Cover image for “I Don’t See Color”: Personal and Critical Perspectives on White Privilege Edited by Bettina Bergo, Tracey Nicholls, and Preface byEula Biss

“I Don’t See Color”

Personal and Critical Perspectives on White Privilege

Edited by Bettina Bergo and Tracey Nicholls, Preface by Eula Biss

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280 pages
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2015

“I Don’t See Color”

Personal and Critical Perspectives on White Privilege

Edited by Bettina Bergo and Tracey Nicholls, Preface by Eula Biss

“Post-racial? Think again. This compelling collection of essays cogently explains, with words from the heart, why the aspiration differs from the present American reality. White privilege remains at the center of the enigma, illuminated by the works in this timely and thought-provoking volume.”

 

  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Who is white, and why should we care? There was a time when the immigrants of New York City’s Lower East Side—the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, the Russian Jews—were not white, but now “they” are. There was a time when the French-speaking working classes of Quebec were told to “speak white,” that is, to speak English. Whiteness is an allegorical category before it is demographic.

This volume gathers together some of the most influential scholars of privilege and marginalization in philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology, literature, and history to examine the idea of whiteness. Drawing from their diverse racial backgrounds and national origins, these scholars weave their theoretical insights into essays critically informed by personal narrative. This approach, known as “braided narrative,” animates the work of award-winning author Eula Biss. Moved by Biss’s fresh and incisive analysis, the editors have assembled some of the most creative voices in this dialogue, coming together across the disciplines.

Along with the editors, the contributors are Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Nyla R. Branscombe, Drucilla Cornell, Lewis R. Gordon, Paget Henry, Ernest-Marie Mbonda, Peggy McIntosh, Mark McMorris, Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Victor Ray, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, Louise Seamster, Tracie L. Stewart, George Yancy, and Heidi A. Zetzer.

“Post-racial? Think again. This compelling collection of essays cogently explains, with words from the heart, why the aspiration differs from the present American reality. White privilege remains at the center of the enigma, illuminated by the works in this timely and thought-provoking volume.”
“This very contemporary examination of white privilege by distinguished contributors in philosophy, literature, sociology, psychology, and political science ranges from ‘braided’ personal and intellectual narratives to incisive postcolonial political and economic analyses. Bergo and Nicholls’s ‘I Don’t See Color’ is an important multidisciplinary resource for reflection on white privilege and for critical extensions of whiteness studies.”
“Contemporary conversations on white privilege and white supremacy are far from finished. This exciting new collection brings together some of the most recognized voices in critical whiteness studies with newly emerging ones. It offers readers a refreshingly creative transdisciplinary and multistylistic approach that is attentive to the lived experiences of each of the authors. Bettina Bergo and Tracey Nicholls’s imaginative volume is sure to influence future discussions of this important topic.”
“I find ‘I Don’t See Color’ an inspiring and helpful addition to the critical white studies literature. The ‘braided narrative’ approach is compelling, and the broad mix of disciplinary perspectives means that there almost certainly will be one or more that are unfamiliar to the reader and thus a potential source of fresh new insights into white privilege. The introduction itself is a significant contribution to the work of theorizing white privilege. I recommend this book enthusiastically.”

Bettina Bergo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Université de Montréal.

Tracey Nicholls is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lewis University.

Contents

Preface, Eula Biss

Introduction, Bettina Bergo and Tracey Nicholls

Part I. What is White Privilege?

Chapter 1: Deprivileging Philosophy, Peggy McIntosh

Chapter 2: White Privilege and the Problem with Affirmative Action, Lewis R. Gordon

Chapter 3: Revisioning “White Privilege”, Marilyn Nissim-Sabat

Part II. The Images and Rhetoric of White Privilege

Chapter 4: The Very Image of Privilege: Film Creation of White Transcendentals in Vienna and Hollywood, Bettina Bergo

Chapter 5: Painting and Negotiating Colors, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz

Chapter 6: I Was an Honorary White Man: Reflections on Space, Place, and Origin, Mark McMorris

Part III. Troubling Privilege

Chapter 7: Whiteness as Insidious: On the Embedded and Opaque White Racist Self, George Yancy

Chapter 8: White Privilege: The Luxury of Undivided Attention, Heidi A. Zetzer

Chapter 9: The Costs of Privilege and Dividends of Privilege Awareness: The Social Psychology of Confronting Inequality, Tracie L. Stewart and Nyla R. Branscombe

