in which I think about something other than bereavement, for onceI happened to catch part of Oprah's recent show on "Changing Races" in rerun last night. Confession time: I am embarrassingly prone to watching ice skating competitions, the glitzier and tackier the better. I love the adaptations of bad Broadway scores, the horrific costumes, the desperate athleticism. I'm not above surfing the channels on Sunday afternoons while "grading papers" or "reading" in the hopes of stumbling across some obscure championship. If it redeems me at all, I have to say that I find "ice dancing" a travesty of the sport....Anyway, I was hoping to catch the finals of the men's iceskating, and during the breaks, found Oprah.
In life and at work, I've been thinking a lot about white privilege. It's a particular issue for us, with our largely white student body, many of whom have lived in relatively homogenous suburbs before coming here, and whose attitude toward issues of race, culture, and social relations is best described as benign neglect or fatigue. They have been raised by teachers who, products of the Civil Rights era and those just following, have introduced more and more "multicultural" material into the classrooms. Most of them are from what they themselves consider "liberal families," which in practice tends to mean families who object to overt acts of racism, pay lip service to the idea that "we're all alike under the skin," and live, whether by conscious or unconscious choice, in ways that almost guarantee the absence of any meaningfully diverse encounters across social, racial, or economic class lines. In other words, these kids largely represent the (white) American dream: safe suburbs, good schools, and a homogeneity whose roots in discriminatory institutional practices are well-concealed from its beneficiaries.
So "teaching race" at our college is largely a matter of convincing disinterested and occasionally hostile white students that race relations are not "solved," that inequality exists, and that their own life experiences are not, in fact, representative of "everyone" in America. At the same time, we find ourselves having to work hard to protect our students of color (many of whom are themselves from affluent, middle or upper-class communities, and may have had little explicit contact with the poverty and social ills we associate with American racism) from being turned into "experts" or, worse, exotic representations of some kind of racial identity truth.
Oprah's show featured two families who, with the help of Hollywood make-up teams, "switched races" and lived together in L.A. while venturing into the world as members of the opposite race. Here I need a disclaimer: I did not watch the whole show, and so the following comments are meant not as a definitive interpretation of either family's experience, but as my own meditation on the pieces I did see..
But what I did see made me very, very uncomfortable. And at the risk of being one more white liberal woman trying to have her say on the race issue, here's why.
Carmen, the mother from the white family, dominated the segments I saw. Drawing heavily on the rhetoric of "prayerfulness" and a kind of new-agey desire for "speaking her truth," she insisted, over and over again, on bringing the discussion back to her intentions. She and her husband were, apparently, amazingly naive about the freighted history of things like "the N-word," and took their foray into "blackness" as apparent license to test out the limits of black tolerance for what are, perhaps, the most history-laden and pain-evoking words in contemporary English (okay, perhaps some derogatory words for women have equally long and ugly histories). And they insisted on doing this despite the explicit responses of the black family with whom they were sharing a home. Perhaps worse yet, they felt defensive for having to be "careful" in their choice of language, after deliberately invoking words that--as they finally admitted--mean something different depending on who is saying them.
And Oprah, I thought, was a bit too careful to provide her "understanding" that these self-described 'well-intentioned' but horrifically ignorant white folks wanted to be given a "pass" for deliberately, if, as they claim, unintentionally trying out every indignity associated with blackness in today's world. I can see why, in a larger sense, she needed to be very careful not to appear to simply side with her black guests on every issue and attack these white people, but I think she missed several opportunities to ask the hard questions that might have promoted some real learning (from the audience, if not from the particular white family in question).
Now, I know this is "just TV"--carefully edited, with the dull, harmonious parts cut out. And I know that more careful, perspicacious white folks would probably not a) persist in tossing out offensive racial epithets just to test the waters; or b) agree to such a loaded experiment in the first place. It takes an especially dense or self-righteous person to persist in such arrogant acts in the face of clear messages from other people that these acts are causing pain.
But what scares me is how typical the interaction seems, and how it's emblematic of a key element of white privilege.
From what I could see, the white parents (Bruno and Carmen), never really "got it." That is, in spite of their statements about seeing things differently, they still expected, whatever the historical reality, to be judged by their "intentions," and by "what was in their hearts,"—even when, in practice, they deliberately did things someone else had specifically identified as hateful.
It seems to me that their insistence on "intentionality," and the refusal to take responsibility for anything outside of what one acknowledges about his or her intentions and desires, is at the root of white privilege. The black family (Renee, Brian, and Nick) tried to explain (and I don't mean to paint the white folks as simple "villains" against the noble black family, I'm focusing only on this specific aspect) the difference between Carmen's and Bruno's "intention" and their own reality (coming up against racism in multiple settings), but Carmen, especially, insisted that she be read in terms of her own desires and intentions, despite the reality of centuries of black history, and the explicit statements of the black people about whom and to whom she was speaking. Her "solution" to the 'race problem' is the same as well-meaning white folks everywhere: "believe what I say that I mean, and let me define the terms by which I say those things; Ignore your own experience, your history, and your visceral reactions and forgive me for whatever I might do that hurts you, as long as I don't do it intentionally (or say that I don't). Then we'll get along."
Sorry, but that's just bullshit. It's a demand for understanding and tolerance from those to whom you refuse to extend the same courtesy; that is, the courtesy of allowing them "their truth"—historical truth—if it means you might have to change your own behavior or accept that your experience is not, in fact, an infallible measure of reality.
As long as white people, especially well-meaning, liberal, politically correct, and, ostensibly, non-racist white folks, persist in insisting on their own "feelings" (and their right to express those in whatever terms they please) as more important than either a) the realities of black/white history and the legacies of institutional racism, b) the feelings of actual black people, I suspect we are all going nowhere.