Politics and Activism
Whiteness, Privilege and Racial Fragility
By Rowdy Duncan – Phoenix AZ
There is a problem with middle aged White people. Their deaths, which outpace those of their peers of color in the same age group, are being framed as “despair deaths,” which occur mainly in the form of suicides and drug overdoses stemming from opioid addiction (when it happens in my community they just called it heroin addiction), and alcohol related liver disease. (Feb 2016 PBS)
“Despair deaths” are tethered to a classist system in which ignorance, confusion, and suffering, has always been linked to people of color (POC), while knowledge, direction, and bliss has been associated with Whiteness. Many people have long believed that Whiteness, in concert with hardscrabblism, frugality, and meritocracy, are the magic ingredients of the “American Dream.” The problem, however, especially for Indigenous peoples like me, who were herded into boarding schools, forced to assimilate, and indoctrinated into White supremacy, and an “American Nightmare,” predicated upon the marginalization and oppression of my people, and other POC, falls flat in the absence of actual Whiteness. I say actual Whiteness, because despite my Indegeneity, I “look White” to many people, and have been blessed or cursed with seeing and hearing the other side. Like Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” I’ve had White people say racist things to me in shadowy secrecy and hushed tones, as if I’m one of their own. I know better than most, therefore, that informal, often unseen, non-violent White supremacist barriers, are only passable after flawless execution of our studies, duties, and secret handshakes that only a select few of us are taught.
The insidious part of this “White privilege” is that it’s mostly invisible to those who possess it. This obscurity, which has saturated the middle aged White population, has made Whiteness an area of intense debate and conflict in current identity politics. I believe that middle-aged White people feel as though something is being taken from them, and want, therefore, to return to an amorphous notion of American Greatness that most POC simply cannot identify with. How do you define greatness? Colonization, genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, Asian exclusion, Social Darwinism and the oppression of the Irish, Italian, Eastern Europeans, and Jews? Jim Crow? Oh, and the “Greatest Generation?” Didn’t they give us Japanese Internment, Colored Only bathrooms, Zuit Suit Riots, and mass lynchings?
Such historical Whitewashing reflects a scarcity mindset, which is also fueled by neo-classism and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Of course there is a scarcity mindset when America’s top 1% own more than the rest of the bottom 99% combined. It doesn’t get much better on down the list, as the top 10% own 76% of all wealth. (CNN.com). To be in the top 10% today your household income must be $295,845. (Investopedia 2016). I don’t know a lot of folks who earn 300K a year regardless of race.
Intersectional analyses of these issues are in order therefore, because the intersection of race and class, though complicated, is where inequality thrives. A deep seeded belief in White entitlement, privilege, and possibility, has embedded itself in White-middle-agedom and White middle-classdom, in ways which belie reality. They are on the outside looking in economically, but they can’t see it because they’re high on a kind of White socio-economic security that no longer exists, if it ever really did.
The angst and fear associated with this reality is felt in White spaces, especially the working and middle classes; manufacturing, for example, where most do not hold college degrees and social pedigrees. Intersectionality enables us to see that in a world of classism and racism, these problems have always been more acute in historically marginalized communities, especially POC. Which means that the latter has always needed to be exceptional and possess super hero type resilience to survive, let alone flourish in a system that was built for the White upper class.
Fragility means that even talking about White privilege, and all of its unearned worldly benefits, translates into underdeveloped buoyancy in the face of struggle. They may have other identities which have honed certain kinds of elasticity, but the unseen privileges, eccentricities, and cultural incompetence that often accompany Whiteness, have left White people vulnerable to the angst, fear, and loathing associated with dwindling numbers, higher rates of joblessness, poverty, social and cultural dislocation, and the erosion of power and delusions of grandeur. In other words, White people are more fragile now than they have been in a long time, and they know it. POC and fragility, on other hand, know each other well and we don’t fear each other. Indeed, our faith and humanity in the face of fragility have made us strong.
The problem, however, is that when people do not confront fragility constructively, it keeps us, especially White people, from engaging in honest and open dialogue about Whiteness, and undermines the latter’s ability to see it and challenge it, and its handmaiden, privilege, with courage and resilience. When we are confronted with our own socio-cultural under-development due to real or imagined privilege, fragility encourages us to become defensive and reactionary. It’s no one person’s fault that privilege exists, but it exists nonetheless.
The very people who possess the lion’s share of resources that can alleviate disparity, inequality, and inequity, are the least cognitively and emotionally prepared to make it happen. POC, who posses relatively few resources and even less power, have always known that racism and classism have rigged the game and have a thing or two to say about what the American Dream should look like. Many middle and working class White people know that the game is rigged too, but classism, racial fragility, and persistent belief in White American exceptionalism, however, has clouded their vision and closed their hearts.
Our experience with racism makes us strive for perfection, and if we fail we know it is not always our fault, as the deck is stacked against us. If White folks, who are not benefiting from their Whiteness in any measurable way due to classism, understood the exigencies of White supremacy, systemic inequity, and that diversity, equity, and inclusion are relevant for them too, we could advocate for change and forge a new and powerful coalition. We could let middle and working class White people know that their ills and struggles are not a result of POC sucking the life out of the American Dream or some personal shortcoming and failure. They will come to know what the eminent sociologist and activist, W.E.B. DuBois, argued over 100 years ago, “there can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race, or poverty. But with all we accomplish all, even peace.”
Rowdy Duncan, a member of the Cherokee and Pueblo First Nations Peoples, is an award-winning community engagement and conflict resolution specialist, and Founder and CEO of Rowdy Duncan, LLC. He also is the host of the Inclusive Activism Podcast available on iTunes Inclusive Activism Podcast , Google Play Inclusive Activism Podcast, or on Stitcher Inclusive Activism Podcast. He is also Senior Advisor and Trainer for Diamond Strategies, LLC, and a regular contributor to MCU VO!CE. His work can be followed on Facebook and Twitter at @MCUVOICE, @RowdyD and @dstrategiesllc.