I don’t think I was born white. I think white children are manufactured.
November 5, 2014 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Quinn Norton: The White Problem & How White People Got Made

from The White Problem (A Series on Whiteness, Part One):
There is a social process wherein neutral children get assimilated into the white race. I imagine there is something similar that happens to black children, but as I didn’t experience it, I don’t know much about it. This process is not contingent on the pallor of a child’s skin — there are plenty of pale people of color as well as swarthy white people. White beauty norms has never been the extent of whiteness. The making of white children has to do with how adults behave towards you, and others around you, on the street, at the playground, and the books you read and the ads you see. The white race is reconstructed, millions and millions of times, in each person’s life, growing up in America. And a defining part of that construction is inevitably a denial that it is happening at all. [...]

Contemporary whiteness in schools and neighborhoods is a collection of incompatible messages. Don’t be prejudiced against black people, we are told, who are poor and criminal. Here is a month we will study black people, and write an essay. We cannot openly criticize black people, that would be racist, but we will violently protect you from them, even in your own schools. This is black music — jazz, maybe even some Motown — and we study and respect it (now that its popularity has passed). This is rap, and we ban it for being violent and about gangs. We will ban red and blue from our school for the safety of our children, but really, we’re banning it from the black and latino children, which is how we protect all of the children...

All of this is crazy, and it makes the children trying to assimilate it crazy too. The white race is reinvented again for every person born through a practice that is gaslighting children into a state of constant cognitive dissonance.
from How White People Got Made (A Series on Whiteness, Part Two):
There’s a perception that whiteness is working for white people. It’s not. Whiteness is one of the biggest and most long-running scams ever perpetrated. [...]

As the aristocrats and their successors traveled around the world through the colonial age, Europeans all over would find or define a group within the colonial territory and elevate it above the other groups, give it some privileges, though never enough to challenge the intruding rulers. In exchange for this slightly elevated status, the rulers would make those people do the colonial dirty work, and usually keep them slightly more well off than their fellows. Over time, these slightly elevated people often tried to keep their European masters in power even after the people realized how evil colonialism was, maintaining the system both to keep above their fellows and out of fear of retaliation for the dirty work they’d done. The most familiar contemporary case of this practice people will recognize is the Belgian categorization of Tutsis and Hutus, and the tragedy that still hangs over that arrangement over a century later. But really, the idea started in Virginia. The invented category of white people is still the largest case of this colonial strategy in the world...

So privilege doesn’t really work for the people who have it, or at least not the way many people imagine it does. Some white privileges are basic human rights, like the right to live where you wish in safety from your neighbors and the local police. Others shouldn’t be privileges for anyone at all, like preferred medical treatment based on race. White privilege is sold to whites, but it is the socio-political equivalent of putting “Contains No Arsenic!” on a breakfast cereal box. White folk have bought into that message tremendously. I mean, who wants a breakfast cereal with arsenic in it? Of course, the problem is there’s no reason cereal should ever have arsenic in it in the first place.

Just to keep things plausible, the political arsenic keeps getting introduced into the metaphorical food supply. Perpetual bondage as chattel slaves, Jim Crow, and the current drug war are things terrible enough that white people are happy to accept getting out of them, and into a failed health insurance system, outrageous levels of military spending, failing schools for their children, and even actual arsenic in their food supply. The idea that people should be denied rights because of an organizing principle of 17th century aristocratic control baffles conception, even as it shapes our practical and political lives on a daily basis. It is to the political benefit of the existing system to keep whites, especially poor whites with little more than their whiteness to be proud of. It makes for a predictable political group. Whites thus managed will vote and flock to issues as reliably as tides.

