their racial tribe and then sacrifice the interests of that tribe.”
This is, in the abstract, a compelling point. The trouble is that the weight of the scholarly evidence directly contradicts this argument. Sociologists like Karyn McKinney, Eileen O’Brien, Joe Feagin, Hernan Vera, and Matthew Hughey, who have studied the pathways and trajectories by which whites become involved in antiracist activism, show that contrary to Friedersdorf’s beliefs, moving away from colorblindness can actually serve as a pathway towards antiracism. In many of these studies, as whites came to understand themselves as members of a racial group which enjoyed unearned privileges and benefits, this compelled them to forge a different sense of white identity built on antiracism rather than simply supporting the status quo. Moving away from the colorblind ideology that sociologists critique—the idea that it’s admirable to profess not to see color, that it’s problematic to see oneself as a member of a racial group—is, according to the research in this area, actually an important step to antiracist activism.
There’s a strong emphasis on individualism in American culture. Friedersdorf argues that “race is a pernicious concept that robs people of their individuality … the academic left also underestimates how divisive it can be to put anything other than individualism at the center of identity.” But ironically, this focus on individualism is itself a function of group position. Whites, by and large, enjoy the luxury of promoting the importance of the individual, because they benefit from living in a racially stratified society where whiteness is normalized. In most social interactions, whites get to be seen as individuals. Racial minorities, by contrast, become aware from a young age that people will often judge them as members of their group, and treat them in accordance with the (usually negative) stereotypes attached to that group.
Everyone wants to be treated as an individual and recognized for their personal traits and characteristics. But the colorblindness that sociologists critique doesn’t allow for this. Instead, it encourages those who endorse this perspective to ignore the ongoing processes that maintain racial stratification in schools, neighborhoods, health care, and other social institutions. Can color consciousness draw attention to these issues? The research demonstrates that it can lead to more understanding of our racially stratified society and can give rise to a willingness to work for change. So from that perspective, it doesn’t seem worth abandoning just yet.ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ADIA HARVEY WINGFIELD is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work.
[Why is this so important and how does it challenge the ways we talk about race in contemporary America? Can you think of examples from class, from reading, and from films that highlight the dangers of colorblindness in perpetuating inequality, privilege, etc.
Serena Williams is widely considered the greatest woman tennis player ever. But all too often, instead of being celebrated, she’s targeted with outrageous racist and sexist comments. This bigotry has tarnished nearly every victory, magazine cover, and interview of her entire incredible career.
For example, in the moments surrounding her win at the French Open in June 2015, Williams was compared to an animal, likened to a man, and deemed frightening and horrifyingly unattractive. One Twitter user wrote that Williams “looks like a gorilla, and sounds like a gorilla when she grunts while hitting the ball. In conclusion, she is a gorilla.” And another described her as “so unbelievably dominant … and manly.” ESPN sports commentator Bomani Jones responded to those reactions — as well as to the ones that dismissed them as subjective commentary — with a series of tweets.
What people who tried to insist that these were merely innocent, individual assessments of Williams’s looks didn’t understand was that none of this was new, and none of it was random.
Indian Wells and beyond
(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
At the 2001 BNP Paribas Open tournament in Indian Wells, California, Serena and Venus Williams were booed by fans who accused them of match fixing when Venus withdrew from a scheduled semifinal match. And then, according to the Williams family, things got worse:
“When Venus and I were walking down the stairs to our seats, people kept calling me ‘nigger,” her father and coach Richard Williams told USA Today at the time. One man, he said, threatened, “‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.'”
Serena boycotted the event for more than a decade, only returning this year.
But the most recent commentary is a reminder that that didn’t mark an end to the racialized, sexualized, dehumanizing comments about her. It’s nearly impossible to imagine these comments being made about any of her peers; they’re a genre unto themselves, offering a case study on how biases make their way into media coverage. As James McKay and Helen Johnson write in a 2008 article published in Social Identities, about what they called the “pornographic eroticism and sexual grotesquerie in representations of African American sportswomen,” even so-called complimentary commentary about Williams’s athleticism is often grounded in stereotypes about black people (animalistic and aggressive) and black women specifically (masculine, unattractive, and overly sexual at once).
