Jackie Summers examines the way racism reproduces – and how well-meaning people feed the disease by denying their privilege.
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“I’m no bully. I like niggers.”–JW Milam, acquitted murderer of Emmett Till
My grandfather was not a demonstrative man. When my father was a child, Granddad–a piano tuner by trade–sat my father down, and had a very somber conversation with him about how to avoid being lynched.
Likewise, my father was not given to words, or displays of affection. I was about 13 years old when my father–a professional jazz musician–had a similar conversation with me: how (not) to address officers of law, so as to avoid being shot.
I admit: when this generational rite of passage made its way to me, I didn’t fully understand the implications. The essence of this ritual can be distilled down to three basic precepts:
- You’re a man now, and so responsible for your actions.
- While other people are responsible for their actions, don’t give them any cause to justify their preconceptions about you.
- Your mother and I don’t want to outlive you.
If you’ve never received a speech like this. If you’ve never felt compelled to teach your child he is perceived as a threat, regardless of his actions. If you believe the need for such things are outdated, hyperbole, or superfluous to the point of being overkill: Congratulations! You’re suffering from the luxury of invisible privilege.
Lisa Hickey is on record as saying she’d like to “solve racism.” A nobler sentiment you’d be hard pressed to find, but exactly how does one do this? What if racism, like most social ills, isn’t an equation that can solve for zero? While our progress as an ethical society can be argued for progress or regress, there is (at least) one place we can look historically and claim advancement: modern medicine. Whereas cases of polio and measles once decimated entire populations, we can unequivocally declare significant progress in curbing the spread of infectious disease.
So what happens if we treat racism like a disease?
To be clear, there is no cure for polio. Massive vaccination programs are responsible for containing the spread of the disease. We can gain some insight into how we might approach racism differently if we draw parallels.
A virus’s sole purpose is to reproduce, but it needs a host to do so. Pathogens require certain nutrients to grow. And you can’t spontaneously develop a viral infection; you have to catch it from someone.
The problem with many deadly viruses is diagnosis. Viruses can lay dormant for years. You can contract a disease and show no active symptoms. Here is where the real similarities between racism and infectious disease lie: instead of thinking of racism as a social construct–a system of group privilege which defends the advantaged–many people perceive racism as individual words and acts of race based bias. As long as individuals avoid committing these, they aren’t racist.
This is racism in its dormant viral state. By this standard, no one is racist anymore.
If reading this line of argument makes you feel a sense of discomfort, you are likely experiencing what is known as “cognitive dissonance.” People want to believe they’re good people. When something enters their psyche that might contradict this assurance, it is easier psychologically to construct a reality that suits your belief system, than to reexamine your beliefs. The logic goes something like this:
Racism is bad. I’m (or so-and-so is) a good person, so I (or they) can’t be racist. This is the kind of mental gymnastics that allowed the Founding Fathers to not only own slaves, but make constitutional concessions for such. This manner of thinking can be used to justify any action as righteous, no matter how horrific.
This is the social equivalent of ignoring an enormous cold sore. The virus is manifesting, so you cover it with make-up.
If mental constructs can prevent one from acknowledging the existence of social constructs, just how does one diagnose for racism? You look for symptoms of invisible privilege. A very handy guide for this is the manifesto Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women.
In light of recent events, number 15–”I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection”–is of particular note.
This fairly comprehensive list tends to agitate individuals who’d prefer not to think of themselves as privileged. It impugns many essential, well protected beliefs about the self. So let’s try something a little more accessible.
Last week, two videos went viral on the internet. The first showed police arrest a man taking video of police activity. When the police approach him, he puts his dog into his car, and voluntarily puts his hands behind his back, submitting to arrest. When his dog jumps out of the open window of the car to protect him, the police shoot the dog.
It is incredibly telling that the outrage around this video focuses on the treatment of the dog, and not the human. If the obviously unjust killing of an innocent animal registers more deeply with your psyche than the unfair arrest of a black man, you might be showing signs of invisible privilege.
The second video shows a young man who’s stopped at a routine DUI checkpoint in Tennessee. He insists on his constitutional rights, much to the ire of the police officers present. If you watch this and believe he was completely within his rights, you’re correct. If you thought to yourself–as I did–that his actions violated everything my grandfather taught my father, that my father passed on to me, and had I done the same thing, I would likely have ended up in jail at best; at worst, dead–then you’re aware that while we are all promised certain inalienable rights, the extension of such rights is not, and has never been, equal.
Identifying invisible privilege as a symptom of the racism virus is important because it demonstrates how people who seemingly do no harm can still contribute to a harmful system. Curiously, people will more readily admit to having herpes than being racists, although the transmission of both diseases is social.
