Dude, your white privilege is showing

Last night I was at the Seattle Center to see a show. As I was taking a dance break off on the side, a young white dude walked by me wearing this shirt.

This shirt is NO. You would think that would go without saying, but I guess this dude needs me to break it down for him. And while I understand that explaining white privilege to some is like trying to explain water to a fish, I feel the need to try. This post is for the hipsters and young’uns who think they are being post-racial and/or ironic, you are not.

So to all those people who think this is funny, I’m gonna let you in on the part of the joke that you don’t seem to get, after the jump.

I get that the internet has made you brave

I came home and did some research. It seems this shirt started as a riff on Successories. There is no shortage of similar such images, many are really funny:

But there are some ugly ones directed at every group imaginable– gay, poor, heavy, people of color, even Britney Spears. It’s got me  thinking about how the internet has enabled ignorant, hurtful people to share their hate with others. It’s so much easier for a coward to share a racist joke or picture through the internet, than it is to tell it to a person standing in front of you.

The same goes for consumption of this mess. It’s easy to laugh at it alone from the privacy of your laptop and share it with like-minded individuals,  knowing others will not think less of you for doing it. And I think there’s a weird validation that comes back to the sender. People who don’t agree are tend to simply ignore it, while people who share similar views are likely to give some positive feedback. Thus the coward becomes further emboldened and this garbage gets normalized. All without ever having to face the group you have disparaged or others that would call you out for what you are: a racist.

And don’t think the pyramid picture makes it less offensive

I can hear the dude of questionable judgment in my head, “It’s no big deal. It’s not even talking about slavery in the US, it’s referring to the pyramids.” But let’s be honest,  that argument holds no water. The shirt is shocking and I would argue that few people see past the words. I didn’t even register the pyramid graphic until I googled the shirt later on from home.

When you wear that shirt to a public venue populated by families and people of many races, it calls to mind one thing: our nation’s ugly past. And I can see a shirt like that and know that I am dealing with a fool, but what of younger people of color who don’t yet possess such critical thinking skills? They see a bad joke at their expense, worn by a person who seems to revel in the fact that he can get away with it. I gave him the stink eye when he passed, making it clear I was not amused. He looked right back at me and kept walking. There was no shame in his game, he seemed pleased with himself.

Yeah, it’s dumb, but why is that white privilege?

The following excerpts are taken from White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by By Peggy McIntosh. I strongly recommend you read the article in its entirety, it will forever change your perspective on what it means to be white:

As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage. I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence. My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person or as a participant in a damaged culture.

I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms.

If you think color is unimportant, you are probably white

It’s a luxury to be able to spend most of your time surrounded by people of your own race. It is also a luxury to get to be completely oblivious to how your actions affect people of other races. And a function of white privilege is to keep white people blind to the fact that this is their reality. Very few people of color have such a luxury. And depending on their race and where they live, such oblivion could be dangerous.

I keep thinking that if a black dude had been walking around in a shirt that said, “9/11/01: Because this country has too many white people,” he would have been much more likely to have been confronted by offended people. This dude can wear this shirt because he knows most of the people who see him are not the group he is disparaging. And as Jen Graves pointed out, you can spend most of your time in a white Seattle if you so choose. I’ll bet few people even bothered to give him the stink eye, because Seattleites are so above such messy issues.

This dude can wear the shirt because his color is not an issue to him and he lives in a culture that allows such mess, as long as it a white person doing it to a person of color. I keep thinking about another quote from Jen Graves article:

Backstage during rehearsals for Brownie Points, Hairston [the director] had asked each cast member how important race had been for them growing up. Their rankings, on a scale of 1 to 10, ranged from 2 (a white actress) to 10 (an African American actress).

How many white people are you willing to talk to about color?

I wish I had said something. It’s like when you hear someone tell a racist joke and you grimace, but say nothing. The fact is, the grimace is not enough. You have to say, “Wow. That’s really not funny.” And if you are feeling brave, combative, or both, you should add, “That’s racist.” Why? Because it is.

Jen Graves has given me the new measure of how to assess racism, both in myself and others: The test of how racist you are is not how many people of color you can count as friends, it’s how many white people you’re willing to talk to about racism. There is nothing funny about a nation built on free labor and exploited people. And he reeked of white privilege which makes us all look bad.  I wish I’d had the courage to say that to him.

Related Posts by Bonita Applebum

The elephant in the room

Story of Stuff

The belly of the beast

Words to live by – Pop’s Reprise by Common


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Mayoress
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 17:11:19

    Another great post – I have nothing to add, you said it all. Gonna send this the next time someone says “that comment” I didn’t know how to respond to….


  2. Megan
    Sep 10, 2011 @ 17:32:53

    That shirt if awful. Doesn’t it also strike you as being anti-Semitic, as well?


  3. Kelli Javan
    Sep 12, 2011 @ 07:37:14

    Nice work sister!


  4. Ophelia
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 22:43:48

    Forgive me, but isn’t that shirt meant to be sarcastic? It seems to me more a bitter comment on the accomplishments of “mankind” than some endorsement of forced labor. I can’t count the number of new-agey sorts I’ve encountered who gush about their visits Egypt, and / or the power of the pyramids; to me that shirt is merely a reminder that much of human history has been written on the backs of the exploited and enslaved. No?

    I guess I’d be curious to know what the guy wearing the shirt would have said if you’d asked him what it meant. Maybe he hated his job; maybe was identifying with the whipped. Or?


    • geosteve
      Jan 27, 2012 @ 01:20:53

      Maybe he hated his job? Quite possibly, but that is very likely a FAR cry from the suffering endured during a life of slavery don’t you think? I mean, he had luxury of free will to buy that silly shirt, go to that concert and walk around with his head in the clouds.

      Maybe he was identifying with the whipped? Hmmm. As a white male myself, I find it hard to believe that this is really possible. As Bonita has pointed out very clearly, white privilege that can easily go unnoticed . When you finally do become aware of it and bring it up in conversation with other white people, it is easy to see how many white people are in grave denial that it really exists. At best, white people can be aware, empathetic and choose to be part helping society work past unearned privileges. If we do nothing, we are still perpetuating the problem. Please try to put yourself in the shoes of a African American and think about what your reaction would have been to seeing someone wearing that shirt.

      Thank you for this post, Bonita.


      • grace
        Aug 14, 2013 @ 20:53:29

        Delightful to see that there are some white people out there who actually acknowledge racism and put themselves in the shoes of people of color. Explaining a racist incident to them makes it frustrating because they are always oblivious to a point where I am beginning to think having white friends or a dating white guys is a bad idea. I just do not understand how they cannot understand. Even I that grew up in Africa, was not exposed to racism but when I moved here understanding racism was not rocket science to me even in my early times of moving to america.

  5. Cory Weeks
    Jun 19, 2012 @ 06:43:00

    So i am white. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing this shirt if you are white. It just makes you look like a true IDIOT. We were the SLAVES on that Project! Right.


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