T Nation

Denial, Privilege and Life as a Majority


I ran across this opinion piece doing some surfing and thought it was interesting enough to share. Given many of the comments that I see posted on this board, it seemed to be relevant.


Denial, Privilege and Life as a Majority

By Tim Wise

Sometimes it can be difficult, having a conversation with those whose political views are so diametrically opposed to one's own.

But even more challenging, is having a discussion with someone who simply refuses to accept even the most basic elements of your worldview. At that point, disagreement is less about the specifics of one or another policy option, and more about the nature of social reality itself.

This is what it can be like sometimes, when trying to discuss the issue of white privilege with white people. Despite being an obvious institutionalized phenomenon to people of color and even some whites, white privilege is typically denied, and strongly, by most of us.

Usually, this denial plays out in one of two ways: either we seek to shift the focus of discussion to our status as members of some other group that isn't socially dominant (so, for example, whites who are poor or working class will insist that because of their economic marginalization, they effectively enjoy no racial privilege at all), or we retreat to the tired but popular notion that all have an equal opportunity in this, our colorblind meritocracy.

Denying one's privileges is, of course, nothing if not logical. To admit that you receive such things is to acknowledge that you are, at some level, implicated in the process by which others are oppressed or discriminated against. It makes fairly moot the oft-heard defense that "I wasn't around back then, and I never owned slaves, or killed any Indians," or whatever.

If one has reaped the benefits of those past injustices (to say nothing of ongoing discrimination in the present) by being elevated, politically, economically and socially above persons of color, for example -- which whites as a group surely have been thanks to enslavement, Indian genocide and Jim Crow -- then whether or not one did the deed becomes largely a matter of irrelevance.

Of course, what is ultimately overlooked is that denial of one's privilege itself manifests a form of privilege: namely, the privilege of being able to deny another person's reality (a reality to which they speak regularly) and suffer no social consequence as a result.

Whites pay no price, in other words, for dismissing the claims of racism so regularly launched by persons of color, seeing as how the latter have no power to punish such disbelievers at the polls, or in the office suites, or in the schools in most cases.

On the other hand, people of color who refuse to buy into white reality -- the "reality" of the U.S. as a "shining city on a hill," or the "reality" of never-ending progress, or the "reality" of advancement by merit -- often pay a heavy toll: they are marginalized, called "professional victims," or accused of playing the race card.

Consider the common charge of conspiratorial paranoia hurled at any person of color, for example, who dared to point out the racially-disparate voter purging that took place in Florida in 2000, or in various places in 2004. White reality is privileged at every turn, so that if whites say something is a problem, it is, and if whites insist it isn't, then it isn't.

Those of us who are white remain thought of as sober-minded, and never as given to underestimating the extent of racism, making a molehill out of what is, in fact, often a mountain, or playing our own race card (the denial card), which far and away trumps whatever version people of color may occasionally find in their own decks.

In other words, privilege is not merely about money and wealth. It is not merely something that attaches when one is born with the proverbial silver spoon in one's mouth. Rather it is the daily psychological advantage of knowing that one's perceptions of the world are the ones that stick, that define the norm for everyone else, and that are taken seriously in the mainstream.

Whiteness is so privileged in everyday dialogue that one need look no further than our nation's post-election discourse to see how it operates.

So, for example, one after another commentator in the wake of election night pontificated, without hesitation, that the outcome had been a referendum on "moral values," and the result of high turnout amongst evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly voted for President Bush.

Yet what this analysis ignored is that it was only some evangelicals who overwhelmingly chose to re-elect the President, while others voted to do exactly the opposite. Indeed, black evangelicals voted at least four to one against Bush, meaning that the mainstream talking heads, as usual were privileging the white perspective, and universalizing the particular behavior of white folks, as if it were the standard for everyone.

So too with the so-called "red state, blue state" divide. Fact is, the divide is less one of geography than race: a slight majority of whites in the blue states (including California, Illinois and New York) voted for Bush on election day, while the vast majority of blacks and the majority of other persons of color in the red states voted against him.