How ironic that the former carries less stigma than the latter.
Identifying privilege as a luxury is important, because luxuries are things that are enjoyed. If a virus actually benefits the host, what would be the motive for getting treatment? No one gives up luxuries voluntarily.
As with infectious disease, while you may never personally show symptoms or be impacted negatively, you can still spread the pathogen. In other words:
- If you’re not racist but you’re a racist apologist, you’re part of the problem.
- If you’re not racist but you’re racist tolerant, you’re part of the problem.
- If all of your social interactions occur within the bubble of invisible privilege, and you genuinely believe your advantages are purely the result of meritocracy, you’re not a racist… You’re a carrier.
If you exist inside a system that benefits you to the detriment of others, and do nothing to challenge the status quo, you’re enforcing it. The antibody for racism is compassion.
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The real problem is the cops in the videos you mentioned. This is why Americans need to be armed.
Powerful read. Read & shared this a few years ago and found it appreciate to share again.
That last sentence! Excellent.
I had to have “the talk” w/ my son. And I’m white female. This was in a post-Columbine world where a teen male can be assumed to be of danger. Not that I’m claiming it’s the same. It was revelatory to see that (and I’ve been aware of invisible privilege before).
I am really disturbed by the number of “but what do we DO?” comments. It’s not the responsibility of the marginalized to offer up solutions; it is our responsibility to work together to create them. If someone says, “Hey, you’re standing on my foot!” we move. Granted, this is a big mess, but just like teaching your kid to clean a fantastically messy bedroom, we have to just pick a corner and get started. Do something that’s not hand-wringing. Talk is good, actions are even better. There’s more than enough opportunity everywhere to make an effort. While the end goal… Read more »
Another well-written, thought provoking, articulate article. Thanks, Jackie for all the eye-opening messages. I’m still enthralled, and reveling in, your Exquisite Lover series. Like I said before, would love to see more of YOUR articles posted to The Good Men Project, but keep up the great work of making sure there are always good stories posted here.
Linda I wanted to add that it struck me that you seem to equate losing status and or privilege with possible solutions to this problem.I think many white people feel that way,underneath the facade of to being tolerant. They feel like if actually live in a more equal place,they will loose some of their power.
Some of this is contained in one’s model of the world/Universe. If the world/Universe is seen as a place of limited resources….then yes, equality means changing the sizes of the the piece each has (think of a pie). OTOH, if one views the world/Universe as one of abundance then equality doesn’t mean limits, there is room for all. This kind of belief/world view is foundational.
Linda Hello.You have made an impressive start with the honesty of your admission.As one person color I couldn’t possibly have an adequate answer.I might suggest the step is develop your understanding of how some people of color are impacted historically.Then, simply live your life as if you know that your privilege relates to others.For me,living as a member of a conquered class of people,I must understand the values of the dominant culture or perish.Learn about the other and allow the knowledge to inform your thoughts and conversations.From there you will figure out what to do.Are you a feminist?
I entirely agree with everything said in this article… but what are you proposing that we do? I am quite aware of the privilege I benefit from as a young white female- as a performer, this helps me IMMENSELY. But I’m not going to stop performing simply because I have the upper hand. Do I wish that the playing ground were more level? Of course. But I don’t feel that I’m contributing to the system that made it unfair in the first place… I know you don’t know me, so of course you can’t know the truth of that statement,… Read more »
I echo your concerns about the article as well. I do think there is a lot of pointing to the problem, but I am interested in hearing about solutions. At the end of the article, the author offers this, “The antibody for racism is compassion,” which I look forward to hearing much more about. I hope there’s a part 2. I’m a white, educated male who has had the benefits of privilege, but what I find disturbing is the insistence that I “get it” or change in some way, and it’s very unclear to me what I’m being asked to… Read more »
Seeing it and talking about it with people is a part of the solution. You’re moving the Overton Window a little bit even in just that way.
I agree with Joanna,
The first step to solving a problem is admitting to it.
Many people avoid thinking that they are privileged, because they would have to admit some of their success is the result of being simply born within a Social Class, Gender, Race, or Ethnicity. Nothing sickens me more than seeing someone high-horse themselves, stating that if they can do it, anyone can with the same hard work. They forget to mention just how much easier it was for them because they were born into it.
I realised today why I find this perjorative use of the word “privelege”* as promulagated by PC / feminism so infuriating. Because it promotes the idea that things such as: e.g. having people respect your right NOT to be groped / harrassed are somehow special priveleges, rather than being basic considerations that everyone should be afforded. The whole debate that demands the “priveleged” “give up” these things is back-to-front. What needs to happen is that everyone is raised up to the basic level of the so called “priveleged” in terms of how they’re treated in society. Two e.g.s: No-one deserves… Read more »
What is that awful picture at the top of the page for? How does it have anything to do with the article? It looks like a carcinoma on someone’s lower lip. I don’t get why it is at the head of your essay (which is quite good, by the way).
