Prof. Robert Jensen Discusses Racism, White Supremacy and White Privilege (Part 2)

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to teaching and research, Jensen writes for popular media, both alternative and mainstream. His opinion and analytic pieces on such subjects as foreign policy, politics, and race have appeared in papers and on websites around the world.

His latest book, "Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times" (City Lights, 2013), draws on more than two decades of classroom experience and community organizing, and shares strategies on how to challenge "conventional wisdom" in order to courageously confront the crises of our times, and offers a framework for channeling our fears and frustrations into productive analysis that can inform constructive action.

Kathleen Wells: The whole issue of stop and frisk -- that is just one example of how white privilege plays out in our criminal justice system. In the New York Times, there's a young boy telling his story -- he is 18 and has been stopped and frisked in New York City, 60 times.

Prof.Robert Jensen: Yes. Let me give you just one more way... Because it's a very powerful phrase I once heard an African-American colleague use. It's a woman who had two... At the time two teenage sons, black young men, and she said... This was just a few years back so you have to remember the TV show, The Cosby Show, in which Bill Cosby played the father in a very black middle class family which looked on the surface to be very proper. And my colleague said, "No matter how much I Cosby-up my kids", meaning no matter how much I dress them in the appropriate clothing, and make sure they look a certain way. She said "No matter how much I Cosby-up my kids, I know that when my kids go on the streets they are vulnerable, in a way that my kid, my white kid, is not.

And that really stuck with me -- that I don't have to carry that weight of wondering every time my kid would go out, what's going to happen? Maybe it seems a small distinction, but if you're the person worrying about the safety of your own child on the streets every night, it's not a small distinction at all -- it's an incredible burden. And that's one of the things that I try and listen to: especially to Black and Latino folks who are often the target of this kind of disproportionate law enforcement attention.

When I listen to those folks talk I start to get a sense of the burden that that really is, not just in interactions with law enforcement but interactions with co-workers. You never know when you're going to turn a corner and face racial discrimination. You never know whether or not the comment that your co-worker just made which seemed a little odd maybe had a racist undertone. There's a certain day to day burden, forget about the really egregious examples of racism... Of maybe being denied a loan for a home because you're black, maybe being steered away from a certain neighborhood by a realtor because you're black and, maybe being targeted by law enforcement because you're Latino. Those are dramatic examples, but there is an everyday burden that if we... Who are white listen to people of color talk about. You start to get a sense of just how overwhelming it can be.

Now, I never have to think about that if I don't want to, because I walk in the world looking "normal", and I use that word normal in quotes of course. But I look like the norm -- I look to be the person around whom the world is organized. The world is organized for me, and there is an incredible sort of burden that I don't then have to bear because of that and... I'm sorry to go on at length about it, but I think it's one of the things at least I know for me as a white person, one of the things that was hardest just to get a grasp on. I really had to listen a long time to the experiences of people of color to get a sense of just what that burden is like.

Kathleen Wells: So it is about listening isn't it? Listening to people's experiences to get an understanding about what that experience is like.

Prof.Robert Jensen: I think without that, it's impossible to imagine progress. Now listening, which brings often if we work at it empathy -- that is the ability to understand the situation of another person -- that communication and that empathetic response are crucial. Without that, there's no possibility of progress. But they're not enough. We can't just understand and listen. We have to then be willing to speak and to act, and so, I don't think we need to stop with listening of course, but that in some sense you're actually right.

It all begins with listening and taking seriously what others are saying and that we know that people in positions of privilege are not always so good at that.

Every woman I've ever met can testify to the way that men are sometimes unwilling to listen to the experiences of women. And that's a good parallel. Take for instance the threat of sexual violence, that women in this society live with on a day to day basis. For those of us who are male... Except in very specific situations, we do not worry about being the targets of sexual violence, but of course women walk through the world every day with that on their mind.

It wasn't until I really started listening to women talk about the threat of sexual violence and how it affected literally, sometimes every move they made in the day -- that I started to get a sense of what it means to live with the privilege of being male in a society -- kind of organized for me in a male dominant society. Those are the things... Those are the places we start by listening and then we can... I hope act to create a better world.

Kathleen Wells: Yes, I really think that's important. We have to start listening to each other's stories and white folks need to start listening to people of color; black and brown -- listening to their experiences, as opposed, to attempting to define their experiences for them.

Prof. Robert Jensen: I would just say if there is one thing on the fact that when we're trying to... End white supremacy. It feels a little strange to talk about the fears of white people, because you would say... Well listen... White people in a white supremacy society, what do you got to be afraid of? Or you could say the same thing about men in a male dominant society, what do you have to be afraid of? But to understand the psychology, I think we do have to talk about the fears of people who are in positions of unearned privilege and power.

