Opinion

Examining White Privilege: Why I Wrote This Series

I chose to write this series of articles because of my background. I grew up in a rural and largely white area north of Vancouver, in a town whose residents are quite behind the times when it comes to the topics of racism and white privilege.   

The people who live there hardly know anything about white privilege or would automatically reject it as a “white guilt” argument. I would know, I used to be one of them.

One major reason that perpetuates this attitude is the fact that this area is populated almost entirely by white people. At my high school, I only remember there being one African American student and a few latinx students.

This lack of diversity results in every student from that area being unprepared for encounters with students of color. This was the case for me when I came to Clark College and began interacting with people of color. I know that I am not the only student from my hometown to come to Clark and I would argue that the other students really need to learn about their privilege if they attend Clark. I struggled with this in the beginning and sometimes I still do.

People in my hometown drive around in their lifted trucks, proudly displayed Confederate flags flapping in the breeze behind them. Many yards feature lawn signs about ongoing campaigns, featuring slogans about closing the border and “stopping the invasion.”

Students at my school would jokingly make the Nazi salute behind the back of the P.E. teacher of Jewish descent. In middle school, one of my history teachers said that the Quran literally says to “kill all infidels.”

But that was nothing. That was just the tip of the iceberg. The further you went into the country the worse these attitudes, beliefs and actions would get. These were common, normal.  

This is not to say that everyone in my hometown was like this, but a there is a high percentage of people I would categorize as “racist” or as having racists in their social circle.

One argument I encountered a lot was people saying they were “colorblind” or that they “don’t see race.” This argument of “colorblindness” was a product of the ‘50s and ‘60s and is now an entirely outdated argument in the current conversation about racism in the U.S.

Even today I have relatives, white relatives, who use the n-word to refer to African Americans. When talking about the word in conversation many of my relatives say the word outright, instead of referring to it as the n-word. When I confronted them about it, they said they did not see a difference between when white people use the word and when African Americans use the word.

However, there is large difference in the connotations that the word has with it.

Usually, if a person of color uses the word, there is a sense of comradery with it, usually this is demonstrated in modern hip-hop. In recent decades, people of color have reclaimed the word from its original use as a racial slur and retooled to use it positively.  

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an American writer and journalist, compared it to how some of his wife’s female friends talk to one another. Sometimes his wife’s friends will use the word “b–ch” in a funny, ironic way toward one another, but Coates does not join in.

“And perhaps more importantly, I don’t have a desire to,” he said.

In this instance, the context of the word can change dramatically, based on who is saying it and to whom it is be being said, Coates said.

When a white person says the n-word, there is an inherent power dynamic behind it. That word has been used for so long to cause pain, fear and damage. It’s use by white people has been overwhelming negative and at the expense of the oppressed.

For the same reason that largely modern society does not use phrases like “colored people,” it is an unspoken rule that white people should not use that word.

There are more nuances to the debate that are better left to the experts, like Michael Harriot’s impassioned and had-hitting explanation of the word for The Root.  

Another worry is that younger people from this area end up taking these racist habits from their elders with them, and this is evident through memes.

Another concern is that younger people from my hometown will bring the racist habits and beliefs of their elders with them onto the open platform of the internet through the medium of memes.  

I remember my friends sharing and retweeting racist posts and memes, further spreading ignorance to all their friends. Some of these memes mocked young African Americans as ‘fake gangsters’ and citing Italian mobsters from the 1920s and ‘30s as ‘real gangsters.’

(Courtesy Photo/QuickMeme.com)

There is a lot to unpack from this one image alone. The ignorant perspective of the meme ignores the fact that most people of color who join gangs do not join by choice, but for their own survival. The meme also romanticizes the illicit, brutal and often murderous people who were part of the Italian mobs as something to aspire to, when their actions were first and foremost criminal.

All of these are examples of people who are uninformed about their privilege and what they believe to be acceptable behavior, as a result of living in a population that is 79 percent white. The U.S Census’s findings of Washington populations also estimates that white people represent 79.5 percent of Washington State’s population.

Usually, people with these beliefs are respectful of Clark’s tolerance policy and do not openly engage in racist behavior while on campus. However, people with these beliefs generally resist learning about racism and white privilege from an institution such as Clark, instead listening to their relatives and friends who already share their beliefs.

This attitude extends online, where essays and articles about diversified representation and being aware of privilege are discounted as ‘liberal propaganda.’

Democrats and Republicans have traded stances on racism and social justice for decades, dating from the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement to the civil rights era of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Of course, any discussion about politics, diversity and political correctness would not be complete without mentioning the impact of President Donald Trump upon the conversation.

Trump has been part of every major political story, especially when the topic of political correctness is concerned. One could argue that he is the reason that diversity and political correctness have become such hot-button issues since he announced his candidacy in June 2015.

Naturally, in my hometown Trump was unquestionably the preferred candidate for the 2016 election and despite all of the controversy his administration has caused, he is still the preferred candidate for the 2020 race.

The demographic Trump primarily represents is the white, Christian elderly population who hold traditional beliefs and live in rural parts of the country. For more about the demographics of Trump supporters, ThoughtCo has an article about it here.

Trump’s views seemed to align perfectly with the views of everyone in my hometown, from his condemnation of mainstream news sources as ‘fake news,’ his resistance to climate change policy, his unfounded belief that Obama was not born in the U.S. and his recent mockery of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and the #MeToo movement as a whole.

Trump’s presidency and the Republican controlled congress (until 2018) has reaffirmed and revived the passions of everyone in my hometown. I would make the argument that this environment has also ignited the the rise of hate groups.   

Last year, The Hill reported an increase in hate crimes for the third consecutive year since 2015. This does not seem to be a coincidence, as 2018 marked the third year that society was grappling with the notion of a Trump presidency, following his announcement in 2015.  

Heidi Beirich, the director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, does attribute some of the blame to Trump, as the white supremacist groups were in decline until the 2016 election.

“Trump has made people in the white supremacist movement move back into politics and the public domain,” Beirich said. “He is a critical aspect of this dynamic, but he is not the only reason why the ranks of hate groups are growing. The ability to propagate hate in the online space is key.”

Unfortunately, this hatred has often resulted in violent acts.

According to a report from the Anti-Defamation League “over the last decade, a total of 73.3 percent of all extremist-related fatalities can be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4 percent can be attributed to Islamic extremists. The remaining 3.2 percent were carried out by extremists who did not fall into either category.”

Ultimately, racism is fueled by ignorance. We fear what we do not understand, and we tend to hate what we fear. And nothing perpetuates this ignorance of racism like white privilege.

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