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February 25, 2011

Why is Acknowledging Privilege Such a Problem, or “What’s Up, My Negro?”

In the Examining Diversity through Film class I co-teach with colleagues at SUNY-Plattsburgh we had a very intriguing moment arise as we exited our much less anxiety ridden "ability" theme and cautiously entered our "race" theme. A young woman, who often is very much in the game in terms of the energy and insight she brings to a conversation, admitted that she struggled with the notion that because she is White she is privileged. She argued that she has never felt that way and that when she accomplishes something of merit she doesn’t want it undercut by assertions that her race might have been a factor in her achievement. As the discussion ensued, it was pointed out to her and of course the rest of the class that the reason they often don’t/can’t see their racial privilege is that it is a dominant attribute and we are less apt to focus on those qualities that give us unearned privileges. They were then asked if they thought men had an advantage (privilege) over women in our society. They were then asked did they think it was more advantageous to live a heterosexual lifestyle, or to not have a so-called disability. Upon agreeing with the fact that some cultural groups in our society do have advantages (privilege), why would the dominant race in our society be any different?

The other day a 14 year old Black boy in a local school was sitting in his class, when a rarity occurred in the North Country, another Black boy entered the classroom. Now, before you start to act as if I’m being racist (because I know some of you love putting that jacket on the diversity guy), catch your breath and realize that still, to this day, the majority of the time I am in a restaurant, I am the only Black man in that restaurant the entire time. However, just yesterday I was in Kotos at the bar, sitting with Matt Salvatore, director of the SUNY Plattsburgh Fitness Center, who I just happened to encounter there. All of a sudden two other Black men entered the restaurant within a five minute period of one another and flanked Matt and I. Okay, so I'm name dropping a bit, but the other two men were Bill Price, president of Plattsburgh Ford, and Shaun Smith, new V.P. of Human Resources for CVPH. Yes, Matt was surrounded by three professional Black men, all craving Sushi, but discovering a rarity, that the stars don’t necessarily have to converge for three Black men from different places and locally different spaces to share social graces while they meet and touch bases. We kicked it with Matt,giving him honorary (albeit temporary) “brother” status while everybody was getting their grub, or should I say, “sushi” on. We , discussed this, that, and the other thing (you don’t really think I would tell you), and for me I must admit it was one of the best impromptu moments I’ve ever had in Plattsburgh. Now, be real with me, other than a crew of college students, how many of you have ever seen three professional black men sitting and dining in a restaurant? How about two? How about three Black women? How about three Latinos? Latinas? Asian men or women? How many times have you even considered the fact that the person(s) you are dining with understand some dimension of your struggle? Perhaps you've never had the thought because in terms of race you've had no struggle. Do you think it is significant or cause for celebration for racially underrepresented people to have access to one another? If not significant, why not? What would be some reasons people wouldn’t see it as significant?

Back to the 14 year old Black boy story. So, the other Black boy comes into the class and the one already there greets him with these words, “What’s up, my Negro?” That’s right, his salutation to the other Black boy entering the classroom was a slight twist on the popular culture greeting that has permeated Black vernacular for years, “What’s up my Nigger?” So, while all he said was hello to his friend in a very informal, comfortable manner, the response from the teacher was to send him to the principal’s office. Please tell me your theory on why? Was he wrong in extending this greeting to the other teenage? From what I understand he didn’t yell it out, but definitely said it with no shame. Is there a problem with expressions of culture like this that are not profane? If an Italian had said to another Italian, “What’s up my Italian?” would the student have been sent to the principal’s office? Come on, be real? Were there any implications of unearned privilege being given or denied in this scenario?

Lastly, in terms of privilege, I was saddened recently to hear that President Obama has been mentioned as stating his position on same-sex marriage is challenging for him. I applaud his earnestness in identifying the fact that as a leader he is not always clear on the issues he must engage. Far too often our leaders act as if uncertainty on an issue is something to be ashamed of. And in this economical/political climate with countries going bankrupt and nations clamoring for democracy, many of the positions Obama takes are greatly influenced by keeping America situated in a safe, resourceful space. However, as a Black man (or at the very least, a Biracial man) you would think that his understanding of the struggles of Blacks to entertain an egalitarian status within American society would make him not just more sympathetic to other’s struggles to achieve the same with the U.S., but more committed to being an ally in assisting others to overcome their struggles. Is his hesitance to support the eradication of homophobic practices political posturing, or earnest angst?

If I’ve quoted soulful song stylist Marvin Gaye once before I’ve quoted him a thousand times, all this inconsideration “makes me want to holla, throw up both my hands…”