Mike First, I would caution you against defining for the victim of your ignorance how it should be percieved.Secondly,It appears to me that the focus of your concerns,which lean towards protecting the power rather than protecting the powerless,is in desperate need of serious re-evaluation.Why should someone be expected to pay all of that money and invest all of that time to be put down by a small-minded “intellectual” ?Thank you so much for trying not to express ignorant racist sentiments in the future.Your efforts are greatly appreciated.Good lord?!
It should be OK for people to acknowledge that they have racist beliefs, provided that they intend to change them. For example when I was a graduate student I did a racist thing. I was organizing a graduate student networking group in my department, but there was no central list of graduate students, so I spent an afternoon going to all of the research groups and I introduced myself to the students. There was one student who was a black man in his twenties, On hearing him say that he was a student I did a double take and said… Read more »
Comparing the shooting of an animal to the (often inherent) racism of the police force is bizarre, the former is obviously more shocking than the latter. Not because they aren’t both shocking, they both are but in entirely different ways. One is a visceral almost primeval response to a violent shocking event (at least for me as a vegetarian lol), the other effects an entierly different area of the brain, it needs to be thought through & absorbed conciously but to juxtapose the two entirely separate issues & then claim that if your first thought is for the dog that… Read more »
except that mr. summers’ didn’t point out which you may have reacted to first or which you’re going to remember. he specifically stated that if you’re more deeply affected by the shooting of an animal than you are by the unjust and unfair treatment of a person by people in authority–law enforcement, specifically.
i’m a true animal lover and a dog ‘owner’. but i’m very clear about which of the two i’m more deeply affected by, and it’s not the dog.
If I follow your meaning- it’s important to understand & appreciate the nature, depth, and (social & racial) connotations of that particular human indignity; compared to the relative indignity (though mortal) visited upon an animal. On a visceral level, I can understand that someone could view one action as irrevocable, and other as not – but that would be to overlook the social, racial, and human connotations of that situation, and that was the whole point.
wellokthen I don’t fucking get it?!What is so goddamn difficult to understand?!Screw theories.It is simple.If one has white skin,in many clearly substantive ways:getting and keeping a good job,getting a loan for a house or to start a business,living with less stress,not being profiled and so on is made better if one is white.This devil’s advocate card is utter garbage.I could give a rat’s ass about having ad nauseum sudo intellectual discussions about theories.As if a flaw in the theory renders privilege to the point of being ineffectual.I can respect you or someone else who says,yeah I got it better than… Read more »
@ogwriter, it’s easy to see white privilege I agree. Male-female privilege is a much trickier issue, but I don’t see how someone could deny white privilege.
When it comes to questions of privilege, I like to apply what I call the Envy Test: if you could snap your fingers and trade places with that more privileged person, would you do it? If not, then why not? (For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s assume you have the option of swapping back. You wouldn’t have to switch places forever; you could try it on for a while.) [The following “you” is not a reference to anyone in particular, by the way, just a general “you.”] So, if white people have more privilege, and you’re not a… Read more »
Would I change to be a woman? Depends, is it wartime? in peacetime where I am men n women are pretty neck n neck with their privileges, one gender gets better business life and less sexual abuse but far far more physical violence, the other gets a better home/family life with more sexual abuse and less physical abuse. In wartime I’d definitely prefer being a woman since being male will most likely mean it’s me off to the frontlines against my will…although recently may mean both genders are conscripted.
@Archy, This is a good example of the luxury of Invisible privilege. Is it really better to a woman during peace times, or is it simply better to be in a rich and powerful country removed from the place of war. Or perhaps it’s better to live in the country on the winning side. Men may be conscripted to go off to fight in wars, but the woman who stay at home might suffer from famine, disease etc. as resources are put towards the “war effort”. But this is not the early 1940s, and the logic that you are using… Read more »
How odd. I try to suggest that white privilege may be overdiagnosed sometimes, and that means that I don’t think white privilege exists? I have to request some clarification here on the logic of that.
I’ll cop to it. Being shown my invisible privilege has not really had the intended effect, at least on me. Maybe it’s a question of personality or maybe it’s being a product of ingrained racism or some sort of subconscious sense of entitlement. In my case, seeing my privilege mostly just makes me grateful that I have it. I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I think to myself: thank God I wasn’t born black or poor or [insert disadvantaged characteristic here]. Man, those people have sucky lives. My sympathies. Whew, dodged a bullet there. I should probably keep my… Read more »
WOK Your third point has some truth,but is not absolute.We are talking about degrees that are impacted by race.Yes,in general men are more feared than women. Poor white men are more feared than wealthy white men.Blackmen,no matter the status are equally feared.
