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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…”


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I think you've got a few different things going on here, JW.

First, on the recognition of privilege on the part of those of us who have it. As a white hetero male from a middle class background with no disability, it was not natural to think of myself as privileged. It was only after I developed enough empathy for others that I was able to begin (and only begin!) to see the world as they do that I started to recognize how I had been blessed. What it took to develop this empathy was time and a variety of experiences, including finding myself discriminated against because I was not in any sense a minority. Losing a chance at a job stung, but fortunately I had already started to develop enough perspective to treat that event with equanimity rather than resentment. I suspect if it had happened when I was 20, instead of nearly 40, I would have reacted differently. What you do in Diversity through Film jump accelerates the process of growth for the young people present, but they are still young and have a lot of growing to do.

Second, on what happened to the 14 year old boy in school. Perhaps the teacher misheard, or perhaps they are hypersensitive to any expression of racism and, critically, perceive this as an example of it. I can see why that might be the case, though hearing about this third-hand does make it sound like an example of overreaction.

Third, on Obama and same-sex marriage. I'm not sure why you would expect him or anyone else to feel sympathy for members of a different disadvantaged group, especially in that particular case. While it would be nice (and make a certain amount of sense) if members of all disadvantaged groups would stand together, the reality so far has been that they are far more likely to compete than cooperate. I don't pretend to understand why, but it could be as simple as an all-to-human desire to feel better than someone else, which when experienced by a member of a disadvantaged group leads to looking down on members of other disadvantaged groups. You show this in your class through "North Country", for example, when the working class male miners treat female miners very poorly. We see it happening throughout society, such as the disproportionately heavy "yes" vote from the black community on Prop. 8 in California, which (temporarily) banned same-sex marriage. Obama's position on same-sex marriage doesn't really surprise me, since he's also a fairly devout Christian and most conservative Christian churches (whether predominantly black or white) have been quite hostile to same-sex marriage. I'll take his struggles with the issue as a sign of hope, not a condemnation of the man.

Yes, I agree that some of us are born into some privileges and/or earn certain privileges with no absolute that these privileges will be maintained. I could go on, but you've already done an excellent job in identifying that privileges exist, even in ways we may not have considered..and what I truly want to express is that I have and will continue to share whatever privileges I have with others, much like you do when you spread your knowledge and insight, with pleasure. Isn't that what this is about? Share what you got, right?

You’ve heard the saying “you can’t miss what you never had.” I think it’s also true that it’s tough to appreciate what you’ve always had. Any parent of a teenager can tell you that. That’s why it’s hard for any person who rarely leaves their comfort zone to perceive privilege or admit that their very state of being makes them privileged. In a society where the majority rules, the majority makes the rules. All things being equal, a member of that majority will simply have an easier time navigating that society because, whether they know it or not, the deck is stacked in their favor. If our hypothetical member of society never, or rarely, encounters someone NOT in the majority, they simply will have no reference point from which to judge their own inherited advantages OR the inherited disadvantages of those NOT in the majority.
Privilege is not absolute, however. Being a white Christian in America might result privilege, but how about existing as a white Christian in Egypt? Or Iraq? Rather, privilege is contextual. The circumstances of one’s existence might gain one privilege in one context, but not another; or may be a decided disadvantage altogether.
Understanding privilege on one level certainly doesn’t lead to understanding on all levels. President Obama knows what it’s like to be a biracial man growing up in a predominantly white society but that doesn’t mean he has a clue what it’s like to be a gay man in a predominantly heterosexual society. Intellectually he can reason that discrimination for any reason is wrong but he cannot truly understand the experience of gays, nor, can he truly appreciate what it’s like to be privileged as a heterosexual because he’s never experienced anything else.
In order to really experience privilege, I think you have to experience life without it for a while. It might be possible to wrap your head around the idea that your every-day existence is filled with advantages that others do not enjoy but you’ll never know what that means for “the other” until you experience it for yourself; try on your brother’s shoes, and walk a mile.
As for the teacher who sent a student to the principal’s for his “what’s up my Negro” greeting – I can guess it was an over-reaction from a teacher who simply did not understand what was happening between the two boys. I can imagine the teacher probably never heard the phrase before – at least not live and in person – and was caught by surprise. Maybe the teacher had once been reprimanded for NOT calling out what someone perceived to be racially offensive language in the past. Combine that with cultural ignorance of the greeting’s appropriateness in context and it’s easy to see how the situation ended up where it did. Perhaps instead of berating, we should educate the educator?
I’m ready to cut the teacher, and the President, some slack. When good people are making a real effort to come to some degree of understanding of “the other” society must give them the time and space to do so. To insist that understanding be instantaneous is as unreasonable as denying that any privilege exists in the first place.

You’ve illustrated many important concepts, J.W. In particular, I appreciated your segment regarding Black professionalism and your appreciation for sitting down with three other Black, professional, men. Although you point out how meaningful this experience was, there’s still something wrong with this image. Regardless of demographics, why are the voices of virtuous individuals in the African American community heard at such a low volume? Their capacity is lower than the mainstream rap industry or Fox 44; why? I believe such reasoning behind this under-representation refers back to the historical roots of slavery. And in order to understand the repercussions through which racial inequality, caused by slavery, affects present day America, we must assess several areas. First, slavery would affect current performances—wealth, which in our context can be measured by land inequality. Second, slavery is accountable for racial discrimination fostering an oblique racial wage gap. And third, the continuing impact of slavery fostered sluggish growth: a persistent racial gap in education. Although the shackles of slavery have been removed for hundreds of years, African Americans still feel imprisoned, for comprehensible reasons.

We’ve learned about various movements in history—especially those yielding social change. The Niagara Movement, a Black civil rights organization, led by W.E.B. Du Bois, stressed “putting forth a demand for racial equality in all areas of American life”, in the early 1900’s (Frazier, 210). Their Declaration of Principles argued that segregation, in any form, was intolerable. Although the United States is best known for its liberties, how free is today’s American? As individuals we have the ability to carry out thought provoking action and it appears we have failed to do so. Is “social equality is a private question which may well be left to individual decision” (216)?

As a professional African American man in Plattsburgh, I understand why you would be so excited to be presented with a rare opportunity to dine with the other professional African American men. But now that I think about it I haven't noticed a group of Latinos/Latinas, Asians, or minority women together anywhere outside of SUNY Plattsburgh's campus. Why is that? I believe underrepresented individuals prefer to congregate amongst themselves rather than to congregate amongst people of the dominant race because it's easier to relate and there is a higher comfort level. But this is also the result of Jim Crow laws. In his essay Of Sons of Master and Man,W.E.B. DuBois writes, “It is usually possible to draw in nearly every Southern community a physical color-line on the map, on one side of which whites dwell and on the other Negros.” It's possible for this idea of Whites and Colored individuals not congregating together in public to have carried on into present day times.

For there to be three professional underrepresented men together in Plattsburgh is a very rare, but must be enjoyable for the three men to share experiences with one another. But since the slave trade Africans and African Americans have been limited and even denied access to a decent education. One of the hardest times for African Americans was the post emancipation period because Africans Americans were "free," but had no skill or education for them to be employed anywhere, but a field cultivating crops. Even today as we face these tough economic times many people, especially underrepresented youth are not granted the opportunity to obtain a higher education because of budget cuts.

I would just like to comment on the story of the 14 year old boy. As I understand it, negro derives from the word nigger( I hate even typing that word) which from my studies is a the most consequential social insult in American History; suggesting violence, hostility,and oppression. The word was created and used by whites to dehumanize and insult blacks. I do not think the teacher was wrong by sending the boy who said it to the office. Now as for the statement on, if and an Italian said "whats up my Italian"..well that what they are, they are Italian its not an insult. Black people are not niggers. Young black men and women should be taught that. I do not think anybody; no matter what color you are,should use that word. It should be wiped off the face the earth.

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