These remarks don’t always take the form of explicit racial slurs or threats of bodily harm, like the ones reported at Indian Wells did. But if Williams were to boycott every tennis event at which someone made an offensive, dehumanizing reference to her body’s size and shape, she’d have to quit the sport altogether.
Shameless, explicit racial stereotypes
It’s true: Williams is black, she’s very muscular, and she’s a skilled player. But breathless commentators sometimes talk about these qualities in a way that buys into what sociologist Delia Douglas, in an article on the Williams sisters published in 2004 by the Sociology of Sport Online, called “the essentialist logic of racial difference, which has long sought to mark the black body as inherently different from other bodies.” The result is that Williams’s athleticism is attributed to her ethnicity.
Dr. Peter Larkins, in an apparent attempt to compliment Williams, contributed his medical opinion in an interview with Australia’s Herald Sun for a 2006 piece that compared her fitness to a competitor’s. “It is the African-American race,” he explained. “They just have this huge gluteal strength. … Jennifer Capriati was clearly out of shape and overweight. With Serena, that’s her physique and genetics.”
This thinking is part of a tradition Douglas dubbed the “ancient grammar of black physicality.”
Ironically, Williams’s mistakes have also been attributed to her race. At the 2007 Sony Ericsson Championship in Miami, a heckler was ejected from the stands after yelling at Williams, “That’s the way to do it! Hit the net like any Negro would!”
But most of the racialized comments about Williams have been more carefully coded, rarely mentioning her ethnicity outright.
Inappropriate scrutiny and sexualization of her body’s size and shape
There’s no way around it: The fascination with the size and shape of parts of Williams’s body that have nothing to do with her tennis skills is creepy. It’s also unsurprising. Ms. Magazine‘s Anita Little, writing in 2012, linked the sexualization of Williams’s physique to the legacy of the “Hottentot Venus,” an African woman whose real name was Saartjie Baartman, who was displayed before European audiences as a freak show attraction in the 1800s. “No matter how insanely successful black women like Serena become, the legacy of the Hottentot Venus will always be ready to rear its ugly head at an opportune moment,” she wrote.
“THE LEGACY OF THE HOTTENTOT VENUS WILL ALWAYS BE READY TO REAR ITS UGLY HEAD”
Reading some of the remarks made about Williams’s curves, it would be easy to think you were privy to the observations of circus attendees gawking at an unfamiliar body, as opposed to journalists and sports commentators.
In 2002, after Williams competed at the US Open wearing a black spandex catsuit, Sunday Telegraph columnist Otis Gibson, seemingly struggling to find appropriate language in his critique of her outfit, wrote, “On some women [the catsuit] might look good. Unfortunately, some women aren’t wearing it. On Serena, it only serves to accentuate a superstructure that is already bordering on the digitally enhanced and a rear end that I will attempt to sum up as discreetly as possible by simply referring to it as ‘formidable.'”
In 2003, the satirical website Sportspickle published a piece that leveraged the preoccupation with this particular part of her body, in a piece starring Williams’s butt as the winner of the Australian Open:
Tennis star Serena Williams cruised to a victory in the finals of Australian Open women’s singles on Saturday and then dispatched her buttocks on Sunday to secure the doubles title. Serena beat her sister … to win her fourth-straight major. On Sunday, her butt muscled its way to a 6-2, 6-1 title victory over the doubles pair of Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez. The feat is the first-known occurrence of a body part winning a professional athletic contest.
It’s not all white observers who make these types of comments. Jason Whitlock, a black sports writer, slammed Williams in a 2009 Fox Sports column for having “chosen to smother” her beauty “in an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber.” His main gripe, unsurprisingly, was about what he called her “oversized back pack.” He explained, “I am not fundamentally opposed to junk in the trunk, although my preference is a stuffed onion over an oozing pumpkin.”
This type of disgusted scrutiny has targeted Williams’s breasts, too. In commentary that was demonstrably wrong, given her astronomical success in tennis, the Telegraph‘s Matthew Norman wrote in 2006 that they were likely to hinder her career.