But part of white privilege is never having to examine the peculiarity of white behavior (or even acknowledge that there is such a thing as white group behavior at all), and so naturally, this racial aspect of electoral division remains unexamined, and the more comforting perspective (for whites at least) that there is merely a split based on residence remains largely unchallenged.

But it's more than that. Even more important as an example of white privilege -- the kind that adheres to all whites, not just the rich -- is the ability to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others who just so happen to fall within the same racial group as you.

While people of color bear the burden of disproving negative stereotypes regularly -- when interviewing for a job, taking a standardized test, or merely driving in the "wrong" neighborhood, where they are presumed not to belong -- whites rarely if ever have to worry that the actions of others like us, no matter how horrible, will stick to us or force us to prove that we are somehow different.

For example, whites can screw up on the job, run entire corporations into the ground, rip off the Savings and Loans to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, cut corners on occupational safety and health in the workplace, or scam millions from employee pension funds, without the rest of us having to worry that such incompetence or outright dishonesty will result in whites being viewed suspiciously every time we seek to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.

White men in Lexuses (or is it Lexi?) will not need to fear being pulled over by police on suspicion of transporting documents confirming their latest fiscal shenanigans.

When Martha Stewart conspires to cover up a stock dumping scam, white women across America do not cower in fear that somehow they will be viewed as dishonest and predatory as a result. Nor white men thanks to Ken Lay.

If the President of the United States mispronounces every fifth word out of his mouth, none of us white folks have to worry that someone will ascribe his verbal incompetence to some general white illiteracy. But honestly, do we think that if this President were black, or Latino or Asian Pacific American, or indigenous, and mangled the English language with the regularity of the actual President, that no one would make the leap from individual to group defect?

Why is it that when the white President of the University of Tennessee overspends his expense account by tens of thousands of dollars, using public funds for expensive rugs, home furnishings and lavish chartered plane trips, no one suggests that perhaps it's time for the school to pick a black or brown chief executive, but when the black President of historically black Tennessee State University is seen as mismanaging that school's resources, voices all across my hometown of Nashville began to whisper (or even say quite loudly) that perhaps it was time for TSU to get a white President?

For those reading this who are white, ask yourselves, when was the last time you felt the need to stand up and apologize for a crime committed by another white person? Better yet, when was the last time you felt the need to do this for fear that if you didn't, your community would come to be viewed as inherently violent and dangerous, and perhaps be attacked as a result? And when was the last time someone suggested that our failure to openly condemn white criminals implicated us in their wrongdoing?

Yet what of the recent murders in Wisconsin by a Hmong immigrant, who killed six white hunters when they confronted him in a private deer stand? Not only did bumper stickers crop up within days reading, "Save a deer, shoot a Hmong," implying that the shooter was somehow representative of a larger group evil, but more to the point, the Hmong and larger Southeast Asian communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota (where the shooter was from) rushed to distance themselves from him.

This distancing was, of course, only made necessary because to not do so would put others like them at risk, in a way no white person has ever been put at risk because some of our number occasionally kills folks.

Likewise, nearly a decade ago, when a Hmong woman in the Twin Cities murdered her six children, her status as a racial and ethnic minority was front and center in discussion of the crime -- anger on talk radio was pointed at the Hmong as a group, or Asians more broadly, for example -- but a few years back, when Andrea Yates killed her five kids in Texas, or when Susan Smith drowned her two boys in a South Carolina lake, no one attacked them as examples of what's wrong with white folks these days.

Even when some white teenager commits a racially-motivated hate crime, as happened recently in Simi Valley, California where four white youths beat two black kids to a pulp, the white response is one that seeks to demonstrate that their town is not racist (as if geography alone ever commits an aggravated assault), rather than hoping to prove that all whites aren't that way. The latter possibility would never enter their minds, and why?

It's why in the aftermath of 9/11, you could hear one after another white person demanding to know (and being treated as reasonable for asking it), "where are the moderate voices in the Arab Muslim community prepared to condemn terrorism," all because nineteen out of 1.5 billion Muslims on Planet Earth flew planes into buildings. Yet one cannot fathom anyone being taken seriously if they were to ask, "where are the moderate white Christians," in the aftermath of Oklahoma City or any of a number of abortion clinic bombings.