The situation is deeply miserable, even for those living slightly higher up on the shit pile. The biggest two indicators that someone will commit suicide in America are the two boxes they check on the census that are supposed to confer the most safety from misery, and the most advantage one could have in our society: white, and male. What could accuse privilege of failure more than seeking one’s own violent end?
*Whiteness: further reading & partial sources

previously on MeFi -
Quinn Norton: I have seen the tops of clouds - a day of speaking truth to power - everything is broken
Tim Wise: reading racism right to left
Louis CK: I'm saying being white is way better
Ta-Nehisi Coates: the ghetto is public policy - the case for reparations
and also why teaching equality hurts men & mirrors of privilege/making whiteness visible
posted by flex (24 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
There is a social process wherein neutral children get assimilated into the white race. I imagine there is something similar that happens to black children, but as I didn’t experience it, I don’t know much about it.

there are very large literatures of anthropological, sociological, and historical analyses on this general topic, not just limited to whiteness and blackness...
posted by Bwithh at 2:47 PM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


How White People Got Made

Well first you get yourself a mold and a whole lot of caulk....
posted by JHarris at 3:03 PM on November 5, 2014


Learning to Be White, Thandeka.
posted by rikschell at 3:08 PM on November 5, 2014


This is exactly what I needed today. I have been turning over in my uninformed way the poetic idea that our problems now are the result of our racism and exploitation of others since forever, but I didn't have any sort of framework other than "doing shitty things in the past has lead to a shitty present for everyone." This is much more coherent and so useful for organizing my thoughts on race. Thank you.

(though I would certainly welcome a response by a black writer pointing out any missed nuances)
posted by emjaybee at 3:13 PM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


That was some insightful work. I am now reminded that I have barely read through my friend's copy of Baratunde Thurston's How to be Black.
posted by halifix at 4:50 PM on November 5, 2014


Boy that King James was a real fucking prick, wasn't he?
posted by symbioid at 4:54 PM on November 5, 2014


So privilege doesn’t really work for the people who have it, or at least not the way many people imagine it does. Some white privileges are basic human rights, like the right to live where you wish in safety from your neighbors and the local police. Others shouldn’t be privileges for anyone at all, like preferred medical treatment based on race. White privilege is sold to whites, but it is the socio-political equivalent of putting “Contains No Arsenic!” on a breakfast cereal box

This isn't my understanding of the privilege issue. People don't imagine it working, it simply is, and it isn't sold to whites, it simply exists, in certain times and places, without being announced. It's when it's not recognized as privilege, but rather seen as an entitlement, to the detriment of those who don't have it, that it becomes problematic. acting as if it's a commodity shows a misunderstanding, to my eye.
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:30 PM on November 5, 2014


How White People Got Made

Well first you get yourself a mold and a whole lot of caulk....
In the Filipino folklore that I learned when was I growing up, we were given this story that when God made the world, he took some clay, and fashioned it in the shape of a man. He baked the clay in an oven but he took it out too early and thought the man was underdone, so he put the man in one part world and then tried again. The second man was left in the oven for too long, and came out very dark, so he put that man somewhere else, and tried again. This man came out just right, and he put him in the Philippines, which is paradise on earth.

That's how I was taught how white people were made when I was five.
posted by bl1nk at 5:55 PM on November 5, 2014 [18 favorites]


I think white children are manufactured

They are. And, ironically enough, the factory is in China.
posted by jonmc at 7:21 PM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


"This isn't my understanding of the privilege issue. People don't imagine it working, it simply is, and it isn't sold to whites, it simply exists, in certain times and places, without being announced. It's when it's not recognized as privilege, but rather seen as an entitlement, to the detriment of those who don't have it, that it becomes problematic. acting as if it's a commodity shows a misunderstanding, to my eye."

That's not how the term "white privilege" is used though. Hell, even on here, when talking about an article in which a white guy punched a black guy and the cops came and started to arrest the black guy even though the white guy said that he was the one who started the fight, somebody on here said that the white guy was "exercising his white privilege". They didn't say that the cops were violating the black guy's civil and human rights. No, instead it was somehow twisted into "exercising white privilege" when, in reality, the white guy was shocked at the way the cops were being racists. The terrible thing is that the author of the piece, the white guy in question, himself called the racism that was done by the cops "white privilege". It obviously wasn't. It was a violation of the black guy's civil rights and an act of overt racism by the 2 cops in the story.
posted by I-baLL at 11:52 PM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


The terrible thing is that the author of the piece, the white guy in question, himself called the racism that was done by the cops "white privilege". It obviously wasn't. It was a violation of the black guy's civil rights and an act of overt racism by the 2 cops in the story.

