I did not want to write a book on white privilege. Well, that’s only partially true. I wanted it to be written. I just didn’t want to be the one to write it. And not just because I’m a procrastinator--and perhaps a tad lazy--but mostly because I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when the words ‘whiteness’ or ‘privilege’ are mentioned--especially by me, a white woman living in the south. And honestly, I like being liked and enjoy being popular and getting invited to dinner parties but somehow addressing the issue of whiteness and privilege tends to leave a lot of white space on the calendar. Pun intended.
Besides, how dare I write a book dealing with a subject as volatile and contentious as racial identity? I’m neither a scholar nor academic and I’m from a small town on the Canadian border in upstate New York that boasted having one African American family during the 60’s and 70’s while I was growing up. And because most of the town ‘seemed’ to have a favorable impression of this one black family, I drank the Canadian-Yankee Kool-Aid and subscribed to the illusion that racial bias was non-existent in our part of the world.
So yes, I am classified (and identify) as white. And because ‘whiteness’ is a social construct and not biological, it means it’s not real—except for the meaning we have given it. The concept of ‘whiteness’ and racial identity was invented for the purpose of promoting superiority of one group over all others. Some people refer to it as ‘white dominance’, white supremacy’ but most whites who don’t think about it, just think of it as ‘normal’. But whatever term is used, it means that by accident of birth, I landed in a world where ‘whiteness’ was determined to carry value and meaning and I fell into the category that presumed superiority. The fact that I didn’t ask for it, or maybe claim to not want it, is irrelevant. In essence, whiteness is a commodity with many benefits.
And before you slam the book shut let me be clear. I have great love for white folks including two white parents, four white siblings and two ex-husbands (also both white) along with thousands of white friends, colleagues and role models. I say this for anyone tempted to assume there must be an unconscious, self-loathing agenda in writing this book. And after years of reflection and being quizzed as to my motivations I’ve yet to identify an inner disdain for white people.
Like countless Americans (of all races), I felt anger, grief and helplessness at the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old unarmed African-American teenager (wearing a hoody) who was gunned down while walking home from the store. And now 7 years later as I update this manuscript there are dozens and dozens of names who have become examples and symbols of violence perpretrated against Black and Brown people in law enforcement.
I would be remiss if I didn’t name a few who've died since writing this book: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are the most recognizable names because they received attention for dying at the hands of law enforcement or in George Floyd's case, at the foot of a police officer. While there are countless others who've died anonymously, the inspiration for writing this book in 2012 was Trayvon Martin.
As the story unfolded in the press, it was revealed that what initially made Trayvon Martin suspicious to the shooter (and justified his fear) wasn’t just the black hooded jacket he wore--which to many is thought of as the ‘uniform’ for young men of color--but the black skin underneath the hoody. And as most Americans know by now, the only weapon young Martin possessed was a bag of skittles, a drink--and most threatening, his blackness.
When the story first unraveled in March 2012, I posted a blog in Redroom called "Take the White Privilege Pop Quiz For Trayvon Martin and For Yourself" with a link to my website where a ‘sampler’ quiz was posted. I requested people take the mini quiz and share the results with friends, family members and co-workers who were perhaps curious, doubtful, or even insistent that such a thing as 'white privilege' didn’t exist. And I invited those who didn’t understand how privilege might be connected to the death of young Trayvon Martin to take the quiz.
From the responses that first week, it was undeniable. The sampler quiz tapped a deep desire and desperate craving for a conversation—one that we (as a nation) had never had before.
The White Privilege Pop Quiz is aimed at encouraging whites to explore the meaning of their own racial identity and perhaps shed light on how it is that an unarmed teenager was perceived as someone who posed enough of a threat to be suspicious—and ultimately murdered. (I do not refer to any legal determinations of guilt).
Intended to inspire reflection, the pop quiz might help reveal how those in law enforcement so quickly characterized the crime as an act of self-defense. It might also clarify how so many (whites and non whites) are convinced that race played a determining role in law enforcement’s acceptance that Trayvon Martin posed a legitimate threat to his killer. So much so that the shooter, Zimmerman was neither detained nor arrested.
But the Pop quiz wasn’t aimed exclusively at the Trayvon Martin travesty. There are countless situations containing the same ingredients for violence that resulted in Martin’s murder and through his death, the 17 year-old has become a symbol of a yearning for common justice.