“If you’ve never received a speech like this. If you’ve never felt compelled to teach your child he is perceived as a threat, regardless of his actions. If you believe the need for such things are outdated, hyperbole, or superfluous to the point of being overkill: Congratulations! You’re suffering from the luxury of invisible privilege.”
All males have been informed that they are perceived as a threat regardless of their actions. If you disagree consider a man trying to work in a daycare.
Ladies, congratulations on your invisible privilege.
This is one of the problems with the way that “privilege” gets analyzed today. The way that it’s defined, for example as “being ignorant of the ways you’re better off than some other people,” means that everywhere you look for it you will find it. There is no way to test for privilege and get a negative test result — it’s the pregnancy test that always says ‘pregnant’ no matter what. This to me suggests that the theory needs some refinement.
i find these kinds of responses extremely annoying. why is it that when someone writes an intelligent, critical piece on ONE topic, there are people compelled to point out, “i’m affected by this too”? but in a dismissive, self-congratulatory, “get over it” way… my theory is that it gives a person permission to move on from the topic and return to the relative comfort of his or her life–now that’s a luxury. getting to pretend this doesn’t exist. the writer never claimed that whites are the only ones enjoying privilege in this country, so stop dismissing people’s experiences by claiming… Read more »
Well done sir.
I can’t say one way or another what the intent was of Scott Heathcote’s message here. Nowhere does the message say that white privilege does not exist, and nowhere does it say that female privilege is more powerful than white privilege. Nowhere does it say that someone should have less sympathy for one group and more sympathy for another. Seems like there’s a lot of reading between the lines here. Maybe he was attempting some sort of derailment or misdirection. Maybe he was simply suggesting that racial privilege is similar to other forms of privilege. Maybe the article reminded him… Read more »
There are many kinds of privileges that everyone benefits from living in a rich Western country such as the US. I don’t think comparing the privileges is the point of the article and seems in and of itself to be an attempt at ‘derailment’ and ‘misdirection’.
Good read. I’m not sure if racism can be cured but I do believe it can be disarmed. The reason I believe it might not be curable lies in the fact that America is the product of racism. So, in a sense, we as a nation was built on the devastating effects that has flowed within society from Day One. To be perfectly honest, I have witnessed and experienced racism for so long that it doesn’t necessarily bother me if the next man or woman feels a certain negative way about me based on my skin color and/ or culture.… Read more »
I sympathize with this article, and I think the idea of racism as a virus is an intriguing one. I like to think I’m astute or self-aware enough that I would never say that I’m not racist. It’s quite amazing to me how deeply ingrained it is to think of racism as a bad thing. Even people who are clearly, overtly racist, like KKK leaders, get offended when they’re called racists. Some points of curiosity: 1. Presumably there’s a difference between racism that’s invisible and racism that’s nonexistent. Is it possible in a particular case to suspect racism when racism… Read more »
Can anyone suggest to me how to keep a cool head when I becomes my job ( who’s job is it not who witnessess a wrong) to confront prejudice? If someone is ignorant how can I help them to knowledge instead of making an enemy? I have bitten off way more than I can chew time and time again. How does can I stay unruffled and pick the battle thats the right size for me? Seems that the reason people get angry about being challenged on a racist or sexist comment has nothing to do with right or wrong and… Read more »
It’s a tough nut to crack, this. The source of the problem is exactly what you said: it’s horrible to suddenly have to hear that you’re a racist when you’ve never really been aware of the problem. You might object “but I didn’t make a concious choice to be racist”! It’s terrifying to folks that see themselves as socially liberal; a label like “racist” can make you an instant paraiah in some circles (never mind the fact that it’s only about lip service paid by those rejecting you). People do things that harm others all the time, without being aware… Read more »
Hello everyone, my mother has found a racist, homophobic, nazi website on the internet which is unfortunately very popular in my country. Since then she has been expressing racist thoughts, and we got into numerous arguments. I know she’s heavily influenced by these nazis and the ideas she expressed are not her own, but there are always some things I just cannot prove that are not true. I would like to educate myself on black history, how black people became an opressed part of society and why the problem still exist. I was wondering if someone could recommend me some… Read more »
It’s not easy raising parents. I laud your efforts to educate yourself, and share your knowledge with others.
Here is a good (free) place to start: the works of Tim Wise:
Best of luck,
The Southern Poverty Law Center is an amazing resource and advocate for Teaching Tolerance, I highly enourage you to become a member. I have supported them for well over a decade:
Thank you for your kind suggestions! I will check these out.