The New York Times recently ran an exchange in its “Sweet Spot” advice column from an apparently anguished reader.
The letter, signed Whitey, began:
I’m riddled with shame. White shame. This isn’t helpful to me or to anyone, especially people of color. I feel like there is no “me” outside of my white/upper middle class/cisgender identity. I feel like my literal existence hurts people, like I’m always taking up space that should belong to someone else.
I consider myself an ally. I research proper etiquette, read writers of color, vote in a way that will not harm P.O.C. (and other vulnerable people). I engage in conversations about privilege with other white people. I take courses that will further educate me. I donated to Black Lives Matter. Yet I fear that nothing is enough. Part of my fear comes from the fact that privilege is invisible to itself. What if I’m doing or saying insensitive things without realizing it?
I read this three times. I couldn’t quite tell whether it was intended as parody or self-parody, or as a sincere if confused expression of sentiments that could perhaps advance racial justice. I suspect that the editors of the Times went through the same exercise before concluding that the writer was being earnest.
Some black activists and scholars contend that more white people need to go precisely through this sort of agonizing self-reflection if they are to grasp the pervasiveness of white privilege. And some white people are taking them up on it. Still, if this letter is meant as anything other than parody, there is something pathetic and futile about it.
“It’s commendable to acknowledge and appreciate one’s privilege. It’s a disgrace to leave it at that and not put that privilege to good use.”
Dismantling structural racism does require white people to become more than a little uncomfortable as they both acknowledge and relinquish their power in order to achieve racial progress. But that enlightenment needs to lead to action, not just deeper reflection. Otherwise, it becomes part of the problem.
Back in the day, we called this sort of self-indulgence “paralysis by analysis.”
I am of the “We Shall Overcome” generation. My first political act was as a Young Democrat smuggling floor passes to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. I was a close friend of the late Carolyn Goodman, whose son, Andy, was murdered working to register voters in Mississippi in 1964.
My friends and I intuitively knew that whites oppress blacks in this country and that something was profoundly and structurally wrong. That sense was burnished by our reading of history, our everyday experience and what we saw in the media.
The point was not to wallow in that realization, but to change it. A little later, in 1967, it was painful for some whites who had dedicated themselves to civil rights when blacks took ownership of the movement, and kicked whites out of SNCC.
Racial advancement is hard, often paradoxical, then and now. Equality doesn’t happen overnight, with the legacy of race just vanishing. Most white allies of SNCC got it — there was plenty other work to be done.
As there is today. At one point in his reply to Whitey, Times advice columnist Steve Almond aptly quotes the writer bell hooks: “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege.”
“Spend less time contemplating your privilege and more time acting, to be part of the change.”
The current use of the term “privilege” is new, but the usage is not. Growing up in modest middle class circumstances in the postwar era, I relentlessly heard from my parents that I was privileged. That meant that my family and I were fortunate to be in America, where we hadn’t gotten annihilated in the Holocaust, that I got to attend a good public school and that I was expected to make the most of my gifts and to give something back.
Well, of course. Those are values to live by for a lifetime. Black kids, whose parents had struggled against much tougher odds, got a version of the same lecture, along with warnings of the humiliations they faced as they sought to excel, and the far greater risks if they dared to pursue systemic change.
It’s commendable to acknowledge and appreciate one’s privilege. It’s a disgrace to leave it at that and not put that privilege to good use — even more so when one professes as much knowledge and enlightenment as Whitey does.
So, Whitey, rather than wallowing in the realization of privilege, go out and work in a political campaign to elect more black and Latino officeholders. Spend some time volunteering in any of thousands of community efforts. Find your way to groups with plenty of black leadership. Put yourself in settings where you get to know people of diverse backgrounds.
Yes, cultivate sensitivity to how you relate to different kinds of people, but that’s secondary. If you spend enough time doing these things, the social competence will come naturally. If you don’t get your hands dirty, you are at risk of becoming a politically correct nullity. Spend less time contemplating privilege and more time acting, to be part of the change.
Indulging the sense of intellectual and political superiority that comes from an exquisite acknowledgment of privilege — and the passivity that results — can be its own form of privilege. How like white folks!
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His forthcoming book is “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” (Norton, 2018). Follow him on Twitter.