Even though it sounds kind of funny -- what are white people afraid of? Well, I do think that fear is the appropriate term to use here, and this is not original or unique to me. Almost nothing I've said today is original or unique. People have been making a lot of these points for a long time. And I first remember reading this when reading James Baldwin, the great writer, African-American, in the last half of the 20th Century, who in the 1960s was writing about the fears of white people. And one of those, of course, is a class fear that anybody in a position of honor and privilege and power is afraid that if the system changes they might lose the material benefits that come from being privileged. So one level of fear is just the fear that some people have of losing all the goodies they have. There are people who are consciously trying to maintain a white supremacist system because they like the material benefits of it, but there are also some deeper fears.

And one of the fears, I think, is that white people are really afraid that we are not special. You know, I'm 53 years old, and I'm white. And all of my life I was socialized, either in overt or very subtle ways, to believe that I'm special, that there's something about being white that matters. And it's a big shift to realize that, in fact, that's not true. This is what I call a fear of losing white centrality. Now, people, especially liberal white people, who have abandoned a notion of white supremacy, they reject the notion that white people are inherently superior, are still comfortable with the notion of white centrality, of the notion that white people, and white culture in the white history, are central -- that is, they're most important.

You see this when people will renounce white supremacy, be anti-racist in a political sense, but still want to hold onto the notion that the culture that comes out of Europe -- the music, the poetry, the art -- is still the most important music and poetry and art. You certainly will see this reflected in the curricula of the American educational system. We aren't white supremacist anymore -- we've renounced all that. It just so happens that all of the really important art comes out of Europe. What a surprise! Well, that, I think, a reflection of white people being afraid of giving up that central place in the world. And those are the kinds of conversations I think we have to have. Why is it that we still talk about white literature as if it is the kind of gold standard? And we'll allow into the curriculum, Toni Morrison or black writers.

In a sense, we're always letting them in only if they, in some sense, meet standards that were devised by white people. Well, you know, that's really not equality. That's a lessening of the worst aspects of a white supremacist system but retaining a white centrality in the way we define what is, in fact, good in the world. And these are the kinds of things that, I think, come up when we start talking about the fears of white people.

Kathleen Wells: And actually, that sort of affirms this notion of us, of America, being a white supremacist society because that's what our history books tell us. What we talk about in terms of our culture -- in terms of our history, in terms of our music, all of those things is what we learned. It isn't necessarily the fact, is it?

There is history that happened in other parts of the world -- in Africa, in Asia -- but we're not getting that in our books. History/civilization before America existed, while Europe was still in caves.

Prof. Robert Jensen: Absolutely. And you see how important this is by the degree to which white America fights to retain that sense of history. So, you know, education is not everything. But as you're pointing out, the way we are taught to think about the world has a lot to do with, then, how we act in the world. And I see this particularly in the state of Texas, where I live, where there's a really intense battle over what's going to be in the public school textbooks. Now, a lot of the country pays attention to this when it's about evolution. So you hear lots of stories about how conservative Christians in Texas are trying to, basically, write evolution out of the biology textbooks. And it's easy to make fun of that because the kind of desperation of trying to hold back scientific progress is almost laughable if it weren't so serious. But the other battle that's gone on in Texas over the standards for public education, have been around social studies.

And there's also a very conservative attempt to make sure that the kind of observations you were just offering about history and the importance of telling a fuller and richer account of the world's history. There's a segment of Texas, and it's overwhelmingly white Texas, that doesn't want that to happen, that wants to retain that older sense of history emanating from Europe based on an assumption of white supremacy, telling the story of America as "that shining city upon the hill" that brought freedom and democracy to the world and ignoring all of the realities of history that complicates that -- the genocide of indigenous people, the genocide of African slavery, the Imperialist wars of the United States in the 20th Century.

All of the those things that don't reflect quite so well on white America, but, in fact, are central to understanding the history of this country. And so you see that white centrality especially in the way that the culture, the dominant white culture, fights for the right to tell the story not only of America but of the world in ways that leave white people at the center and are based on assumptions of the superiority of white people -- even if as a culture we've renounced overt segregation and discrimination. Even if as a culture we are post-apartheid in that sense. There's still a struggle going on culturally and you see it most intensely, I think, in education.

Kathleen Wells: I just looked at a video the other day called "They Came Before Columbus." So the whole history we have about America being discovered is even... There's dispute as to it being accurate.

Prof. Robert Jensen: Yes. I think Columbus is the one place you'd see this most intensely -- this desire on the part of a dominant culture to hold on to the image of Columbus as a hero -- Columbus as the great navigator, Columbus as the man who opened up the new world.

Well there is to a degree ... A sense of which some of that is true but there's also Columbus the invader, Columbus the barbarian, Columbus the murderer, Columbus the man who brought to North and South America really a five hundred year wave of terror.

Part 1 of my Jensen interview can be seen here. can be heard online.