Tim Wise’s latest blog post titled “Imagine: Protest, Insurgency and the Workings of White Privilege” asks readers to play a game in which they imagine the public reaction to current events if the main actors were not white but black folks or other people of color. At first glance, the set up felt a little hokey to me. It reminded me a bit of Matthew McConaughey’s character’s strategy in the movie “A Time to Kill”–to get the white jury to imagine the young black girl’s suffering…and then to imagine she was white. However, I have to admit that the game–like the jury argument–was pretty powerful.
For example, Wise invites us to (and I quote):
- “Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters–the black protesters–spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government. Would these protesters–these black protesters with guns–be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose.
- Imagine that white members of Congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry, screaming, black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of those congressmen for not voting the way the black demonstrators desired. Would the protesters be seen as merely patriotic Americans voicing their opinions, or as an angry, potentially violent, and even insurrectionary mob? After all, this is what white Tea Party protesters did recently in Washington.
- Imagine that a popular black liberal website posted comments about the daughter of a white president, calling her “typical redneck trash,” or a “whore” whose mother entertains her by “making monkey sounds.” After all that’s comparable to what conservatives posted about Malia Obama on freerepublic.com last year, when they referred to her as “ghetto trash.”
Wise concludes that “Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it.” He goes on to say that is what white privilege is all about: “The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis.”
Wise ends his post with “Game over.” Yet, the game was on for one commenter who chose to challenge Wise point-by-point. In the commenter’s mind:
- The group of gun-toting protesters was representative of the country’s demographics (predominantly white), the protest was not “restrictively” white, and there must have been some black participants, thus…not white privilege.
- The video Tim posted did not show anyone spitting on members of Congress (no “hard” evidence) and the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a Tea Partier, thus…not white privilege.
- People criticized George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Sarah Palin’s daughter, thus…not white privilege.
This, I suggest, is also what white privilege is all about. It’s the ability to deny the significance of race, to narrowly define racism so as to exclude all but the most extreme (think KKK), to point to black participation as legitimizing/de-racializing, and to disregard this nation’s racist past as irrelevant to its present.
Perhaps we should play Wise’s game for real (but in our own context on issues that we care about) and see how the public responds. I’d be willing to bet the prototypical (white) American won’t be thinking about black folks’ constitutional rights…and no one will be calling us patriotic. Rather than game over, I say game on. Imagine that!
You can find Wise’s post at www.timwise.org, but you will have to click on Blog (At Red Room) to find it.