Generally, I’m all for chunky sports stars … but tennis requires a mobility Serena cannot hope to achieve while lugging around breasts that are registered to vote in a different US state from the rest of her.
In 2012, Williams’s friend the Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki brought to life all the scrutiny of Williams’s body, mocking her curves by stuffing her own top and tennis skirt with towels at an exhibition match. Williams responded to those who thought the joke was in bad taste by saying, “I don’t think she meant anything racist by it,” but added, “If people feel [that it seems racist], she should take reason and do something different next time.”
“IF CAROLINE TRULY WANTED TO IMPERSONATE SERENA, SHE COULD HAVE PADDED HER LEGS AND ARMS”
Just a silly stunt without any intent to harm? Possibly, but it was still part of a troubling pattern. As Ms. Magazine‘s Little wrote, “If Caroline truly wanted to impersonate Serena, she could have padded her legs and arms to represent Serena’s muscled physique, but she targeted specific body parts — breasts and booty — for her little prank. The supposed hypersexuality of a black woman’s anatomy is a ceaseless trope that is always used to get a laugh. The racist undertones of Caroline’s stunt may not have been deliberate, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”
Hyperbolic descriptions of her physical power
“The prominence of narratives that depict the Williams sisters as ‘overwhelming’ and ‘destroying’ their female opponents are significant for they call upon enduring stereotypes of the ‘dangerous’ black body and the ‘strong black woman,'” Douglas wrote, noting the way both Venus and Serena’s strong black female bodies were “described as ‘pummeling,’ ‘overwhelming’ and ‘overpowering’ (apparently frail and powerless) white female opponents.”
It’s true that sports metaphors include references to violence: “crushed,” “killed,” and “destroyed” aren’t unusual words to hear when describing wins. But descriptions of Serena’s power and the strength behind her victories have taken this type of hyperbole to another level — one that suggests she’s absolutely unparalleled in her strength and capacity for violence, especially as compared with her white opponents.
Writing for Rolling Stone in 2013, Stephen Roderick observed, “Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas.”
In 2014, Russian tennis official Shamil Tarpischev infamously called the Williams sisters “brothers,” saying, “It’s frightening when you look at them. But really you just need to play against the ball.” In response, Ms. Magazine‘s Corinne Gaston wrote, “The type of body-shaming in Tarpishchev’s comment, while subtle, comes gift-wrapped in a triad from hell: misogyny, racism and transphobia.”
An insistence on seeing her as unusually aggressive and (literally) animalistic
The Telegraph’s Sue Mott seemed to embrace Tarpischev’s (and others’) characterization of Williams as scary and take it another, dehumanizing level, when she wrote in 2002 that Williams and Venus had “evolved into players of Amazonian physique and piranha mentality.”
Even when Williams loses, she’s perceived as an untamed source of power. Describing Serena’s 2009 US Open loss, an ESPN column noted that Williams’s opponent “seemed destined to win the match anyways,” describing how she’d returned “Serena’s savage strokes.”
HE LATER TOLD THE DAILY NEWS THAT HIS COMMENTS WEREN’T RACIST, “JUST ZOOLOGICAL”
And if it’s not clear what words like “savage” imply, some writers have spelled it out. In 2001, sportscaster Sid Rosenberg literally called Venus an “animal” and said she and Serena would fit better posing for National Geographic magazine than for Playboy. He later told the Daily News that his comments weren’t racist, “just zoological.”
David Leonard, chair of the department of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University, compiled the following tweets, which he recorded after Williams won her fifth Wimbledon title in 2012, in a post for his personal blog arguing that she faced racist treatment from the media and fans alike:
Today a giant gorilla escaped the zoo and won the womens title at Wimbledon… oh that was Serena Williams? My mistake.
Serena Williams is a gorilla
Watching tennis and listening to dad talk about how Serena Williams looks like gorilla from the mist
I don’t see how in the hell men find Serena Williams attractive?! She looks like a male gorilla in a dress, just saying!