Five days after posting the quiz on Facebook, some 2750 people clicked on the link to take the survey, and today over 100,000 have taken the mini-quiz.
Whenever I’ve spoken publicly about race, a question that is guaranteed to surface during the Q & A is how a white woman who identifies as a French Canadian Yankee became “obsessed” with racial identity and racial bias.
Note: unlike Nancy Reagan who was considered “Passionate” about ‘saying no to drugs’ when a white woman talks frequently about race she is often viewed as ‘obsessed’ rather than passionate.
The truth is, it wasn’t until moving far away from Massena, New York and living in larger cosmopolitan areas throughout the U.S. for many years that I began to understand how sheltered, misguided and oblivious I was about racial identity and what it means to identify as “non-white”.
Having traveled internationally and made a home in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, I captured a glimpse of what it means to be a person of color in a white dominated world and the social, political and economic ramifications that come with the package. But it wasn’t until the mid 1990’s after moving south of the Mason-Dixon line that I began reflecting on my own racial identity and what it means to possess “whiteness.” Until that point any analysis of race (and all studies of racial disparities) seemed to place non-whites under a microscope and more or less dissect ‘their’ experiences or conditions—rather than looking at the opposite: the privileges that exist as a result of a system and culture that rewards ‘whiteness’.
After becoming a residential counselor at a Nashville youth shelter at a purportedly progressive non-profit, I noticed racial disparities between the clients and the staff and started questioning why the ‘helpers’ were predominately white while the preponderance of those needing help were non-white.
I started reading every book that dealt with race I could get my hands including writings by Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois, Robin D.G. Kelley, Dr. Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson and hundreds of others. After attending the Fisk University Race Relations Institute, I attended other conferences exploring the subject, wrote op-ed pieces and eventually became involved in witnessing racial politics at play in the community.
Since hindsight is always 20/20, when reflecting back it seems I had stockpiled just enough ammunition (knowledge) to be dangerous. Angry and up for the fight, I raised one fist in the air and pointed my pen or camera anywhere inequity lurked—which as it turns out can keep one very busy--looking ‘elsewhere’. And ironically, as long as the focus was ‘over there’ and not on me, I was poised for confrontation.
As it turns out, like most white Americans, I knew deep inside that being classified as white carried privileges of unearned access—even if I didn’t have the vocabulary or the willingness to acknowledge it. How can I say this? Because studies (and personal experiences) demonstrate what happens when most whites are asked the question ‘if you could choose to wake up tomorrow a different race, would you?’
The answer is usually ‘no thank you’, and with those who are more truthful, the answer is probably more like: “hell no”. Why? It’s certainly not because whites deem non-whites unattractive or inferior looking. If we didn’t find darker skin attractive we wouldn’t be slathering ourselves with forty-dollar bottles of ‘Black Elixir Lotion’ and getting sun cancer, or spending billions on spray tans hoping to bronze up.
The question of whether or not we would change races--if we could—just seems to raise more questions. Is it possible the reason we wouldn’t change races is simply because of what we already understand about what whiteness means? Is it because instinctively we know ‘membership has its privileges’ and that having darker skin and features that are not deemed European American means we would not be viewed or treated the same as we are now? That we understand without our “whiteness” our economic status might be affected, and that all the doors that are open to us now, might not be?
The intent for this book isn’t to make people feel bad or guilty, but to shed light on the continued and persistent conflict, confusion, and resentment that arises when issues of race rise to the surface—and more importantly when they don’t. This book is for anyone wanting to cultivate a deeper awareness of what ‘whiteness’ means and is willing to look within. And this book is especially for those who haven’t given it (whiteness) much thought and especially for those who are tempted to put the book down—right now.
Exploring whiteness and privilege is a daunting task simply because there are so many fears working against peeking under these covers. For many, there is a fear that if we look too closely, we might be horrified that someone we don’t want to know lives within us, and we will be forced to feel bad about ourselves--for all eternity. If this sounds overly dramatic it is because facing issues of race head-on is emotionally ‘loaded’ and why most of us avoid it.
The Pop-quiz is comprised of questions that help set a context for discussing this thing called 'white privilege' and serves to help people understand what it means to possess it. The quiz is meant to dispel any mystery or skepticism about the existence of privilege for those who have never given it much (or any) thought before. After all, the number one privilege of whiteness is to not have to think about it therein denying its’ existence.
