An American Perspective
The Ferguson shooting and protests over its trial remind us of the growing awareness of institutionalized racism in the United States. This growing consciousness – as evidenced by the Jon Stewart & Bill O’Reilly debate, endless Facebook memes, and campaigns like Black Lives Matter – has lent itself into addressing what is commonly referred to as ‘white privilege’. This concept is still debated among those who believe that being white offers no additional privileges in society and those who believe that being white equates to additional societal benefits, such as lower likelihood of being stopped by police, or more favorable bank loan term conditions. What is often missing from the ‘white privilege’ narrative, however, is the role of ‘people-of-color’ (POC) in addressing the roots of racial privilege. Thinking about this privilege structure beyond whether it exists or not and further delving into its origins and evolution reflects the need to engage in one of the largest ideological protests of the 21st century – European cultural imperialism.
Upon accepting that white privilege exists in the US, there are a few ways in which this narrative takes shape. One is the ‘white burdening’ or ‘white guilt’ story in which people who benefit from whiteness feel a sense of guilt because of unfair power structures. The other is the more progressive narrative of solidarity, in which those who are awarded privilege are conscious about it and choose to stand in solidarity with the POC-struggle, whatever that may be. I formerly subscribed to the latter view, believing that guilt was neither healthy nor necessary and rather valuing notions of cooperation. However, as yet another round of debates is sparked over the Ferguson shooting leading myself to engage in the same conversations about whiteness with my peers, I realize how redundant the ‘white guilt’ or ‘solidarity’ prescriptions are. They do little to address the roots of white privilege or to create an inclusive society.
Acknowledging white privilege as a power structure should lead to the next logical step of investigating its origins, why it perpetuates, and how this can be counteracted. I do not generally see dialogue progressing to this point; instead, I often find the role of the POC overlooked and the focus to be on whiteness, and where those who are not white fall in relation to it. What is important to remember, however, is the POC in serving to advance understandings of culture, identity, and history, and perhaps how their cultural background has informed contemporary societies and historical contributions. The debate as-it-stands continues the rhetorical distancing of continuing to Other ourselves as “people-of-color.” If I am a person-of-color, who am a person-of-color to? Who am I perpetuating as the norm, while wanting to dismantle the notion of a norm in the pursuit of a genuinely multi-cultural, non-discriminatory, and inclusive society? Racial categories reference a static-point-in-time depiction of race and identity, and so – despite the fluidity of these constructions – there is a real risk of perpetuating the Other as Other when addressing white privilege.
While many academic disciplines – social sciences in particular – are becoming increasingly cognizant of their Eurocentric origins, there should be an equal advocacy in the community for those in under-served racial communities to re-appropriate their narratives and centralize their stories. While it is also important for those who benefit from favorable power structures to learn about their privilege and attempt to better understand the non-privileged struggle, those not afforded white privilege have an instrumental part to play: Empowering themselves through their own narratives. The question is not “How do you address white privilege?” but rather “How can I counteract the historical development and further evolution of this privilege?”
Affirmative action programs that redress gains are still needed to directly redistribute opportunity. However, to address the discursive reproductions of ‘white privilege’, those of us from less-privileged backgrounds have a duty to ourselves and our ancestral culture heritage and history to shed light on the retelling of our stories and the ways in which our own cultures have contributed to modern society advances. There are endless examples of this, such as Native Americans’ practices of democracy prior to Western contact or the historical advances in medicine by the Arab world.
The true protest of the mind is one that can challenge mental hegemony, one that disrupts thought patterns, and creates an alternative understanding of the world and people. In an effort to engage in this type of protest, I have been trying to read about my own ancestral contributions to society, and engage in literature from Muslim and South Asian writers. I look to examples from Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese professor, who spent part of his life counteracting the commonly held (and Western propagated idea) belief of a Caucasian Egypt. His studies evidenced the precolonial African cultures in ancient Egypt and found that Egypt was founded and ruled by black Africans. This ‘black Egypt’ gave rise to civilizations throughout Africa and the Mediterranean. These stories have been sidelined by history, and if we want to have more than just an acknowledgment from the dominant groups that they benefit from privilege, there must be an alternative story to tell. A story that counteracts the perpetuation of privilege, the psychology of whiteness, and the continuing ‘coloring’ of ourselves as others in relation to white Europeans.
We are in a post-colonial world, where whiteness prevails and reasserts itself as the dominant form of political philosophy, sociology, and history. This prevalence is very real and shapes how we view ourselves, our identities, and our histories. The ideological protest is often the most difficult one to pursue, because it requires critical insight into our own identities and what we constitute as reality. However, it is a time where we need to aggressively reconfigure structures of power in light of our search for new and sustainable societies. We should be pushing one another to move past simply acknowledging power structures, and work to active redefine and reshape them. Only then will we not just be countering hegemonic whiteness, but we will actually be recreating a society that is inclusive and accepting of different people and their stories. In other words, a true protest of our minds, hearts, and bodies.
Sabrina Nasir’s experiences living in California, Hawaii, and England have shaped her interests in race relations and perceptions of race. She is interested in the ideological remnants of colonization, such as white privilege and eurocentrism, and is interested in understanding how these privileges are perpetuated through perceptions of normalcy.