It's why whenever this issue is raised, white folks rush to insist that we're "just individuals," and want to be thought of as such, rather than as whites. Indeed, we often believe that to even point out our racial identity is racist, as it groups us unfairly and diminishes our "humanness," or "Americanness."

Of course, the irony in such a position is that it is only members of the dominant group in a society who could ever have the luxury of viewing ourselves, or expecting to be viewed by others as "individuals."

That's the point: no one else has ever been able to assume they would be viewed that way, because at no point have they been, nor do they get to be so viewed today, as the aforementioned examples demonstrate all too clearly.

To even say that our group status is irrelevant or should be is to suggest that one has enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the world that way (or rather, believing that one was). In other words, it is the result of a particular social arrangement, whereby some and not others have been seen as individuals no matter the actions of others within their group. There is, of course a phrase for this arrangement.

White privilege.

And until it is eradicated, dug up and discarded root and branch, there can be no legitimate discussion of "colorblindness" or simple individualism. Nor can we be taken seriously as a nation when we hold ourselves up as an example to other nations of what freedom and democracy are supposed to look like.


This statement was proven in the Bob Sapp thread. It is actually expected for me to stand as the representation of my entire race should any wrong befall me. However, if a white person were accused of social wrong doing, not once would his entire race be brought into question...yet for some reason, this has to be explained to people? I go to work with the present knowledge that I don't just represent myself but every black professional that comes after me. To ignore this pressure in the lives of blacks in this country is, in my humble opinion, criminal.


This is a well written piece, but I suspect due to cognitive dissonance or other issues, it won't fly very far around here.

Personally, I do my best to rail against racism whenever I can, but at times I will still catch myself being caught up in predominant thinking.

Precisely because it is "predominant thinking" we'll probably hear people dismissing the issue as bullshit because they've never been in a position to see the issues that are being discussed.

Hell, that doesn't even begin to get into the stumbling block represented by the issue of addressing historical fault.

I'm cooking up some popcorn for this one...


Unfortunately, it does have to be explained to people due to the denial factor that the author mentioned. What I find interesting about this is that a person who is in the majority actually recognizes the existence of these issues. He also eloquently explains this in print without pandering to one group or another. But, like vroom said, there will either be denials and their subsequent cherry-picking to prove their point, outright dismissal of the piece as garbage or an attempt to ignore the post altogether. Let's sit back and see what happens.


Unlike my lilly-white, "never spent any time with blacks beore but I still have to contribute to this thread becasue it makes me feel like I am doing something" canadian friend, I grew up with blacks, played in the allies with blacks, played sports with blacks, went to church with them, had my ass kicked by them, and on rare occasion, got a lucky punch in, and whipped a couple of them. In short - if it weren't for black kids, I would have had very little social interaction as a child.


I take it as a personal insult that you, or AlDur, would practice such blatnt hypocrisy. Name a time I have ever accused you of representing your own race.

Yet you think it is okay for you to indict my entire race, which btw includes me, as a result of the actions of a few.

Dislike me for what I do. Disagree with what I say. That is all respectable. But to act as if white people are the only ones that do the stereotyping is just not right.

Life isn't fair. In fact - it sucks quite a bit in that department. But don't think you guys have the market cornered on hard times just because you say so.

So what to do? Have a bunch of apologist whities like vroom, and the author tell you how evil the white man truly is and how the feel so sorry for you? If that makes you feel better, then fine. But the article didn't break any new ground, and vrooms bullshit apologies should ring as condescending - especially since he can fit his black experience inside a thimble and still have room for his finger.


The article is not all that good. It was written by a white apologist. It would be much akin to having Clarence Thomas writing a pro-white piece, and wondering how you black folk cannot heed his words.

Why don't you pick out the points you find worthy of discussion? I am sorry, but if growing up with black kids did nothing else for me besides learning how to run really fast and a deep desire to try "Magic Shave", it taught me to be proud of who you are, regardless of your lot in life. You act as if I should lay down the pride I have in who I am, and spend sometime apologizing for the actions of people I do not know.

You first.


Are you saying that you have seen others committing this act and just chose not to say anything? What this article focused on was denial that this occurs.

