White Privilege Pop Quiz: Reflecting On Whiteness
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
Today I'm releasing the introduction to: “The White Privilege Pop Quiz: Reflecting On Whiteness,” a book for white people who are interested in understanding whiteness, privilege and our participation in systemic racism. Each chapter focuses on seldom asked race related questions and is meant to foster conversation with friends, family, co-workers, and community members.
This book was written for people who have never explored the notion of whiteness and privilege and want to work for justice and equality for a more peaceful world. It's also for those who perceive themselves 'woke' and anyone in between.
”It takes a very brave fish to point out that the water is not what it's made out to be. Molly Secours is that fish. With the simplicity of a pop quiz, quiet privilege becomes a loud declaration that it's time for real change - not a slogan, but a complete overhaul of our color-coded world.”
—Peter Buffett,American musician, composer, author, producer,
and second son of investor Warren Buffett.
“Just because there is one Black man in the White House, doesn’t make up for the fact that there are one million Black men in the Big House.”
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. 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. Quite 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 an academic. 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 when 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 or white supremacy, but most Whites don’t think about it, we just think of it as normal. 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.
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. 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 who was gunned down while walking home from the store. Seven years later as I update this manuscript there are dozens and dozens of names who have become examples and symbols of violence perpetrated against Black and Brown people by law enforcement.
I would be remiss if I didn’t name a few who have 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. While there are countless others who have died anonymously, the inspiration for writing this book in 2012 was Trayvon Martin.
As the Trayvon Martin story unfolded in the press, it was revealed that what initially made him 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. As most Americans know by now, the only weapon young Martin possessed was a bag of Skittles, a soft 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 sample 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. 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 sample 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 poses enough of a threat to be suspicious and ultimately murdered.1
Intended to inspire reflection, the pop quiz might help reveal how those in law enforcement quickly characterized the crime as an act of self-defense. It might also clarify how 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, George 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. 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 Just Say 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. 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 living for years 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. 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, more or less dissecting their experiences and 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. I witnessed first-hand in my newly gentrified neighborhood as new residents who were unaccustomed to living in a diverse community sounded alarm bells whenever young Black males walked through the neighborhood. I sat in on community meetings with residents and police as they openly profiled young Black and Brown men who wore hoodies as being suspicious all under the guise of neighborhood safety.
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. Ironically, as long as the focus was over there and not on me, I was poised for confrontation.
In fact, 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 seems to raise more questions. Is it possible the reason we wouldn’t change races is simply because of what we already quietly understand 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; that all the doors that are open to us now, might not be?
The intent for this book is not 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 bubbles 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. This book is especially for those who haven’t given their whiteness much thought and especially for those who are tempted to put the book down and read no further.
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. 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. 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. There is no scoring, but 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 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 in our culture and how that is problematic.
So far of the 100,000 people who have taken the mini White Privilege Pop 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. Why happy about someone being infuriated? Because if that person took the time to answer multiple choice questions about White privilege, they are now thinking about what it means. And whether they agree or not, it is a first step.
Worth repeating is that the primacy of whiteness is a social construct and not biological. It was 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. Ponder that for a moment, not fully human…
It is documented in the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” a mechanism by which the enslaved were legally declared only 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 earnest deliberation.
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 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.
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. We must ask what effect this type of sterilized and deceptive reporting has on young minds that are forming ideas about whom 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 famous historical figures who espoused liberty and freedom for all while many of them were 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 still today 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 that 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 such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many other notables, participated in a system that denigrated humans for personal gain. Both Washington and Jefferson owned slaves up until their respective 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 beneficiaries. 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 and continues to thrive under the surface.
It is most crucial 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 and countless, less famous, Non-Whites.
My hope is that you will share the quiz with friends, family members, classmates and co-workers and that you keep the conversation going. 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 isn’t easy. Rarely are ideas of racial injustice exchanged without discomfort. Injecting the subject of systemic racism at a dinner party may make you less likely to be invited back—depending on the host . 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. But as civil rights activist and Southern preacher, Reverend Will D. Campbell said: “Acknowledging privilege comes with a price…so what you are willing to give up?”
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 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? What if that revelation alone inspired you to commit whole-heartedly to dismantling systemic racism, once and for all.
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.