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.

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§ 17 Responses to thandeke and the wages of whiteness

  • prof susurro says:

    wow. this is powerful analysis here! I too am having a discussion about “teasing out” race from class with a colleague and I cannot wait to point her here. (PS. I’ve never taught this article absent of other pieces on whiteness that do not center class, so I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to really get at what she was saying about class in this way. Thanks for breaking it down!!!)

  • Restructure! says:

    Yeah, Thandeka wrote:

    Here are the facts about so-called white skin privilege.

    First, 80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top 1 percent owns 47% of this wealth. These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not as a right of race but as a right of class.

    What’s Wrong with Anti-Racism

    I like her point about original sin, but it seems her concept of white privilege is that it is actually class privilege, which is why she thinks ‘white privilege’ doesn’t really exist, since most whites are not white economic elites.

  • prof susurro says:

    I hadn’t read that either. You all are making me rethink my entire use of this piece (which I just noted is annotated differently online than the version I use in class, but so what). I’m going to pick up her book @ the uni library and read it on the plane tomorrow.

  • mama says:

    the thing is that i really like her approach to white identity as originating in childhood trauma. that feels real. and in many ways her apporach to whiteness and white folks is incredibly clear.
    but then at the end she seems to give them an ‘out’. oh you white folks: you dont really have privilege. cause you arent in the top 5 percent of wealth in this country.
    for instance she says: It is a “consolation prize” to persons who, although not wealthy, do not have to consider themselves losers because they are, at least, white.
    in my mind: that is a bit more than a ‘consolation prize’…

  • prof susurro says:

    the language is definitely questionable but it was access to whiteness that led ethnic groups who were doing similar labor like the Irish to reject previous joint efforts to change slavery and indenture systems; it’s the same thing that got a certain segment of poor white rural voters to vote against their own class interests rather than vote for a black man with a “muslim middle name” during the election. So that whiteness is like a “I’m still better than you” prize that helps choke class antagonism while reinscribing racism. What would be better language? (and seriously, how do we reconcile that with her class over race ideology restructure pointed to? that at least is where I am stumbling.)

  • Restructure! says:

    Also from What’s Wrong with Anti-Racism:

    I do not call this economic condition in white America, white skin privilege. I call it white middle-class poverty. Talk of white skin privilege is a distraction from this pervasive problem in white America. Talk of white privilege, to paraphrase a statement of Martin Luther King Jr. can feed the egos of poorer whites but not their stomachs.

    […]

    The simple truth is that most middle-class white persons, including UU’s, are not part of the economic ruling elite in this country. They have not amassed structural power and control. Our UU anti-racist rhetoric, however, claims that they have. […]

    So are UUs teaching a different anti-racism, or is this the typical conflation of white privilege (advantage) and class privilege?

  • mama says:

    being a lapsed uu-er i can say that this is not the standard anti-racism curriculum and i think that thandeke addresses this fact.
    i think that thandeke underestimates the power of race privilege by subsuming to class privilege. and that this subsuming is common to anti-racist theory and rhetoric. because it states that the majority of white folk dont *really* have privilege.
    which to my mind releases white folk of having to deal with their racial privilege by claiming that they are poor. or poorer than the ruling class elite.
    something i have been thinking about today is how blacks are feminized and infantilized by whites.
    in other words there are parallels and intersections between people of color and women and child abuse.
    in the same way that there are intersections and parallels between poc and class issues.
    but one is not subsumed by the other.

  • prof susurro says:

    “but one is not subsumed by the other.”

    yes.

  • Derek says:

    Being a white male, I don’t think I’ve ever thought much about my own race. I don’t think of it as a burden or a privilege. I don’t think of it much at all. There are lower class whites, and other whites will look down on them in an almost racist way. While racial slurs may be taboo, the invective “white trash” certainly isn’t.

    Having lived white, my best guess is that all this is at its root a class based thing. But I can only say this because I rarely see open blatant racism.

    I also think that a large amount of racism is actually a response to clashing cultures. In my own experience, when I see a hop-hop artist I can’t help but think this performer is “black”. But when I see Barack Obama, Colin Powell, or Tiger Woods I see people. I have to be reminded that they’re actually African-Americans.

  • mama says:

    hey derek!
    ok what is ‘blatant racism’?
    one of the things that i think is really interesting is that white folks want to define racism=name calling. when that is the least of it in my opinion.
    like i dont care if you call me a name if you are going to give me a job. or im not going to get harrassed by the cops. or randomly searched at the airport. or have my daughter grow up in a world where there is: ‘black’ and then there is ‘african american’….
    try this: http://www.raveneye.org/?p=218

  • Derek says:

    I suppose I’m defining blatant racism as “racism that even whites can understand”. Not having experienced racism, it’s not always the easiest thing to understand. I have no ability to make a connection between being denied a job and my race, because I’ve never experienced it.

    I’ve often thought defining race as anything is racist in and of itself. And having been raised in a overtly racist household, and realizing later on that racism is fucked up, it’s been a struggle (since the 6th grade) to constantly try to deprogram myself from it.

    When I experience other white people, I don’t think of them as white. I just think of them as people. Even if they’re scary horrible people who vote Republican. When I see a scary person (or what I perceive to be a scary person) who happens to be of African decent, I perceive first and foremost their race before anything else. That’s not something that is easily gotten out of your head once it’s been hammered in.

    But part of this, I think is a cultural thing. If I see someone on CNN who is of African decent, race is the last thing I think about. When I watch Kat Williams, that’s another story. It’s a subconscious mental click that just happens, that I have little control over, despite my best efforts (so far).

    I had a striking experience some time ago with being harassed by the police. My first car was an old mid ’80’s Oldsmobile Cutless Ciera. Back in 2000 I put a Nader/LaDuke sticker on it, and a friend jokingly dubbed it “The Nader-mobile”. In any case, I was pulled over more times than I could count. It was literally a weekly occurrence. I never understood why, until one pig actually made the comment to me “oh, I thought you were colored”. I think I stared at him in disbelief that he said this for 30 seconds with my mouth open, and the pig standing there uncomfortably, knowing he just said something he shouldn’t have. Finally, the pig said, “drive safe” and took off.

    Eventually, I got rid of the Nader-mobile (it was toed from my apartment and I didn’t wanna pay the toeing fee for that P.O.S), and OJ and I have shared the same 2000 Chevy Cavalier ever since. That’s been 7 years now, and in that time I’ve been pulled over 1 time.

    • mama says:

      thandeke suggests this experiment: for the next week go around your life like normal except everytime you talk about a white person call them white. ‘so there was this –white–guy at my job … and this white woman said something to me at the store…’ for the next week.

  • Derek says:

    That would be an interesting experiment. It may be working backwards though. Perhaps it may be more fruitful to point out racist attitudes when encountered with them. I dunno. I think a large number of white (probably the vast majority) are not even aware of their own racism.

    One thing I’ve found that’s disturbing is when a white person who is deeply racist feels free to share their racism with other whites based upon the assumption that they share their attitudes. My old roommate would sometimes have a friend over who whenever we talked for some reason she would insist on telling racist jokes. The third time this happened I asked her if she would tell these jokes to someone who was black. When, looking a little shocked, she said no, I asked her why then was she telling them to me.

    Having grown up with racist as hell parents, I’m used to a certain language coming from my mom. Getting her to change is an effort in futility, as I know from personal experience. I’ve put a small mental justification in my head for her own racism “…well, she is 73…”, but when I hear it from others who should know better, who came to age after the Civil Rights Movement, I’m perplexed, shocked, and horrified.

    Whites know that if they carry racist attitudes, that in most social situations, they should keep it to themselves. When they fail to do this in certain company, I cannot fathom what is going on inside their heads.

    • mama says:

      wow. you know i wonder why the word racism is so hard for white folks to hear. you know? like why is being told that something you said or did is: racist…why is that difficult for white folks. i feel like if i tell someone that something is homophobic or classist there is a much less antagonistic response.
      i am wondering about this because i feel like often we dont tell someone something is racist because we dont want to offend them.
      which is a strange thing. someone says something offensive. and our response is not to get angry, but to stay silent because we dont want to offend THEM
      like, if someone calls me a bitch. i dont stay silent. i tell them to go fuck themselves. you know? im not afraid of offending them because they already offended me.

  • Derek says:

    Yeh, I dunno. I suppose it’s because the topic of race in the United States has a very miserable and nasty history associated with it. And pointing out someone’s racism links them with that history. It assigns guilt, for crimes that whites ancestors may have been guilty of, that they desperate wish to be free of any such association. I suppose a lot of whites just don’t want to touch the topic at all because it leaves them in a very unpleasant light.

    I think it’s high time for whites to stop hiding from their own very grim history, and instead should come to terms with it, and understand they can’t escape their own racism by ignoring it and hoping it goes away. That it instead needs to be faced head on, and learn from POC.

    I think Attorney General Eric Holder had it right. We need to stop being cowards when it comes to the topic of race.

    One thing I’ve been pondering lately is the reinforcement (or perceived reinforcement) of stereotypical behavior, and how that applies to the psychological sub field of heuristics. Before my old You Tube channel was suspended, I made a video (that seemed to piss a lot of people off) suggesting that your average joe 6-pack white southerner should make a choice between their gun and their pickup trucks. That if they wanted to keep their guns, they should buy a Volkswagen Jetta. The point being that having both a gun and a pickup truck contributes to reinforcing a stereotype that they’re dumb gun totting rednecks.

    I’ve been thinking of trying to promote a “confuse a cop” campaign to end racial profiling by trying to convince young African American males to buy cars that are marketed to average white suburbanites.

  • prof susurro says:

    Hi mama. still finishing up the book after conferencing but I love the exercise that you mention and I do think that it is a really great exercise to make people aware of the normativity of whiteness. Thanks for bringing it up as a good choice to start that process.

    @ derek – black people do buy cars that are marketed to white suburbanites all the time. many of them get pulled over for theft or as drug dealers but others drive around all day unscathed.

  • […] article in the root is making me think about the discussion we were having here on guerrilla mama medicine about the relationship between class and race. The Sentencing Project has crunched Bureau of Prisons numbers and found some relatively good news, […]

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