That isn't what the article is saying at all. In fact, stereotypes from all was the whole issue. The larger issue, however, was that majority gets to choose what is seen as acceptable and what is not.

This was also not stated in the article and isn't something that I believe at all.

What does Vroom have to do with this?


I don't think you should do that at all. I think you missed the point of the article.


Ahahahaha. Nice try!

Another nice try.

Where have I suggested anything of the sort? The fact that I can actually see and understand such issues doesn't mean I'm suggesting white people are evil or any other such bullshit.

Thanks for showing my earlier statement to be accurate.


I have showed nothing but your utter fucking ignorance of race relations. You would be right at home with the other lilly white mother fuckers that don't know a god damned thing about blacks except for what you have seen on the afterschool specials. This includes apologists like yourself and racists. Both types deserve a hellfire hotter than that of a child molester.

If you would like to meet somewhere in person and discuss your racial ignorance in person - name the place and the time.

And before you get off on the whole internet tough guy bullshit - I am serious as a heart attack.

You are a racial retard. You have only lived with your white friends, and gone to white schools. Your ideas on a perfect world are based in utter ignorance, so whatever you have to say on this matter are null and void.


What - try Magic Shave?

My point is - this article is not a discussion piece, unless everyone wants to sit and preach at the choir.

There is refusal to see stereo-types on both sides of this. Are you saying that blindness to stereo-types on both sides are fodder here?

I agree that there are those that don't see what you see. And even if they do, they will see it from a totally different perspective than you will.

I am nit seeing anything ground breaking in this article. Does that mean I am blind as well? Because I don't see what you see?


Some observations;

What about those of us who can say "No, really, my ancestors were in Europe at the time and my parents came to this country penniless!"? At what point are whites unburdened from the race card? Only when they're the minority? At what point does a black man gaining an advantage from these same transgressions need to atone for being racist or are they perpetually exempt?

What price do minorities pay for launching claims of racism founded or otherwise?

As opposed to black men/women everywhere who would tremble in fear when Oprah or Wayne Brady or Morgan Freeman were convicted of the same thing? Or the scourge that befell the every black man when it was discovered that Jesse Jackson had a child out of wedlock?

And the following paragraphs represent a inconsistency, IMO:


Are white people unconcerned or concerned about racially motivated crimes reflecting them or not?

To be clear, I'm not saying racism doesn't exist or that the author's points are completely unfounded. It just seems to me that much is said about racism and little is done, and this article says a lot and suggests very little. So, fine, racism is still a problem, when will it be solved? How? Is it even solvable? If not, then what? And at what point am I no longer racist just because my skin is white? More importantly when is someone no longer discriminated against strictly because they're black (or another minority)?


Which is exactly what I was trying to say.

What to do? The lines are clearly drawn. And each side is equally guilty of selective blindness. What good does it do to point out the other's failures, if there is no attempt on either side to do anything about it?


Blind? That is debateable. Nearsighted? Yes. Is this article groundbreaking? I would sure as hell hope not considering this has been stated for too many years for that to be the case. The fact that it still occurs is what is baffling. Again, we just had an example of this on this site in the Bob Sapp thread. It doesn't need to be explained more than that. There are those who equate the actions of individuals with race. It was seen during the "looting" in New Orleans. To act as if this did not occur is ridiculous...but then, that is exactly what the article is discussing. Denial.


I am not denying anything that happened. I think, however, that the discussion that you and AlDur are hoping for should be held with those that are in such a state of denial.

But - I digress. Just because we don't see things the same, does not suggest myopia on my part. The problem is, as I stated in a post that was conveniently censored by the mods, that the the myopia is rampant on both sides.

I have called for an honest dialogue about race for a while now - and it doesn't look like it's any closer to fruition than when I first asked for one.

What we don't need in the dialogue is folks that don't know shit about the other side. I hate fake intellect. I hate grandstanding when you know nothing about the subject matter aside from tv shows, or what you have read. This is not a debate for bigots - white or black. This is not a time for pie in the sky apologism.

It's time to either shit or get off the pot (collectively - nothing personal) if there is truly a desire from either side to understand the other.



You are taking this awfully personally aren't you? I never once accused of any of these things, yet you took this as a personal attack. As a matter of fact, I recall defending you against being called a racist.

Your statement "Yet you think it is okay for you to indict my entire race, which btw includes me, as a result of the actions of a few" is exactly some of what the author was talking about. Whether you admit it or not, whites in this country have the option of "judge me as an individual, not by my race". Minorities do not have this option. Whether you personally participated in this activity is not the point. The point is that it happens to minorities all the time. He was talking about "white privilege" in this country, how this privilege doesn't extend to non-whites and how whites deny that this privilege even exists. The fact that you decided to respond in such a way just illustrates the points that were made. Admit it or not, it obviously struck a chord with you.


Where to begin on this...

I'm not making any arguments one way or the other concerning what is or isn't written on these boards -- but this article isn't very strongly reasoned.

For the sake of time (mine, that is), I'm going to skip a lot of stuff that isn't making any sort of point, and just focus on a few things.

So, he starts with this nice little rhetorical device. If you don't agree with the author, you're obviously in denial. No need to give proof, or even to say it might vary. A simple broad conclusion, and if you disagree you're in denial. Brilliant.

"So now that we've established all you disagreeable folks are in denial, let me tell you what your arguments are. But I won't go through the bother of actually going through proper arguments -- let me just set up a few straw men to knock down. That's the ticket."


Asking for proof of criminal assertations is so gauche...

And remember, if you don't think this is the case, you're in denial. So, I guess it must be some sort of subconscious psychological advantage, but your subconscious denies your denial, so you benefit from it.

Wait, was this the analysis that was constantly argued back and forth over what it proved, if anything -- and how close it was, and the issues on which people were actually voting, etc. The one that was contested in every turn. Wait, I'm not remembering it the way he is - I must be in denial...

Or maybe they were looking at percentage of votes... Or maybe they had included black evangelicals under the "black" part of their voter analysis -- the one that looked at blacks' relatively conservative positions on a lot of social issues, but still found them voting Democratic. The analysis that said blacks were taken for granted by liberal Democrats and ignored by Republicans who didn't think they could win that vote in any case... But I guess if I read/heard that, I must be misremembering because I'm in denial...

The divide was very much about geography -- urban v. suburban v. rural geography, that is... For example, in California, the vast majority of whites in SF voted for Kerry. In NYC, whites voted overwhelmingly for Kerry. Even in Salt Lake City, UT, Kerry did a helluva lot better among whites there than among everybody in the rest of the state. But I suppose I'm in denial again.

Apparently, it's an author's prerrogative to use questionable assumptions to frame an issue -- but the readers are all in denial, so who cares?

And now we come to the part of the article that energized the good Professor. ANd rightly so.

However, this is simply an example of a logical fallacy that gets applied much too often, both around here and in general - race is just a specific example.

It's the "part to whole" logical fallacy -- assuming that one part of a whole is representative of the whole.

Not to single out Prof. X., but he does the same thing when he pulls something out of one person's posts and then attributes that to "conservatives on this site."

And on the Bob Sapp thread that he referenced above, Bodyguard did it to him - expected his post to speak for "all black people."

The fallacy actually goes both ways -- it's also "whole to part," a particular example of which is stereotyping -- assuming an individual member of a group will have a particular set of characteristics simply because he is a member of such group.

This isn't correct, and it isn't smart -- but it's also not a logical fallacy that's solely -- or even largely, in my view -- associated with racism.

and of course, the author would never do such a thing as to assume something outlandish about all the readers of a certain race who disagreed with him or anything...

Or, on the other hand, when was the last time you expected someone to do so -- that would say a lot more to the supposed point of this piece... And it would indicate a tendency for whole-part logical fallacies that you should seriously consider.

Maybe because it would be impossible when you're dealing with a large group, to make such a ridiculous claim and attempt to speak for every individual person with whom you happen to share a similar skin pigmentation.

Or, to put it in a way the author might agree with, "Maybe because society has absorbed the truth that some whites are racist, so the members of the town, because of their powerlessness to fight against this societal assumption, sought to differentiate themselves on a different level."

When claims were made by the attackers that their religion supported the attacks, one might expect that others who believed and knew the religion would put forth an opposing view. But of course, I'm in denial again...

BTW, I don't recall the word "Arab" in front of the word "Muslim" when it came to asking for explanation of the relationship between Islam and terrorism - I recall the word "American" in front of the word "Muslim" -- that or just the word "Muslim". That, of course, would make sense, given his numerical example, unless he's implying that all Muslims are Arabs -- but that must be denial talking again...

I don't know if I would go so far as that, but I can see a causal effect to claiming distinction based on race and then being viewed/classified according to that distinction. It seems naive to think it wouldn't have both effects.

You are all in denial. D-E-N-I-A-L. What? No, I won't prove it...

People are seen as individuals and as members of groups all the time -- it depends on the person doing the viewing, and the assumptions he holds.

How you react depends a lot on your own assumptions as well as your own conscious choices.

Look, no one is saying racism doesn't exist. It exists in many forms - white on black, black on white, black on hispanic, hispanic on asian, etc.

That's different than arguing its effects, which is different again from arguing about the solutions.

My first proposed solution would be a logic class, required in elementary school...


Interesting, minorities failures are brought up all the time by whites. In public, in the media and even on this forum. Minorities are just supposed to "suck it up" and accept the judgement and wisdom of the majority that is busy looking down its nose at the minorities.

I don't know how many times I have read on this forum about what's wrong with blacks in this country from numerous whites. But if I, or anyone like me, says anything contrary to the group selective wisdom, we are ridiculous, unreasonable and we don't know what we are talking about. How dare we not accept the wisdom of whites?

However, when the flaws of the white majority are brought to light, not by a minority, but by one of their own, there is no acceptance that any of it could be true. There is denial, anger and resentment that it was even brought up. How dare you point out OUR fallacies? Treat me as an individual, not as my group! This person is a white apologist!

How are you going to do anything about it if there is no recognition that it even occurs? How are you going to do anything about if the issues are marginalized by the very people who are part of it. That was the point of the opinion piece and each response about the piece keeps illustrating the points.

I'm finding the reactions amusing because none of this was a personal attack on anybody. Minorities have this done to them on a regular basis and we are expected to be reasonable and rational. But when the shoe is on the other foot, the majority doesn't see so clearly, do they? The majority in this country is so good at telling minorities what they need to do to "fix" themselves. Why can't the majority take same approach to "fix" themselves as well. I guess that would require being honest with themselves first. In other words, you are throwing stones and you live in glass houses.


I totally understand your frustration in being stereo-typed. Maybe I had to put up with it more than most whites because of my upbringing. I take it extremely personal when I am stereotyped like this.

I think that there is a fair amount of "non-white privelage" as well. Which goes back to my statement to ProfX - until there is an open and honest (warts and all) dialogue opened up, neither side will ever understand the other.

Do you want honesty, or some white-assed apologist telling you that you are right, and that the white man really is as evil as you think?

Honesty means just what it says. Getting apologists that know absolutely nothing about race relations to side with you is accomplishing nothing other than feeding yet another stereotype.

You really want to have an honest discussion about race? I'll be the first one to sign up. You want to take turns bashing our respective colors as many of these "discussions" end up doing, and I pass.

I have the same issues with stereotyping as you. If that is the reason you posted this article, then I agree wholeheartedly with you that it occurs, and it is wrong as hell. BUT - like it or not - it has become a two way street.


First off, I assume the "looting" in New Orleans to which you are referring is identical to the "looting" to which Kanye West was referring. For my part, admittedly, I knew looting was going on in New Orleans, but the discrepancy didn't occur to me until Kanye West said something.

In your estimation, Prof., were the cameramen in New Orleans deliberately looking for black looters or were they just looking for the nearest picture of looting and the perps just happened to be black either through criminal intent or just local population bias? The former is very plausible (even likely in LA), but if it was the latter what should be done? Should the cameramen only shoot footage of white looters? Should they only shoot footage of looting in neighborhoods with no population bias or a bias towards non-ethnic people?

I agree that the situation(s) above eschews the problem of racist cameramen/reporting (it also eschews the problem of Kanye West's fair and unbiased reporting in my situation), but my point is that racism (in either direction) is a slippery slope, and if I'm wrong and it's not, why not?