White people, huh? Privilege, normalcy, and racism

“Go home!” was the shout I heard as I stood outside a grocery store in my rural Illinois town on Friday 16 September. I looked up in the direction of the shout to see two white boys in a red pick-up truck drive past a girl who looked as though she may have been Latina. The two boys were wearing the jerseys of the local high school American-football team.

I reported what I had witnessed to the high school’s principal, who emailed to say he’d look into it. A week later, I’m not sure what came of his investigation. Had the boys not been wearing football jerseys, I wouldn’t have been able to pass along any identifying information, but since they were wearing the jerseys, their actions appeared to grow out of the sense of privilege that’s all too common among white male football players in small towns.

These boys were acting like idiots, of course, and may not have been as truly hate-filled as some other local racist speeches I witnessed this summer. These young men can perhaps be taught that they were making a hasty judgment based only on someone’s looks, and that they were then acting in a hostile and aggressive way towards this girl. These boys can learn that they were bullying her, and perhaps these boys may gain a sense of sympathy towards others — or at the very least, they can learn not to shout racist shit while driving through the main road in town.

The more I thought about what I saw, the more I thought that these boys’ “go home” shout comes from a place of privilege, an idea I had been considering since reading this article. These white male athletes may not perceive of themselves as “privileged” (which word they would probably interpret as meaning “wealthy,” which these boys likely were not), though they do get attention, praise, and favorable treatment as athletes in what has come to seem the most-popular sport in the community. These boys likely think of themselves as “normal,” as “traditional.” Their families have lived in the U.S., or, maybe even in the same town, for a hundred years or more, which the girl’s family may not have. Of course, everyone in the U.S. who is not descended fully from Native Americans finds themselves here because of immigration, but the boys did not probably think of themselves this way. Had a person of Native American ancestry told these white boys to “go home,” they probably would’ve missed the point and laughed the comment off–part of being privileged is being able to laugh off criticism (and their own bad behavior), knowing that there are few if any consequences for bad behavior of those who are privileged.

These white boys probably do not even think of themselves as “white.” Many times I’ve heard white people tell stories where the race of the persons involved is mentioned only when the person’s race is not white–white is understood to be the default, or “normal,” racial background.

If a person perceives his own attitudes and actions being the norm, or “normal,” then differing attitudes or actions are “not normal.” If his belief in his own normalcy is acknowledge, consciously or not, by most of the people in his community, he may feel empowered to make judgments about those he considers “not normal.”

To be more precise: If I feel that I’m normal and that others who don’t do what I do are not-normal, then I’m a member of the privileged class. For example, if the language I use at home overlaps greatly with “Standard English,” then I don’t have to be aware of “code switching” when I meet other people. My speech is Standard, is normal, and I don’t have to adapt it. But if my home language is not English, or is a nonstandard dialect thereof, I must make the extra effort to learn the standard language, and I must switch to the standard language when I am in public or speaking to members of the standard group.

And if one speaks Standard English at home, one doesn’t even have to be aware that there are other ways to speak. If I happen to encounter a language that isn’t standard, I may consider it “wrong,” when it’s merely “non-standard.” When my grandmother asked me not long ago about why a certain group of people used language wrongly (in her opinion), I suggested to her that it’s not wrong but just different (and I didn’t point out the non-Standard English she was using). And of course, “Standard English” has been defined by those who already speak it as whatever their native, natural dialect is, and so the circle is completed.

And in this way, I think it’s all too easy for racial majorities to mistake what is particular or peculiar to them as being normal and/or standard. Then the white Americans can honestly, in good faith, say that they don’t see race or racial problems that non-white Americans can readily see.

So these things, like so many other things, simplify to issues not of truth but of perspective.

In Ogle County, my education, income, and lifestyle make me a member of the elite.  Only 17% of adults here have four-year college degrees, and my family’s income exceeds the average household income of $56,400 — so we’re elite. Clearly, we’re not elite when we’re in Chicago, and even less so in Lake Forest, and if I traveled to a place where I didn’t speak the language, I may face the same kind of bullying that the girl mentioned above experienced.

We sense these differences, we can sense our perspectives change, when we travel to different places and meet different people, but a lot of my fellow Ogle County residents don’t often leave the county, and a lot of people shouting and commenting — with a lot of certainty in their beliefs — about race are like my grandmother, who hasn’t been in an area as multiracial as Chicago in decades.