Why can't it be both? The black guy is the recipient of overt racism. The white guy benefits (not intentionally) from the privilege he has, that he can exercise bad judgement in this instance and not suffer the consequences.

Having this privilege doesn't automatically make the white guy a Bad Racist. It just makes him a guy who got a leg-up in life because of his skin colour, a fact which he might do well to remember now that he has been made aware of it.
posted by emilyw at 2:45 AM on November 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


The big problem with the word "privilege" is that in its commonly-understood sense, it means something like an extra right or dispensation on top of basic ones, and something that can be taken away ("revoke your parking privileges"). So when we use it to describe the essential rights that all people should have but only some do, many people in positions of unearned institutional power react indignantly, because it suggests to them that they enjoy some extra power, and it suggests to them that what power they have can be taken away.

This also leads to people disavowing their whiteness, because if they have this power, then they have the power to abdicate it. But none of that is really what people mean in social justice terms when they use the word "privilege". White "privilege" is not an overlaid extra power, and it is also not something that can be removed or rejected. Another reason it's a word that produces unnecessary misunderstanding is because it also produces a sense that people of color are envious of and desirous of the extra power that white people have, and if power is a zero-sum game, then it means that people of color want to take white people's power away from them and give it to themselves. Lots of white people don't think they have any power to oppress, but they're afraid that people of color think they do, and are trying to gain power in order to turn the tables and oppress them. This is what happens when a society insists on the zero-sum social scenario and that every win must produce an equal and opposite loss.

A power you can't stop having is not a power under your control or that you can exercise. The word "privilege" only ever makes sense in a relational space, and it arises out of an attempt to shift the common understanding of what is normal. That's probably a good thing to do, but it's better to conceive of this as a space in which the normative is ever-shifting, where normative power is arbitrarily bestowed according to convenience. If white people have "privilege", then they're not normal, and no one's ever had an easy time adjusting to that idea. It is important that white people in general stop assuming their experience to be the norm or default, but that doesn't require insisting that they are special despite themselves and also that they shouldn't be so knock it off.
posted by Errant at 11:26 AM on November 6, 2014 [11 favorites]


Those were great pieces, thanks.

So privilege doesn’t really work for the people who have it, or at least not the way many people imagine it does. Some white privileges are basic human rights, like the right to live where you wish in safety from your neighbors and the local police. Others shouldn’t be privileges for anyone at all, like preferred medical treatment based on race. White privilege is sold to whites, but it is the socio-political equivalent of putting “Contains No Arsenic!” on a breakfast cereal box

>>This isn't my understanding of the privilege issue. People don't imagine it working, it simply is, and it isn't sold to whites, it simply exists, in certain times and places, without being announced. It's when it's not recognized as privilege, but rather seen as an entitlement, to the detriment of those who don't have it, that it becomes problematic. acting as if it's a commodity shows a misunderstanding, to my eye.


I think in the way he presents it, though, it does, especially because he's talking about how children begin to learn they're "white." We do notice unequal treatment as kids, and we're told it's rude to talk about it. We do notice racism as adults, and we're told it's not really racism (It's class! It's education! It's single mothers! It's criminal fathers!) and we choose to believe it. We (whites) are absolutely sold white privilege -- the ability to ignore the massive fucking inequality in our society and in the world -- and we absolutely buy it, at such a deep level that it stops being a conscious act and becomes "common sense" or "Yeah, well, shrug, whaddya gonna do?"

If white people stopped buying into white privilege -- if we all objected each and every time we noticed we were being given advantages that people of color were not -- white privilege would come tumbling down.
posted by jaguar at 7:32 AM on November 7, 2014


just to keep things clear -- there was a reference upthread about an article written by a white person talking about getting involved in a fight with a black person and the cops treating the black person unfairly. References to this white author are male.

