What ‘White Privilege’ Really Means

George Yancy and Naomi Zack, New York Times, November 4, 2014

This is the first in a series of interviews with philosophers on race that I am conducting for The Stone. This week’s conversation is with Naomi Zack, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon and the author of “The Ethics and Mores of Race: Equality After the History of Philosophy.”  The interview was conducted by email and edited. — George Yancy

George Yancy: What motivates you to work as a philosopher in the area of race?

Naomi Zack: I am mainly motivated by a great need to work and not to be bored, and I have a critical bent. I think there is a lot of work to be done concerning race in the United States, and a lot of ignorance and unfairness that still needs to be uncovered and corrected. I received my doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University in 1970 and then became absent from academia until 1990. When I returned it had become possible to write about real issues and apply analytic skills to social ills and other practical forms of injustice. My first book, “Race and Mixed Race” (1991) was an analysis of the incoherence of U.S. black/white racial categories in their failure to allow for mixed race. In “Philosophy of Science and Race,” I examined the lack of a scientific foundation for biological notions of human races, and in “The Ethics and Mores of Race,” I turned to the absence of ideas of universal human equality in the Western philosophical tradition.

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G.Y.: How can critical philosophy of race shed unique light on what has happened, and is still happening, in Ferguson, Mo.?

N.Z.: Critical philosophy of race, like critical race theory in legal studies, seeks to understand the disadvantages of nonwhite racial groups in society (blacks especially) by understanding social customs, laws, and legal practices. What’s happening in Ferguson is the result of several recent historical factors and deeply entrenched racial attitudes, as well as a breakdown in participatory democracy.

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G.Y.: Why do you think that young black men are disproportionately targeted?

N.Z.: Exactly why unarmed young black men are the target of choice, as opposed to unarmed young white women, or unarmed old black women, or even unarmed middle-aged college professors, is an expression of a long American tradition of suspicion and terrorization of members of those groups who have the lowest status in our society and have suffered the most extreme forms of oppression, for centuries. What’s happening now in Ferguson is the crystallization of our grief. Don’t Shoot!

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G.Y.: But aren’t young black males also stereotyped according to white racist assumptions?

N.Z.: Yes. Besides the police, a large segment of the white American public believes they are in danger from blacks, especially young black men, who they think want to rape young white women. This is an old piece of American mythology that has been invoked to justify crimes against black men, going back to lynching. The perceived danger of blacks becomes very intense when blacks are harmed. And so today, whenever an unarmed black man is shot by a police officer and the black community protests, whites in the area buy more guns.

This whole scenario is insane. The recent unarmed young black male victims of police and auxiliary police shootings have not been criminals. Their initial reactions to being confronted by police are surprise and outrage, because they cannot believe they are suspects or that merely looking black makes them suspicious. Maybe their grandfathers told them terrible stories, but after the Civil Rights movements and advancement for middle-class blacks, we are supposed to be beyond legally sanctioned racial persecution. Their parents may not have taught them the protocol for surviving police intervention. And right now the airwaves and Internet are buzzing with the anxiety of parents of young black men. They now have to caution their sons: “Yes, I know you don’t get into trouble, and I know you are going to college, but you have to listen to me about what to do and what not to do if you are ever stopped by the police. Your life depends on it. . . Don’t roll your eyes at me, have you heard what happened to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown?”

G.Y.: We can safely assume white parents don’t need to have this talk with their children. Do you think white privilege is at work in this context?

N.Z.: The term “white privilege” is misleading. A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right. But I think that is what “white privilege” is meant to convey, that whites don’t have many of the worries nonwhites, especially blacks, do. I was talking to a white friend of mine earlier today. He has always lived in the New York City area. He couldn’t see how the Michael Brown case had anything to do with him. I guess that would be an example of white privilege.

Other examples of white privilege include all of the ways that whites are unlikely to end up in prison for some of the same things blacks do, not having to worry about skin-color bias, not having to worry about being pulled over by the police while driving or stopped and frisked while walking in predominantly white neighborhoods, having more family wealth because your parents and other forebears were not subject to Jim Crow and slavery. Probably all of the ways in which whites are better off than blacks in our society are forms of white privilege. In the normal course of events, in the fullness of time, these differences will even out. But the sudden killings of innocent, unarmed youth bring it all to a head.

G.Y.: The fear of black bodies–the racist mythopoetic constructions of black bodies–has been perpetuated throughout the history of America. The myth of the black male rapist, for example, in “Birth of a Nation.” But even after the civil rights movements and other instances of raised awareness and progress, black bodies continue to be considered “phobogenic objects,” as Frantz Fanon would say.

N.Z.: Fanon, in his “Black Skin, White Masks,” first published in France, in 1952, quoted the reaction of a white child to him: “Look, a Negro! . . . Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” Over half a century later, it hasn’t changed much in the United States. Black people are still imagined to have a hyper-physicality in sports, entertainment, crime, sex, politics, and on the street. Black people are not seen as people with hearts and minds and hopes and skills but as cyphers that can stand in for anything whites themselves don’t want to be or think they can’t be. And so, from a black perspective, the black self that whites serve up to them is not who they are as human beings. This exaggeration of black physicality is dehumanizing.

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