Chapter 10: Unpacking the Imperialist Knapsack: White Privilege and Imperialism in Obama’s America, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Victor Ray, and Louise Seamster

Part IV. Other Perspectives on White and Western Privilege

Chapter 11: Whiteness and Africana Political Economy, Paget Henry

Chapter 12: The Great White North: Failing Muslim-Canadians – Failing Us All, Tracey Nicholls

Chapter 13: Rethinking Ethical Feminism through uBuntu, Drucilla Cornell

Chapter 14: The Afrocentrist Critique of Eurocentrism: The Decolonization of Knowledge, Ernest-Marie Mbonda

Contributor Biographies

Introduction

This volume is a collection in Critical White Studies with a specific focus on privilege. Our focus here is on white privilege, approached from disciplines as diverse as philosophy, literature, sociology, psychology, and intellectual history. We have invited our contributors to adopt an expository style called “braided narrative,” which links the authors’ critical analyses to events and values that they identify as formative within their own lives. Our hope is that this stylistic innovation will provide students and readers a useful pedagogical tool, motivating them to inquire into their own experience of privilege. Our aim here is to map out relations between conscious perception, self-evaluation, and the ideas and images of white privilege tied to cultural and social institutions. It is in the service of this mapping that the personal narratives which our expository choice “braids into” scholarly analysis emerges as a crucial feature of Critical White Studies, as we understand it.

A Critical White Studies with a focus on privilege confronts the difficulty of the multiple meanings and interpretations of privilege. This poses the question of how to begin to study privilege in a synthetic way, one that investigates the mutually reinforcing tendencies of privileges without obscuring the ways each of them, as distinct claims, enact their own logics of entitlement. Privilege has a thick interpretive component, in that the identification of privilege carries a critical awareness of its presence and its impact, and this is invariably a matter of comparisons—among types of privilege, but also among bearers of privilege. One need only point out a privilege to elicit responses as varied as recognition and resignation, or indeed the conviction that the privilege in question is an earned right. Within a supposedly neutral framework, we discover that one person’s privilege is frequently another’s dessert. Part of the difficulty lies in the absence of an overarching point of comparison: if one compares oneself to persons or groups belonging to social or cultural groups, or economic classes who have diminished access to education, financial resources, or practical goods, one might say that one has privilege. However, frequently the response is to challenge that comparison on the basis of the claim that it is every bit as legitimate to compare oneself only with the members of one’s own socio-economic or cultural-educational group. A number of authors (George Yancy and Ernest-Marie Mbonda, among others) have pointed to this feature as salient to the invisibility of whiteness as race and symbol, above all to whites. And the presupposition of universality or normalcy of one’s racial or ethnic position may indeed favor the choice to compare oneself with members of one’s primary reference group. An interesting feature of this lies in the close relationship between certain affects like resentment or victimization and the ability to perceive privilege at all. We see an example of this in the response, “But I worked for everything that I have; I have given back to my community; I pay taxes.” George Yancy observed that a student in his class on slavery and racism replied, incongruously, “I never held slaves or harmed people you call unprivileged.” Moreover, merely to insist that responses like these reflect a refusal to acknowledge privilege is similarly deflected as “liberal guilt,” “ideology,” or worse, as third-party “resentment.” This has the effect of parochializing the debate, insofar as from a fictive, overarching viewpoint, differences in perspective are judged irreconcilable and in some sense equal; or again, that the critical, privilege-confronting perspective suffers as much from “ideology” as the perspective of the taxpayer who has harmed no one deliberately. In other words, the defensive reflex adopts a view from nowhere as a defense against what it perceives to be a falsely instituted “transcendentalism,” whereby the critic or questioner is forcing his or her interlocutor to adopt—against his or her interests—a meta-class or meta-race perspective. The contest here is for a “right” to assert the meta-position, which, in presenting comparative discourse as a competition for rhetorical hegemony, weakens all interclass and interracial comparison. Hence, the terrible dilemma of identifying “privilege.” How, then, to get past this conundrum?