The author of the excellent articles referenced in the FPP, Quinn Norton, is a woman.

(speaking of another bit of lazy default classifications that we sometimes perform)
posted by bl1nk at 9:00 AM on November 7, 2014


blink: "(speaking of another bit of lazy default classifications that we sometimes perform)"

Hmm? I was referencing a previous FPP which featured an article written by Matt Zoller Seitz.
posted by I-baLL at 10:01 AM on November 7, 2014


The author of the excellent articles referenced in the FPP, Quinn Norton, is a woman.

Oops, yep, my fault. I did read the author's name but assumed "Quinn" was a man's name. Thanks for the correction!
posted by jaguar at 10:04 AM on November 7, 2014


The big problem with the word "privilege" is that in its commonly-understood sense, it means something like an extra right or dispensation on top of basic ones, and something that can be taken away ("revoke your parking privileges").

That's not the problem with it, that's the intent.

So when we use it to describe the essential rights that all people should have but only some do, many people in positions of unearned institutional power react indignantly, because it suggests to them that they enjoy some extra power, and it suggests to them that what power they have can be taken away.

Yes, that's correct. The problem is people who don't understand that.

This also leads to people disavowing their whiteness, because if they have this power, then they have the power to abdicate it. But none of that is really what people mean in social justice terms when they use the word "privilege". White "privilege" is not an overlaid extra power, and it is also not something that can be removed or rejected.

It is, that's the entire issue.

Another reason it's a word that produces unnecessary misunderstanding is because it also produces a sense that people of color are envious of and desirous of the extra power that white people have, and if power is a zero-sum game, then it means that people of color want to take white people's power away from them and give it to themselves.

That is exactly correct. That's not a misunderstanding. White people enjoy unprecedented wealth and safety, as aristocrats did before them, on the back of local and global racial hierarchies. People of color do want to take this power away, as it's unjust for them to have it off our backs.

Lots of white people don't think they have any power to oppress, but they're afraid that people of color think they do, and are trying to gain power in order to turn the tables and oppress them. This is what happens when a society insists on the zero-sum social scenario and that every win must produce an equal and opposite loss.
It's a problem when people who think they're on the "right side" don't really understand what "privilege" and "undue advantage" actually means (it is indeed a zero-sum situation).

A power you can't stop having is not a power under your control or that you can exercise.

That doesn't necessarily follow.

The word "privilege" only ever makes sense in a relational space, and it arises out of an attempt to shift the common understanding of what is normal. That's probably a good thing to do, but it's better to conceive of this as a space in which the normative is ever-shifting, where normative power is arbitrarily bestowed according to convenience. If white people have "privilege", then they're not normal, and no one's ever had an easy time adjusting to that idea.
It is important that white people in general stop assuming their experience to be the norm or default, but that doesn't require insisting that they are special despite themselves and also that they shouldn't be so knock it off.


Defining normalcy is a significant aspect of white privilege but the concept of identifying the global race-based hierarchical system that effects so much of global economics and politics is a little bit bigger than shifting normative power.
posted by deathmaven at 10:42 AM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


White people enjoy unprecedented wealth and safety because others are discriminated against and oppressed, not because they themselves do anything special. That's why the backpack is invisible. It's not that they get a leg up, it's that everyone else gets crushed. Of course people of color want to stop being oppressed, and of course it is white supremacy that oppresses them, coded into the fabric of our institutions and society.

That is exactly correct. That's not a misunderstanding. White people enjoy unprecedented wealth and safety, as aristocrats did before them, on the back of local and global racial hierarchies. People of color do want to take this power away, as it's unjust for them to have it off our backs.

The point I was trying to make is that white people are afraid that people of color wish to assert an unjust power themselves. That's what I meant by "and give it to themselves". They are afraid that people of color want to oppress them; they are afraid of revenge.

