White Privilege

A column by Suzan Shown Harjo about unearned privilege among white Americans.

White privilege in America first stood for wealth advantage, the provenance of white men, no matter how amassed, deserved, shared or inbred. Among its prominent symbols are oil baron J.D. Rockefeller, Monopoly guy with a fistful of cash, television’s The Millionaire, film’s Gordon (“Greed is good”) Gekko and cartoonish tycoon Donald Trump.

The Republican presidential primary has supplied 2012 models for white and privileged Americans: Newt Gingrich, with his fat-cat “historian” consulting fees and half-million-dollar Tiffany account; Rick Santorum, with his McMansion in the suburbs of the Washington, D.C. he despises but cannot bear to leave; and the presumptive GOP nominee, Mr. 1%, Mitt Romney, with his car elevators, Cayman Islands shelters and undisclosed tax returns.

No one should have been surprised to learn that Romney has secret designs to gut the housing and education departments—two of the federal agencies most responsible for providing a leg up to the impoverished and disadvantaged—in order to help pay for his priority: tax breaks for billionaires.

It was no stunner either that his “all moms are working moms” rule does not apply to mothers on welfare; he says their toddlers should go to day care so the moms can have the “dignity of work.” That rich white men are out of touch with the majority of poor people and single parents is no news flash, although the past months’ headlines suggest otherwise.

What isn’t covered in the context of white privilege are such stories as the General Services Administration scandal over a 300-employee conference that cost $823,000 and continues to topple its top executives. The real scandal and a really good example of white privilege is the fact that the GSA officials who’ve resigned, been fired or remain under investigation were ever hired in responsible jobs and paid annual salaries at or near the quarter-million-dollar mark. Imagine so many non-white officials with such poor judgment (or even with good judgment) being hired in the first place.

Now we come to the overtly racial aspects of white privilege. Notice I did not mention Herman Cain, former Republican presidential candidate and past CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, as a model of white privilege. That’s because I have questions: if a black man joins white men and takes on their prejudices and their privileges, is he part of white privilege and is there such a thing as black privilege?

Similar questions could be asked about Justice Clarence Thomas, who is the second African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and whose white wife is an ardent opponent of President Obama. When Thomas votes against Native American land rights actions, does he do so as one who enjoys the privileges of white privilege, or does he have a unique perspective as a black man or from a perch of black privilege? When he joins the high court’s Catholic majority in citing the Catholic Church’s 500-plus-years-old Doctrine of Discovery as the first legal justification for the wholesale theft of Native lands, is he voting from white European (inherited American) privilege or simply as a practitioner of Catholicism?

Many white folks have privileged a certain history and narrative that whitewashes their ancestors’ actions and unclean hands, that justifies ongoing unjust or racist actions and that perpetuates their privilege. This is accomplished through legal, educational and social systems, where only certain privileged ones may dissect race and other races in “scholarly,” “scientific” or “objective” terms.

An example of this is in American sports, where only the Native Peoples, to the exclusion of all others, are lampooned, dehumanized and slurred. When African American fans of the Washington, D.C. football team defend its disparaging name, are they acting out of white privilege or black privilege; and, if the latter, why? When Native American fans of teams with racist stereotypes defend them, are they just floating down the mainstream? Are they acting out of white privilege or Native privilege and, if the latter, what on earth would that be?

All sorts of excuses are made for whites who harm non-whites, mainly that they act out of fear. No one really acknowledges what their fear is: That non-whites, once in charge of anything, will be as bad to the whites as they have been to us.

George Zimmerman’s defense against murder will likely be “fear.” He was booked as “white” after he profiled, stalked, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, who was walking home. With one parent who is white and the other from Peru, the shooter’s been reported as Hispanic, white Hispanic or white. Radio personality Rush Limbaugh, one of the most ostentatiously privileged of the white media, froths at the mouth when Zimmerman is called white or white Hispanic, or the killing of the teenager was a white-on-black crime.

Too much white privilege; too few answers.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), an award-winning columnist and a poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples to protect sacred places and recover more than 1 million acres of land, is president of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C.