When we become aware–when we really, intuitively feel–that there are other people in the world whose sense of normal is different from our own, we may sense that our privilege is not absolute, and we may become more cautious in judging others by our own standards. We may realize that we don’t want to presume what someone else’s perspective is, which is what I’ve seen my grandmother do. I know she does not hate people who are different from her, but she thinks she knows what’s best, she thinks her perspective should be normal, standard, and she’s not allowing others the legitimacy of their own perspectives, informed by their own experiences.

A final thought on perspectives and beliefs: We were talking in one of my sophomore English classes about the belief in some of the Greeks myths (such as that of Pereus) that Fate is inescapable. I suggested to students that saying things happen because of “Fate” is about the same as saying that things happen because “it’s God’s will” or “God’s plan” or “everything happens for a reason.” A student said, “but everything does happen for a reason.” I said something like, “that’s what you believe, but not everybody does.”

This awareness of one’s own beliefs, along with one’s own assumptions and expectations, is something that I myself have developed at what, in retrospect, seems a humblingly slow pace. As a white man myself, I have only recently become aware of my own privilege. I didn’t used to realize that I was taking my own perspective as the “default” perspective, as the norm, and judging as not-normal or wrong those who didn’t share my beliefs. I can’t claim that I’ve learned enough, of course, but I do feel that the wisest thing I’ve learned is to not be so certain in my understandings and in my claims. It feels wise when I can accept uncertainty and mystery and that I can accept the legitimacy of even those beliefs that disagree with mine (but that’s a tough one, as when I see things that seem morally wrong, like the bullying I described above).

This idea is something that Pope Francis spoke about in an interview published this week (quoted here):

In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing … We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

15 responses to “White people, huh? Privilege, normalcy, and racism

  1. All I can say is, “WOW.” This stopped me in my tracks and made me think … think again … and then think yet again. It says everything I have ever felt about this subject. I comprehend the sense of entitlement here, and as a writer I have long noted that in American fiction a “Woman ran to catch bus,” unless she isn’t white, in which case, “I Latina ran to catch the bus,” or “A young Asian woman …” or … or … In any event, this is inspirational blogging at its absolute best! Congratulations and good on, my friend.

    • Thanks for your comment, and thanks so much for reading the post. I have felt bad at times when I’ve witnessed racist acts, and I’ve often not known what to do. I suppose this post is my attempt to make up for my previous inactions.

  2. A reblogué ceci sur French Culture, Paris, Music, Literature and Insightfully Gay Tidbits and commented:
    I have been exceedingly thought-provoked by this excellent blog post. I love it. This is deep, courageous and spot-on. Kudos.

  3. Reblogged this on Adam from Norway's Main Blog and commented:
    Well-written essay!

  4. Thanks Matt you hit the nail on the head……something I really never thought of, until I lived in Europe for a year and 1/2….I realized I was the “different one” who could not speak the native tongue or blend in to their culture. It was an eye opener, very humbling, especially since most Americans traveling to other countries, first arrive feeling privileged, however if they stay long enough or travel a lot, the soon learn what “ignorant clots” we can be…….I remember talking to a man pushing a broom in the streets and he had more knowledge of other cultures and their history in his, as they say, “little finger”, than most Americans can’t even begin to comprehend.

  5. Adam, thanks for encouraging Matt…..I’ve always said he was an excellent, thought provoking writer…he also can be a very humorous writer.

  6. Sadly this exact incident happened in another small Illinois town when I was in high school. I was on the football team and some of my friends (also on team) were at a social event and a girl came by with her out-of-town boyfriend (not white). They were aggressively directed to leave using similar language and members of the group rapidly began to act stirred to chase them but didn’t.

    This was in the 1990s, and I’ve not lived in the Midwest since, and love to tell myself time has certainly changed that town and places like it. Unfortunately, it clearly hasn’t. Great essay.

  7. Thanks for reading, and for your comments. I’m sure change will happen as the older generations die and those who replace them are more open-minded — at least that’s the trend I think I see in my teenaged students. Change does come slowly, though, to the so-called heartland.

  8. This is a truly brilliant essay.

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