You might as well just bang a gorilla if you’re going to bang Serena Williams
Earlier this week I said that all female tennis players were good looking. I was clearly mistaken: The Gorilla aka Serena Williams.
serena williams looks like a gorilla
Serena Williams is half man, half gorilla! I’m sure of it.
Serena Williams look like a man with tits, its only when she wears weave she looks female tbh, what a HENCH BOLD GORILLA!
Serena Williams is a gorilla in a skirt playing tennis #Wimbledon
My god Serena Williams is ugly! She’s built like a silver backed gorilla
“The racism raining down on Serena’s victory parade highlights the nature of white supremacy. … her career has been one marred by the politics of hate, the politics of racism and sexism,” Leonard wrote.
The racism that underlies the characterizations of her as hypersexual, aggressive, and animalistic also means that when she dares to express frustration, she’s stamped with the infamous “angry black woman” stereotype.
It’s as bogus as the rest of the labels she’s endured, but given the slights against her over the years, she has every right to be outraged.
The world only has ugliness for black women. That’s why Serena Williams is so important
For two decades, Williams has dominated an overwhelmingly white sport, a powerful statement on black womanhood
On Saturday morning when I dragged myself out of bed to watch Serena Williams compete for her 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, I sent my mother a simple text: “Tennis?” More than a thousand miles away and one time zone behind, Mama texted back, “Yes!”
This has been our ritual since I left home nearly half a lifetime ago, just around the time it became clear that Williams Sisters were a force that would not go away quietly. My mother and I spent many lazy summer weekends watching greats like Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. I vaguely remember watching Arthur Ashe play, and my mother always took care to point out Black players like Zina Garrison and Malivai Washington. Unlike basketball, which I also loved back then, in the heyday of Michael Jordan, tennis was an overwhelmingly white sport.
Then came the Black girls—sisters from Compton with beads and braids, playing “power tennis.” That is how sportscasters like Mary Carillo, Pam Shriver and Chris Evert derisively referred to the Sisters’ monster serves and walloping forehand winners down the line way back then. A few months younger than Venus, and a few older than Serena, I was instantly protective and proud of these young sisters the same age as me, who had entered an all-white world and dominated white women with such consistency and force, and so unapologetically, that white women’s heads spun on a regular basis.
It is never a thing Black people would admit in polite company (which is to say, in front of white people), but watching these beautiful, powerful Black girls square up against white girls and win is catharsis. Despite sportscaster commentary which focused heavily on the athleticism of their bodies while giving them no credit for being thoughtful or strategic on the court, the sisters won, and kept on winning.
I’m sure many hoped we would not be here in the middle of the second decade of the 20th century still watching the Williams sisters compete against each other in grand slams. But we are. And while Venus — long my favorite of the two (loyalty to the sister born the same year as me if nothing else) — no longer enjoys the same success and visibility as her sister, the two are still seen as some of the most formidable players in the game.
Some things have changed since we began to call the names of Venus and Serena. Their games have improved. Serena has figured out how to corral all that power into a gorgeous, focused finesse on the court. Watching Venus play at Wimbledon is like watching a Black girl ballet on grass. Because of Venus’ active campaign with Billie Jean King, women now earn equal pay with men at Grand Slam tournaments. And Chris Evert, one of the Williams Sisters’ most ardent critics a decade ago, can now regularly be heard calling Serena the “greatest” to ever play the game. What has not changed, however, is the ugly and virulent racist commentary to which Serena is subjected each and every time she wins.
Media personalities suggest that she’s doping. And racists emboldened by the mouthpiece and anonymity of twitter misgender her, calling her a man and deriding the strength of her body. In a piece at the New York Times, Ben Rothenberg interviews several current women’s tennis players who evince varying levels of anxiety about how playing the sport makes them look “unfeminine.” In the midst of this, Serena says, “I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”
That kind of body confidence from a dark-skinned, “thick” Black woman, with a round posterior that all my homegirls and I, straight and gay alike, admire, is hard won. This world does not love Black girls or women, and it takes every opportunity to project its own ugliness onto our bodies. We spend a lifetime trying to resurrect our self-esteem from these hastily dug mass graves.