Monday, June 18, 2007


It was last summer, I think around this time, although I can't be sure because my Google calendar doesn't go back that far and I can't even remember how I kept track of my schedule before. I was living at home with my Mom and working for a local peace organization. My friend, Aly, invited me to a dinner at the co-op house of a co-worker of his, a fellow staff member at the other peace organization in town -- the bigger, older, more radical one. I was told the dinner would be almost all, if not entirely, made from their organic garden. We set up tables outside - the weather was perfect and the bugs weren't too bad. The dinner, a variety of vegetarian delicacies, was delicious. We spent a good amount of time discussing a number of controversial topics over dinner and wine, including the Israeli Occupation of Palestine, vegetarianism and cruelty to animals, and a topic I brought up single-handedly -- white male arrogance. For whatever reason I was feeling especially heated about the topic that evening. I was feeling really annoyed about the fact that I couldn't seem to find a single white male friend who was willing to admit that he was privileged in our society -- that he was more confident about his opinions and maybe even a bit arrogant because he had never really faced the kind of adversities that others face. It was one particular guest at the dinner table who set me off. It was really just the way he expressed his opinions, as though they really just couldn't be wrong. I admit I was kind of an ass about the whole thing and surely alienated the guy just by the way I brought up the topic, but it really just pissed me off that he wasn't even willing to admit that his skin color gave him some privilege -- or had given him some privilege up until that point that had made him into a more confident individual. I suppose I was thinking a lot about my friend, Aly, a dark-skinned black man, who, once while walking down the street in Chicago, was accosted by police and pinned to the ground while they searched his bag, because he looked similar to a person suspected of dealing drugs or something. I remember him pointing out the irony that he had a book about Gandhi in his bag. I remember the sound of his voice breaking a bit as he told me that they didn't even apologize when they realized he was the wrong person, but rather left him with a look on their faces indicating that they might not have caught him this time, but they'd get him the next time. I think that was the worst of the stories he told me. There were others. I can't even imagine what that must have been like. Aly is an incredibly intelligent, mellow, thoughtful person. I know there are exceptions to every rule (I do know many white men who I would certainly not call arrogant, though it is rare to find one who is not very confident about his opinions), but do you feel that white men are generally more confident than other people and if so, do you attribute it to the fact that white men are a privileged class of people? Why or why not? Let's dig!


Jake said...

Excellent post, Pam, and very important. Aly's story is a powerful testament to America's racism as much as your reaction at the party is to our sexism. These are issues that are critical to our survival as a civilization.

As a white man, I've struggled to become aware of my privilege for a long time, and I've learned to see two very different angles of it. Simply becoming aware of my own white male privilege has been and always is surprisingly difficult. I was helped at one point by this excellent article that was given to me when I worked at Landmark College, in Putney Vermont. Just going down the list gave me real pause, as I was forced to confront the reality that each description of something I don't have to worry about is a reflection of something that others must live with day in and day out. It's a harrowing thought, and I'm reminded of it every time I make eye contact with a black stranger on the T and experience an awkward moment of unspoken, silent reproach.

Which leads to the interesting corollary: I sometimes will say in a moment of pique that as a white United States male, I am the most hated creature on the planet, and with good reason, to boot. After all, women, racial minorities, the poor, every other culture in the world all every right to despise me because of the actions of the group I can't help belonging to. Experiencing the anomie traveling the other direction certainly raises the bar in the challenge to reach out and break down the divisiveness. It reminds me of a story I read in which a young black woman struggled to come to terms with the fact that most of her white colleagues didn't actually harbor any racist expectations. When she was invited to go out to a barbecue joint, she exploded in righteous indignation, along the lines of: "what? just because I'm black you think barbecue is all I'll eat?" Her account of the shocked and hurt expression on her nascent friend's face resonated with me.

As for the confidence issue, that gets tangled with so many other factors, such as attractiveness and height, not to mention class and social status. Among white males, I'm very sensitive to the easy superiority of the rich, the charisma of the popular, and so on.

Big topic. Thanks again for opening the can!

Pam said...

Very interesting article, Jake. Thanks!

andre said...

This is an interesting post, Pam. I unfortunately do not know of one African American man of my generation that hasn't had at least one racialized run-in with police. It is an unfortunate rite of passage for us. Me, my brothers and uncles swap stories during holidays. It is a strange sensation to have a cop draw a gun on you. . to see cops drawing guns on your friends. To hear about how police stopped my brother in front of his own house. Unpleasant and for me disembodying. . hard to explain. It’s best for me not to dwell on these experiences for more reasons than I care to mention, and focus on how these situations came to be. These white guys weren’t born with such warped hatreds. It is not genetic.

So, while I'm troubled by white male privilege and the arrogance it emboldens, I'm much more troubled by the epistemological perversion that inform these behaviors. It’s these systems of thought that betray, that lacerate, both black and non-black. . cause it tells white guys that they have to be right even if they don't feel right all the time. How can we hope for any authentic communication when we are told that rightness and goodness and stability are racialized commodities instead of inherent within each of us and fundamental rights for every member of our species?

Wishing you well.

Pam said...

Thank you, Andre. It breaks my heart to think of anyone hurting you or anyone in your family. Ugh. When Aly told me his story last summer I was shocked. I felt so amazingly naive. It's so easy to turn away from things that you don't want to know about. I hate to be one of those people who turn a blind eye to injustice.

My favorite part of your comment was this:

"cause it tells white guys that they have to be right even if they don't feel right all the time"

This is an excellent point and one that makes me have more sympathy. Thank you for that.

All best to you.

Pam said...

So, some of the opposition I have heard to my argument have to do with how one defines what a white man is and whether there are certain qualifiers to how that white man looks in order to get privilege - for example, a white man who has long hair, maybe tattoos, or piercings, or who has rips in his clothing will not be treated the same as another white man who is well-kept according to certain acceptable social norms. And then there are questions about what ethnic origins are classified as "white" and how that plays a part. And probably how good looking a person is and how fashionably they are dressed according to the trends of the day are in some cases more influential than the color of their skin or their sex. I do think it's more complicated than I originally presented it, though I still think there is a point to the basic argument.