Unlike a pop quiz at school, there are no wrong answers--only truthful ones. Although there is no 'scoring' per se, if you answer number three or four for most (or many) of the questions, there's a good chance you are someone who is familiar with white privilege and experience it on a daily basis.
Each chapter begins with a multiple choice question meant to reveal, inform and hopefully inspire more questions about whiteness--and the system invented to promote whiteness--than you have ever entertained before. The hope is that perhaps the quiz will point you in a new direction, to think more deeply and behave more consciously.
Example: How often are your reminded about being the race with which you identify?
1) Several times a day
2) Once a day
3) Several times a week
4) Once a month
5) Hardly Ever
Although the fear of feeling bad as a result of facing racial bias is not unfounded, it is purely optional. Being identified as white is not a problem per se, but rather what ‘whiteness’ means (and continues to mean) in our culture that is ‘problematic’.
So far of the 100,000 people who have taken the White Privilege Pop (mini) Quiz on-line, many say they found it revelatory and enlightening while others admit feeling infuriated and some even amused. I’m happy for all of the above.
Worth repeating is that the primacy of whiteness is a social construct (not biological) invented to uphold and justify a system that promoted superiority of one group over all others. Quite simply: White supremacy. That whiteness still continues to carry this meaning suggests that 'unchecked whiteness' (unacknowledged whiteness) continues to perpetuate systemic inequities in every sector of society.
Although internalized racial bias exists everywhere, the form in which we experience it in the U.S. requires us to examine the illness of the founding fathers to understand ourselves. In order to justify brutalizing and enslaving an entire race of people, our historical ‘heroes’ collectively convinced themselves that non-whites being ‘imported’ from Africa and the Indigenous people who inhabited this continent when they arrived were not fully human beings.
As is well documented, the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” was a mechanism by which slaves were legally declared only as three-fifths of a human being for the purpose of determining a state’s representation in Congress. Imagine the painstaking calculations involved--not to mention self-delusion--required to institute such a ‘compromise’, and with a straight face.
Some would argue that viewing racial bias as an illness is absurd and perhaps even harsh. But how else could they--the fathers of the Constitution--hold steadfast to the conviction that they were God-fearing, Democracy-seeking, honorable men while owning and brutalizing fellow human beings in the name of ‘expansion and progress’? Does this not suggest imbalance or perhaps even illness?
Although we are loathe to judge our ancestors too harshly for their transgressions, if we do not acknowledge the moral schizophrenia on the part of our predecessors who allowed (and perpetrated) the genocide and brutalization of an entire race of people for economic gain, we risk perpetual self-delusion and repetition. In other words, by ignoring the historical behavioral duplicity and a tragic breach of humanity, we risk failing to see the breach within ourselves—if one exists.
When we examine history textbooks that persistently characterize the extermination of Native Americans as ‘westward expansion’, or minimize the brutalization of Africans for economic gain as ‘an unfortunate chapter in our history’, we must read between these white-washed words. And we must ask what effect this type of sterilized and deceptive reporting has on young minds who are forming ideas about who we are as a society, who ‘fits in’, and who doesn’t, who is valued, and who isn’t?
Most people upon hearing of gruesome violence committed against another refer to the sickness of the act. They inquire of the person committing the act: “what happened to their humanity?” We label them pathological, evil or sub-human and many of them are locked up in prisons and institutions for their entire lives.
How many history classes have you attended where an entire lesson—or even five minutes—was devoted to discussing the somewhat schizophrenic behaviors of those who penned the constitution? Yes, those who espoused liberty and freedom who were--many of them--slave owners themselves. At most, their moral lapses are a ‘side-bar’—if discussed at all.
This omission is usually (and weakly) justified by saying it is unfair to judge our ancestors from modern day ethics and morals. As if 150 years ago there were different standards of humanity wherein domination, enslavement and brutality weren’t so bad.
There have always been those—both non-whites and whites—who were staunchly opposed to slavery, oppression and domination, and who were aware of the hypocrisy of the American Constitution and the brutal insanity of racism. And there are those—too many to count—who were more than willing to turn a blind eye in order to attain and maintain wealth and power.
It is the denial of ‘insane’ behaviors that renders us doomed to repeat them. And we have. When those classified as white enjoy the privilege of viewing history through a lens that softens the collective dehumanization of our brothers and sisters of color we, too, are dehumanized.
