thandeke and the wages of whiteness
April 5, 2009 § 17 Comments
prof susurro just tipped off to this article by thandeke. i want to read her books. but after susurro mentioned her in the we dont need another anti-racism 101 post, i looked her up as much as i could to get a basic handle on her analysis.
Most white Americans believe they were born white. Yet their own stories of early racial experiences describe persons who were bred white. Which is it-nature or nurture? Neither. The social process that creates whites produces persons who must think of their whiteness as a biological fact.
The process begins with a rebuke. A parent or authority figure reprimands the child because it’s not yet white. The language used by the adult is racial, but the content of the message pertains to the child’s own feelings and what the child must do with feelings the adult doesn’t like. Stifle them. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, tells how she learned to do this as a child being taught to be white.
in everything that i have managed to read by thandeke i appreciate her psychological approach to understanding white identity. and i hear a strong undercurrent of ‘its really about class’ that puts me at unease.
i feel that the emphasis on the psychological burdens and traumas of white identity is fascinating and yet is steeped and perpetuates and individualistic notion of race and racial identity. furthermore i feel that she equates ‘privilege’ as ultimately or essentially economic power. and while economic power can be a useful parallel to seeing racial power, the two are not equivalent.
The irony, of course, is that neither in the past nor today are low-paid wage earners held in high esteem by their own white bosses who exploit their labor. These workers are, in effect, exploited twice: first as workers and then as “whites.” Their “race” is used to distract them from their diminishing value as wage earners. Diminished as workers, they feel shame. Inflated as whites, they feel white supremacist pride. This is the double jeopardy of whiteness Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed to in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, when noting that racial prejudice put poorer whites in the ironic position of fighting not only against the Negro, but also against themselves. White supremacy, King wryly noted, can feed the egos of poor whites but not their stomachs.
Today’s “poor whites” are the working poor, the “overspent Americans” be they lower- or middle-class-all the white Americans who are living from paycheck to paycheck. Whiteness functions as a distraction from the pervasive class problem of the white American worker. Talk of white privilege from this class perspective is really talk about the privileges entailed in being and remaining poor and exploited in America. Such talk is cheap. Too cheap.
We can do better than this-but only if we attend to the way in which most “whites” are broken by the persons who ostensibly made them white “for their own good”: their parents, caretakers, and bosses.
i am still working on how to tease this out. class privilege from racial privilege. one of the ways to do so would be rather than comparing working class whites to their white bosses. it would be to compare working class whites to working class people of color. or to look at the fact that while middle class whites and blacks may make the same amount of salary, middle class have ten times more wealth than middle class blacks, because of the historical wages of whiteness. and even those whites who do not have that level of salary and wealth are often on first glance assumed to have it. or at least more assumed to have it than most people of color.
in other words i still have a hard time catching a cab.
so while there is economic privilege. all privilege cannot be codified or quantified into an economic reality. and it is part of living in a very hardline capitalistic society that allows for us to forget about the varieties of privilege that exist.
thandeke and i are like two sides of the same coin. both of us trying to fill in the picture of what does racial identity mean…
This economic penalty is difficult to grasp because Americans have been taught to think only of the benefits-the “privileges”-of whiteness accorded to Europeans who immigrated to America and became white. W.E.B. Du Bois called the race privileges given to these workers and their progeny “the wages of whiteness.” Whiteness, as Du Bois notes in his book Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, meant “public deference and titles of courtesy”; access to “public functions, public parks and the best schools”; jobs as policemen; the right to sit on juries; voting rights; flattery from newspapers while Negro news was “almost utterly ignored except in crime and ridicule.” These privileges also included the right, based on legal indifference and social approval, to taunt, police, humiliate, mob, rape, lynch, jibe, rob, jail, mutilate, and burn Negroes, which became a sporting game, “a sort of permissible Roman holiday for the entertainment of vicious whites.” During the late 1800s, for example, “practically all white southern men went armed and the South reached the extraordinary distinction of being the only modern civilized country where human beings were publicly burned alive.”
the bottom line is not always the bottom line.
and i guess my bottom line is that while an psychological, individualistic, capitalistic lens is a fascinating lens through which to see race…it is not the full story.