Privilege is not a zero-sum economy, and here's how you can tell: we ask people in positions of unearned power to extend their privilege all the time. We ask them to use their authority to make room for minority voices, to advocate without usurping, and to be expressively silent. When they do that, they don't lose any power, but minorities gain power. It's not that there is an exchange of power, it's that the majority power becomes less privileged in perspective, by virtue of the closing gap.

When you say "White people enjoy unprecedented wealth and safety, as aristocrats did before them, on the back of local and global racial hierarchies. People of color do want to take this power away, as it's unjust for them to have it off our backs.", you are literally arguing for white people to become less safe, and you are arguing that that is a primary goal of people of color. Put that way, why would any white person support social justice or advocate for people of color? It would be utterly contrary to their interests. I don't believe social justice is contrary to the interests of white people, much like I don't believe universal health care or government financial protections are contrary to the interests of Tea Party Republicans or libertarians. I don't think an increase in social justice means a decrease in anyone's safety. I don't believe white people lose anything when others are no longer oppressed by white supremacy; indeed, I think they have plenty to gain. Much like sexist masculinity is a cage which traps men into narrow roles and expression, I think white supremacy obstructs and hampers cultural growth.

White people cannot simply reject their unearned power, either individually or institutionally. That's not how the machine works. They can't fix it by being less white, and they can't fix it by treating people of color like white people. The social apparatus which distributes power unevenly must be dismantled, but I don't think it can be dismantled by adhering to its insistence on cutting throats and breaking backs, or the policies that necessitate those methods as proof of potency.

I don't think privilege is a good enough word to describe the inequity that exists or the mechanics by which that inequity persists, partly because it means too many other things that I don't think quite obtain. If you are perfectly happy with it, that's fair enough. I still use it, because I haven't come up with anything better yet, but I think there's still something better to come up with.
posted by Errant at 12:18 PM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


When you say "White people enjoy unprecedented wealth and safety, as aristocrats did before them, on the back of local and global racial hierarchies. People of color do want to take this power away, as it's unjust for them to have it off our backs.", you are literally arguing for white people to become less safe, and you are arguing that that is a primary goal of people of color.

It's a leftist goal in general. Think of anyone gathering an undue amount of resources, building a wall around themselves, and leaving everyone else to fight over what's left. Any change from that situation is going to leave that guy walled up with his treasure somewhat less safe.

Privilege is not a zero-sum economy, and here's how you can tell: we ask people in positions of unearned power to extend their privilege all the time. We ask them to use their authority to make room for minority voices, to advocate without usurping, and to be expressively silent. When they do that, they don't lose any power, but minorities gain power.

In the end game, those people wouldn't even have the choice to not make room for minority voices (the choice implicit in being asked to make room for minority voices); they'd have to fight along with minorities to get their voice heard. That's a loss of power.
posted by deathmaven at 12:32 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's a leftist goal in general. Think of anyone gathering an undue amount of resources, building a wall around themselves, and leaving everyone else to fight over what's left. Any change from that situation is going to leave that guy walled up with his treasure somewhat less safe.

A change from that situation and an increase in wealth and safety for others also increases the safety of the white person, because there is less need to return to the Hobbesian nature by virtue of an improved and equitable social contract. The treasure is less important than the perceived need for walls and the perceived need for hoarding. You may, at this point, determine that I am neither a Marxist nor do I therefore believe that Marxism is the one true leftist solution.

In the end game, those people wouldn't even have the choice to not make room for minority voices (the choice implicit in being asked to make room for minority voices); they'd have to fight along with minorities to get their voice heard. That's a loss of power.

But the reason that minorities have to fight now to get their voice heard is because the institution prefers the majority voice by actively suppressing the minority one. If the institution did not do that, if the distribution of attention were more equitable, the need for the fight would be less. For example, if black and female science/speculative fictions writers did not find so many barriers to entry and got published more accordingly with their merit, there would be no dearth of white and male science fiction writers getting published, nor any corresponding reduction in the awareness of their relative quality. If you are a singer and you join the choir, your voice is just as loud and just as heard as it was before; it's just not the only voice everyone is hearing anymore.