If we consider the etymology of the word “privilege”—its formulation out of the verb legere (to bind), itself related to lex, legis (law) —then privi-legere looks like a contradiction. What would a private law mean? The etymological definition given first in the note below is suggestive: “An exceptional law that concerns a specific individual” could either elevate or diminish that individual’s freedom of action or status within the community. In practice, however, social privileges—working as if they were “private laws”—typically elevate those persons they target. In Critical White Studies, a focus on privilege, understood minimally as the examination of the governing norms and symbols within given communities, entails grasping the history and dynamics through which persons or groups are constituted within a larger community as differently subject to precisely what holds the larger community together—i.e., the shared laws. In this regard, “privilege” as privum-lex frequently undermines the solidarity of the community, restructuring it in a vertical sense such that, practically and juridically, certain laws apply principally to the non-privileged while other laws relate to the privileged. Privilege is thus hostile to a system of social organization built upon concepts of equality and fairness—for example, a rule of law dedicated to provision of common, even universal, human rights.

To be sure, the aforementioned good faith-bad faith interpretation will persist. In effect, this may be an “ideological” interpretation of privilegere (as though a private law could exist without a system of ideas supporting it), one that we are reading back into the complexities of the Roman law from a contemporary critical approach to white privilege. According to that objection, the critical perspective starts from a conception of implicit unearned advantages, setting those who have them outside an undetermined larger community in which some are denied comparable privileges. However, that debate remains within the stalemate of abstraction, as we described the competition for meta-positions above. The object of our study in this volume is the operation of segregating and sanctioning which founds the privilege reflex. As Peggy McIntosh, one of the earliest analysts of white privilege, observes “though ‘privilege’ may confer power, it does not confer moral strength” and therefore it is crucial “to distinguish between earned strength [often on the part of the dominated] and unearned power conferred systematically” (1986, 296). The systematic bestowal of privilege as unearned power is perpetuated through its connection with mystifications and symbolic strategies that sacralize or give a “from all times thus” character to the privilege entitlements. Having admitted the difficulties, but above all the artificiality of the polemics staking out meta-positions, we are approaching the notion from the perspective of the application of laws and norms. If there is a presupposition operative in our volume it is, above all, the desirability of promoting equality, but also equity, in a society whose values are democratic.

Following McIntosh in examining the function of segregation and sanction underlying the privilege reflex, we would emphasize that isolated identifications of privilege may entail three negative consequences. First, the isolated identification may produce a recursive essentialization whereby the holder of privilege justifies the discrimination it promotes through a naturalist argument, using anecdotes and sometimes science to insist that people are only “differentially equal” and that some are better able to procure social stability or goods than others. Second, the recognition of privilege in its complexity and breadth may elicit quietism or despair: even if the power of a group set apart is not natural, there is nevertheless little to be done to dismantle it at present. Indeed, there are so many privilege structures to be dismantled that one scarcely knows how best to begin. Third, and perhaps most pernicious, the discussion of and reflection on privilege may create the impression of a greater activism and engagement than mere identification can nourish. More is required—extensive dialogue and interaction with social, legal, and political groups outside the “ivory tower.” Given the mechanisms of self-legitimation that accompany and promote privilege—instituting and perpetuating it as hegemony—we cannot simply provide ourselves a sophisticated good conscience by assuming that social change follows uncomplicatedly from privilege debates.

In short, we submit that there is an irresponsible attitude toward varieties of color-line privilege which encourages exculpatory views that “everyone has some form of privilege” or that “what is earned versus unearned is ultimately indeterminable.” On this view, we are all “equal,” and all complicit. The diversity of privilege cannot and must not be allowed to function in the same way that George Orwell’s notorious Animal Farm dictum on equality does—as a formal declaration which obscures the substantive reality that “some animals are more equal than others” (1951, 114). No doubt the curious “private rights and benefits” implicit in the concept are many; they vary over time and place. Yet we must not turn away from the reality that—using McIntosh’s analogy of privilege as a bank account—someone whose privilege takes the form of white skin has more “income” to spend, and certainly more places to spend it, than the non-white someone whose privilege is expressed in conformity to a different model or aspect of the socially constructed “normal” citizen (including simply being able-bodied or being heterosexual). So, while it is true—and necessary to acknowledge—that privileges come in many forms, we, the current social actors in a society still shaped by its history of anti-black racism and white supremacist dogma, must take note of the particular perniciousness of white privilege. This, in essence, is why we feel the need, at this time, to contribute a volume in the area of Critical White Studies that calls our readers to attend to the braiding of personal comforts into a broader economy of privilege.

White privilege can be shown: sociologists and anthropologists examine it as a process, for example, taking shape in education, in the evolution of neighborhoods, in political representation, and in cultural creation. In these areas, privilege entails obstacles and foreclosures to participation and presence in what is defined as common space. However, when the use of the concept of privilege confronts accusations of ideology—i.e., of mere ideology or restricted, parochial interests that cannot show that they represent an authentically good life of a political community—or indeed, of bad faith and resentment, this use of privilege opens onto what philosopher Jean-François Lyotard called “a differend.” A differend is what takes place when a group voices a complaint or a demand, say, as a plaintiff in a law suit. In voicing its demand, it must use a language impervious to its experience; sometimes this is the language of the court itself, or of empirical science, or indeed of statistics. The language required to be heard and evaluated silences the demand or complaint; neither seen nor heard, the claimants discover that their lived experience cannot reach the legal or political status of that against which they are speaking. Thus, a differend is a communicative impasse. Practically speaking, it may be the death of the plaintiffs. The example Lyotard uses is that of plaintiffs bringing suit against a Holocaust denier in France (1988, 3-14). The claim they contest is one of existence itself: there were no gas chambers in Poland, therefore there were no camps of “death.” If there had been, then those in the death camps would have been exterminated after all. But if the plaintiffs are really here, today, contesting the Holocaust denier, then either they really do not know that the camps “killed” people (they could have been worked to death), or they would have to be dead, themselves. Prove to us, then, you who are alive, that there were actual gassings. Many deniers resort to “scientific” arguments, objecting that they have sampled the stone in the structures remaining from the gas chambers and find no trace of gas, today. Thus the process, even the question of proof is stymied in a differend; in the language of chemistry and law, the plaintiffs can only adduce the numbers of the dead, perhaps studies, but above all witnessing. Whether the direct eye witness accounts of lethal situations exist or not—in the Holocaust, they exist through Kapos’ journals and from trials of the SS, among others—the possibility of witnessing remains. One can bear witness to a differend by attempting to give voice to those whose voices do not qualify, fail to reach the metaphoric radar screen of the dominant or reference group and its language. Precisely because analyses of privilege confront this accusation of ideology—and are thereby reduced to relativistic and opportunistic claims for the authority of the meta-position—because the question of proof is stymied within this rhetorical contest of “competing ideologies,” we need to call on braided narrative to produce a possibility of witnessing. In this volume, we present direct witnesses, frequently using braided narrative to that end. These “witnesses” examine what they show is their privilege, and evince examples of denial of rights and benefits. This is not “science,” anymore; it is an essential restoration of voice. Without a voice, confrontation and dialogue—above all, enduring questioning—are impossible.

For all these reasons a focus on white privilege has to be multi-perspectival. It must assemble a variety of disciplines and discourses, that is, if it is to decompartmentalize “studies” and unite voices from poetry, literature, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology. From the vast contributions of Women’s Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical White Studies, we draw the host of lines intersecting around white privilege itself, as an idea and as a multiplicity of lived realities.

This focus opens a kind of epistemic crossroads at which the critical, comparative approaches to over- and underprivileged groups, to strategies of privilege conferral, and to the social outcomes of privilege distinctions are being examined from a variety of academic disciplines. The decisive advantage that such a focus provides is the possibility of expanded comparison. Through a comparative approach, we can discern parallels and distinctions in strategic exclusions, and the institution of norms and myths that perpetuate them. Critical comparison brings to light the “factitious” quality of the social, psychological, and legal categories mobilized to maintain or intensify privilege. It shows that they are neither inherent nor immutable. It brings to light the dynamic variety of external references—from language to clothing to social codes—as well as what are deemed the “internal” aspects, understood here as gender, color, physiognomy. As an exercise in demystification, such an approach is useful for decompartmentalizing the important insights and analytic advances made by Gender Studies, Critical Race Theory, Critical White Studies, and class and gender analyses.

To begin with, and from a historical perspective, such a demystification project might ask with respect to racial privilege: Who is white, and why should we care today? There was a time when the immigrants of New York City’s Lower East Side—the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, the Russian and Eastern European Jews—were not white. But today, it appears they are. There was a time when the French-speaking working classes of Québec were told to “speak white,” that is, to speak English. Whiteness is a mythological category—denoting sameness, purity, and an internally changing but fixed “transcendental”—perhaps even before it is ethnic or demographic. It might be surprising to hear whiteness described as mythological, but the research of many disciplines over the last several decades suggests that this is precisely how we should understand both race and privilege. What had long been happening, when white privilege was first problematized, were isolated attempts to theorize it within specific disciplines, with occasional extensions into interdisciplinary efforts. What is happening today, however, is that analyses of privilege are beginning to spill over and transcend their disciplinary boundaries leading to what we could even imagine as the formation of a multidisciplinary discourse. This more encompassing way of conceptualizing privilege is also multi-stylistic.

Our collection encourages this transgression of disciplines by bringing together literary elements of the finest creative non-fiction, statistical analysis, clinical and cross-cultural research, in the philosophical framework of Critical White Studies. We have attempted to present a representative cross-section of research being done in the humanities and social sciences on these questions; indeed, by some of the most prominent scholars of white privilege and marginalization in philosophy, sociology, psychology, and literature, not to mention by some intriguing new voices. Our approach to white privilege is an intentional act of subversion of the so-called “silos” that academic disciplines often are, each holding itself out as the site at which reality is being critically investigated within the academy. These diverse interrogations, taking place in parallel and without sufficient reference to each other, sometimes create what philosopher Lewis Gordon terms “disciplinary decadence”: the territoriality and self-imposed isolation of academic discourses. While it must be acknowledged that each of the disciplines doing work on the questions of what privilege is, how it functions, and what consequences it has for our societies are producing valuable and exciting research, we think their findings are more valuable when they cross-fertilize each other. Articulating a crossroads at which we can see disciplinary convergences and divergences offers the possibility of a more critical discourse—because more informed by interdisciplinary insights—and more coherent strategies for building socially just communities. Our hope in marking this crossroads is precisely to illuminate the commonalities and interconnections of these apparently discrete interrogations by placing them side by side.

Thus, our approach to privilege is grounded in attention to equity and solidarity. Perhaps the best way of bringing out what is at stake is to highlight part of the discussion offered by one of our contributors, philosopher Marilyn Nissim-Sabat. Nissim-Sabat recounts Lewis Gordon’s argument for abandoning the trope of white privilege: “A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things?” (Gordon, quoted in Nissim-Sabat 2014, 44). Opposing rights to privilege in this way suggests two things important to our inquiry: first, whether either discursive community currently realizes it or not, discourse on privilege is linked conceptually to human rights discourses. Second, scholarly attention to white privilege should be the academic counterpart to the public policy of affirmative action. That is, it should be a broad-based initiative that aims at bringing about its own eventual demise. The critiques of white privilege being produced in different disciplinary domains these days—a diversity we demonstrate in this volume—will ultimately (or should ultimately) bring about a recognition that privilege, as privilegere, must be abolished if we are to bring forth a world in which “necessities for a decent life” (Gordon, quoted in Nissim-Sabat 2014, 44) are acknowledged as everybody’s basic human rights.

A crossroads is a place that, by definition, one can arrive at by different paths. In identifying interdisciplinary investigation into white privilege as a crossroads, we can trace the origins of our journey to this point modestly and contingently, noting our multiple starting points. One such journey was Eula Biss’ award-winning essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land (a 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award winner). Part of the power of this book is precisely its use of “braided narrative,” autobiographical essays serving her historical and social analyses of racism in the United States. Moved by her fresh and incisive analyses, we drafted an invitation to a select group of people we knew to be some of the most creative voices in Critical Race Theory and Critical White Studies. In adopting an approach that seeks to combine disciplines and well-structured personal narratives, we bring home privilege as experiential reality in the lives of philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, poets—whether African-American, African, Caribbean, Latino/Latina, or white.

In the pages that follow, the insights of personal narrative ground the chapters in individual lives, even as they destabilize anything like an academic claim that this discourse belongs to a specific discipline or disciplines which could seize the authority of having the final word. Our conception of braided narrative encompasses both first-person singular and first-person plural voices—speaking into the scholarly record of the lived realities of groups and nationalities, as well as individuals, on the matter of white privilege. Some of our invited contributors have taken up this methodology, as invitation or as challenge, and have woven deeply personal memoirs and anecdotes into their analyses of privilege. Other chapters provide a meta-discussion: see, for instance, Lilia Moritz Schwarcz’s discussion of the social and statistical array of colors along the color line in Brazil, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva et al.’s meditation on global racialized practices in the age of Obama, and Paget Henry’s account of the interwoven history of Africana phenomenology and Africana political economy with European history. Their contributions model forms of cultural hybridity that expand our conception of “braiding” as a narrative synthesis of theory and practice.