“ Digging up all this stuff is just not helpful and just creates more hard feelings”.
Why dig it all up?
Few would argue that how we were raised and nurtured as children the first few years of our lives has a profound impact on our experiences as an adult. That 12-step recovery programs exist in nearly every continent around the globe testifies to the notion most people believe: if moving forward is ever to be possible, then revisiting the past is essential—at least for a little while.
After several hundred years of operating under an insane paradigm, it is improbable—if not impossible--to escape internalizing racial bias. It is what we do with that bias after acknowledging it which matters.
So yes, once upon a time some of our ancestors did some things that were…very bad. Ok, very, very, very bad. They created a system that divided and pitted men and women against one another for economic gain. They also devised a classification system that divided people into categories: those who were worthy of wealth and freedoms, and those who weren’t. In order to promote a system that assigned favor and privileges to whites, it was necessary to degrade and demonize those who were “not” so that formal, systemic discrimination could be justified. “Racism was (is) nothing more than a potent and ingenious tool that validated those who were ‘classified as white’,” says African American studies professor Dr. Jacqueline Wade.
In this country, even those who are considered great men with noble intentions like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many other ‘notables’ participated in a system that denigrated humans for personal gain. Both Washington and Jefferson legally owned slaves up until their deaths. And although these uncomfortable truths are self-evident, we would rather not think about them as such.
Another uncomfortable truth: We are all the result of a system that was founded upon principles that promoted occupation, genocide and domination. We didn’t create it, but we are the inheritors. Ouch!
Although the system of legalized enslavement was abolished over a hundred fifty years ago, it is only in the past 40 some years that significant strides have been made at equalizing treatment under the law. This is good news. The not so good news is the psychological fall out of an insane system that pitted men and women of different races against one another, which has never been addressed in a systematic or meaningful way, continues to thrive under the surface.
And what is most crucial is that we understand that our internalized (and unexpressed) racial biases and fears continue to prevent others from getting an education, overpopulate our prisons, and even cause unjustified deaths--as in the case of Trayvon Martin.
My hope is that you will share the quiz with friends, family members, classmates and co-workers, and that you keep the conversation going. And although I’m a big fan of waving the positive thought flag, anything that is ‘systemic’ cannot be undone by discussion or positive thoughts alone. As with most things, change on the outside begins with a shift in perception—from within.
If you are still reading and interested in challenging yourself in this endeavor, it is also important to remember that engaging in honest and vigorous racial discussions may not lend itself to a lot of social invitations. However intrigued many white people are about social and racial justice, most whites I know who discuss these issues publicly don’t exactly sit on the “A” list when it comes to dinner parties. So be forewarned, mentioning the white privilege elephant in the middle of a black tie masquerade fund-raiser for the local governor may come with a price.
Given the resistance which surfaces for most everyone during discussions of race, why in the world would anyone deliberately dive into “The White Privilege Pop Quiz”? What would be the worst thing you could discover? That indeed you do experience unearned privilege and that you are unconsciously contributing to systemic and institutional racial inequities?
What if from reading the book you were able to develop a more thoughtful, authentic, and honest approach to discussing race, and perhaps understand how challenging it is for non-whites to work with us (whites), to confide in us or to trust us to do the ‘right’ things?
Wouldn’t it be worth finding that out how frightening it can be to live amongst those who are unconscious (or in denial) of the very systems that continually marginalize—if not brutalize--people of color? And what if that revelation alone inspired you to commit whole-heartedly to dismantling systemic racism--once and for all.
* Next week: Chapter One "The first time I became aware of racial identity and how it would play a crucial role in my daily life."
There are numerous books on Whiteness' and privilege--including several by Tim Wise , Paul Kivel and Eddie Moore Jr.. And just so there is no misunderstanding, the pop quiz for Trayvon Martin was inspired and informed by many folks over the years. These mentors and teachers include Peggy Macintosh, Dr. Jacqui Wade, Dr. Ray Winbush, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr, Tim Wise, Humberto Brown, Jesse Villalobos, Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, Francie Kendall, Victor Lee Lewis, Jorge Zeballos, Paul Kivel, Naomi Tutu, Theeda Murphy and many many others.
A special extra thanks to White Privilege Conference founder Eddie Moore Jr. for his encouragement and all the Colleges and University students who’ve invited me to present the White Privilege Pop Quiz on their Campuses.