At the NY Times Magazine, Eula Biss reflects on the price of white privilege in America and the cost on our society.
Whiteness is not a kinship or a culture. White people are no more closely related to one another, genetically, than we are to black people. American definitions of race allow for a white woman to give birth to black children, which should serve as a reminder that white people are not a family. What binds us is that we share a system of social advantages that can be traced back to the advent of slavery in the colonies that became the United States. ‘‘There is, in fact, no white community,’’ as Baldwin writes. Whiteness is not who you are. Which is why it is entirely possible to despise whiteness without disliking yourself.
When he was 4, my son brought home a library book about the slaves who built the White House. I didn’t tell him that slaves once accounted for more wealth than all the industry in this country combined, or that slaves were, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, ‘‘the down payment’’ on this country’s independence, or that freed slaves became, after the Civil War, ‘‘this country’s second mortgage.’’ Nonetheless, my overview of slavery and Jim Crow left my son worried about what it meant to be white, what legacy he had inherited. ‘‘I don’t want to be on this team,’’ he said, with his head in his hands. ‘‘You might be stuck on this team,’’ I told him, ‘‘but you don’t have to play by its rules.’’
Even as I said this, I knew that he would be encouraged, at every juncture in his life, to believe wholeheartedly in the power of his own hard work and deservedness, to ignore inequity, to accept that his sense of security mattered more than other people’s freedom and to agree, against all evidence, that a system that afforded him better housing, better education, better work and better pay than other people was inherently fair.
My son’s first week in kindergarten was devoted entirely to learning rules. At his school, obedience is rewarded with fake money that can be used, at the end of the week, to buy worthless toys that break immediately. Welcome to capitalism, I thought when I learned of this system, which produced, that week, a yo-yo that remained stuck at the bottom of its string. The principal asked all the parents to submit a signed form acknowledging that they had discussed the Code of Conduct with their children, but I didn’t sign the form. Instead, my son and I discussed the civil rights movement, and I reminded him that not all rules are good rules and that unjust rules must be broken. This was, I now see, a somewhat unhinged response to the first week of kindergarten. I know that schools need rules, and I am a teacher who makes rules, but I still want my son to know the difference between compliance and complicity.
I think Biss is too hard on herself, taking in too much of a burden on her shoulders. We won't solve white privilege in this country in my lifetime, any more than we will gun violence or income inequality or any other of the massive social problems we have, because it's taken so long just to get to the point where we acknowledge that white privilege exists.
Baby steps indeed, but expecting us to get to a state where it doesn't matter will take a society far better than the one we have now.