In exploring this I found a couple quotes from Lewis Gordon that, unsurprisingly, may express what I'm trying to say more finely:
A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things? ("Critical reflections on three popular tropes in the study of whiteness")

"This structure is a semiotic rearticulation of Du Bois' double consciousness thesis. The blacks can see themselves as seen through the eyes of whites, which means the positing of the white perspective as a possibility. The realization is that it is not a reciprocal relationship -- the white does not see the self as conditioned by the black but as a point of reference looking onto the black looking back onto the white as a white perspective.[sic] In other words, the black, as a genuine point of view, is eliminated in the relationship."("Race and the dialectics of culture")
posted by Errant at 1:08 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Washington Post: I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would protect them from discrimination. I was wrong.
Through no fault of their own, many white men, I think, are unaware or unappreciative of the white male privilege that they enjoy every day, which Wellesley professor McIntosh wrote about in her studies of race, gender, class and privilege. They have no idea how much they take for granted, or know of the burdens endured daily by many people in their own communities. Nor do they appreciate the lingering effects of such burdens and daily traumas. Perhaps many feel that racism is inconsequential, if not altogether dead. After all, as some of my white colleagues have pointed out cynically, how much racism can there be if the country elected a black president?

Let me say that to acknowledge that white male privilege exists does not mean that white privileged men are hostile or racist — or that all bad things that happen to black people are occurring only because of racial bigotry. But I am no better able to explain the lackadaisical response of the two white men to whom I reported the incident than I am able to explain the motives of the two white men who called my son a nigger in the first place.

And perhaps this is why it is so difficult to fairly and productively discuss the privilege (or burdens) that are enjoyed (or endured) by groups to which we don’t belong. Try as I may to see things from the perspective of a white person, I can see them only from the experience that I have as a black man and had as a black boy. As we observe each other and think that we have a close understanding of what it means to be black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, rich or poor, we really don’t — and very often we find ourselves gazing at each other through the wrong end of the telescope. We see things that we think are there but really aren’t. And the relevant subtleties linger just outside our view, eluding us.
posted by flex at 1:52 PM on November 8, 2014


If white people stopped buying into white privilege -- if we all objected each and every time we noticed we were being given advantages that people of color were not -- white privilege would come tumbling down.

But that's not social justice either. Do you really expect anyone to say "hey hassle me more at the airport, just like you do Muslims" or "walk on the other side of the street if you see me coming"? that's nuts.
Yes, we need to object strongly if we see injustice, yes, we need to teach children the golden rule, and that it doesn't mean only treating people who look like you do nicely. Ending white privilege means treating everyone respectfully, and putting aside the inclination to allow ingrained prejudice to guide behavior. it's less about bringing it down than it is about bringing everyone else into the party. not easy . i'll admit.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:46 PM on November 8, 2014


No, that's not what I mean. I mean all the white parents refusing to put their kids in private schools and hounding the public school officials about why the students of color have lower test scores. I mean all white people refusing to buy houses that cost more than the average American can afford, and refusing to buy those houses in mono-ethnic neighborhoods. I mean all the white CEOs refusing to accept raises until there is equal representation and equal pay among their company's workforce. I mean all white parents encouraging their children to keep asking "Why?" when confronted with racial inequality. I mean all white people refusing to buy any goods produced in sweatshops in disadvantaged countries. Et cetera.
posted by jaguar at 7:58 PM on November 8, 2014 [1 favorite]


I mean all white people refusing to buy houses that cost more than the average American can afford, and refusing to buy those houses in mono-ethnic neighborhoods.

A dark irony here is that young white professionals snapping up housing deals in non-white neighborhoods tends to evoke fear of "re-gentrification" and The Plan.

I'd like to say that I very much enjoyed the exchange between Errant and deathmaven. I'm sympathetic to both views, confusingly, and appreciate the dialectic.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:59 AM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


« Older Meet "Alex from Target"   |   NO ELEPHANTS, NO CASTLES, ALL LIES Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments