UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

The U.S. Army’s Gag Rule on White Privilege

Last week I got an email from a USA Today Pentagon correspondent who’d just written a story about a diversity training session with 400 troops on an army base in Georgia. The instructor included a slide about white privilege and the luxury of obliviousness, stating the radical idea that white privilege gives white people little reason to be aware of people of color and how they are affected by it.

Someone snapped a photo of the slide and posted it on Facebook, provoking a firestorm of angry protest that soldiers were being subjected to such a thing. And after an army spokesperson identified my work as the source of the material used in the slide, I received a dose of hate mail in my inbox.

The army promptly announced that the slide was “unauthorized” and “inappropriate” and would not be used again. No news on just what made it inappropriate or what became of that brave instructor.

Judging from the comments I’ve seen as the story has gone viral on the Internet, the main objection seems to be that the slide was an assertion that white privilege is real, including in the military.

It is a complaint based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of racism and how systems of privilege work.

There is a lot of that going around. It’s one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to have productive conversations about race in this country. And it’s why I’ve devoted much of my career to explaining what these troubling issues are about.

The biggest myth about white privilege is that it guarantees a good life for every white person and a bad one for everyone else. Since many white people have anything but—in spite of a lifetime of hard work—and there are abundant examples of people of color who have done well, it can seem reasonable to conclude that white privilege does not exist.

In other words, “If there really is white privilege, where’s mine?”

But systems of privilege don’t work that way. They guarantee nothing for individuals. No one can predict the life of a baby who happens to be born white or of color.

What systems of privilege do instead is load the odds one way or the other. You can be white and still not get the job you’re qualified for, or go to school and work hard your whole life and have little to show for it, or be stopped (or shot) by police when you’ve done nothing wrong, or be followed around a store as if you can’t be trusted.

But in a system of white privilege, the odds of such things happening to white people are much lower than for everyone else.

Research consistently shows, for example, that white people and people of color are equally likely to use and sell illegal drugs. But most of those in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

During the subprime mortgage crisis, white people were far less likely to be sold subprime mortgages or to lose their homes to foreclosure, even when compared with blacks who had similar incomes.

And repeated experiments find that mailed-in job applications are 50% more likely to get call-backs if the name on the application is Anglo (e.g., Robert Morgan) than something like Jamal Jones or Hector Martinez.

These are the tip of a very large iceberg that’s been around for more than 300 years. The idea that the military is somehow above and beyond all this, all the while drawing its personnel from the same society the rest of us live in, is . . . well . . . choose your adjective.

As far as I can tell, progressive voices have been silent on this story. Because silence is essential for any oppressive system to continue, I hope you will do what you can to break the silence, spread the word, and wake those voices up.

You can find more on the subject of white privilege and racism in my blog posts and website essays:

The Luxury of Obliviousness
Aren’t Systems Just People?
What Is a System of Privilege?
Are You Just into White Guilt?
Our House Is on Fire
Who Me?
Proud to Be White?
Where White Privilege Came From

Now’s the time.

You can find the USA Today story here.

Getting to the Other Side

I was driving home when I saw the deer lying in the middle of the road. I turned on the flashers and stopped the car so that others would have to go around.

I got out and could see that it was a fawn. She was trying to lift her head. I bent down and spoke to her in a soft voice. I didn’t want her to be afraid, although I don’t know how she could not. A few cars came by, some drivers shooting me a look, wanting to know what was so important they should have to go around, then noticing something in the road before turning their eyes back to where they were going.

Someone stopped and rolled down the window to ask if they could help. I said if they had a cell phone they could call the police.

Most people just went on by, like I imagined the driver of the car that killed the deer, which is what this was turning out to be. She wasn’t lifting up her head anymore. In a little while, as far as I could tell, she was gone. The police arrived and then a pickup and they lifted her into the back and drove away.

As I got into the car, I wondered how many had come by before me. I wondered why the driver didn’t stop, what went through their mind, were they frightened or just in a hurry or some combination of the two. It could have been just an accident, the fawn running into the road as they will do. A possum once ran into the side of my car. Still, how do you not pull over to see what you can do, if only to make it so the fawn doesn’t die alone?

Before driving away, I looked around the woods on either side of the road for signs of other deer, the mother perhaps, but there was nothing that I could see. They’re very good at hiding when they don’t want to be seen. To her I would be just another of that species with its big machines that come barreling down the road.

Whoever it was, the most likely reason the fawn is dead is they were going too fast. There is a lot of that around here. The roads are narrow and winding and the woods come down to the edge so you really can’t see what’s standing there from a distance. The only thing to do is slow down, which most people do not. There is one stretch on my way home that goes up a hill, and I can look in the mirror before starting the climb and see no one behind me for a quarter mile and by the time I’m halfway to the top, there are four cars close behind. And I can tell from how they ride my bumper that they’re wanting to know just why am I going only five miles above the limit.

You’d think they were driving ambulances with someone dying in the back.

On that day, the face of the deer still fresh in my mind, the way she tried to lift her head, it was hard not to feel angry, asking myself what is the matter with people, one of those questions that doesn’t include me, of course, except when it does.

I haven’t killed many animals with a car—a few squirrels, a bright yellow bird that crashed into the windshield on a highway in northern Mexico. Nora and I grazed a moose that suddenly ran across the road in Maine, but no harm was done on either side. I could tell myself it’s because I’m a better driver or that I’m not in such a hurry, but that would be only part of the story. The fact is, I have also been lucky. They’ve been lucky.

All it takes to bring me down to earth is to recall the school bus on that morning when the rain was coming down in sheets and I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee. I was running late and hadn’t slept much the night before. It was another of those narrow country roads, the school bus stopped in front of me, red lights flashing, stop sign coming out. I waited while the kids hurried across the road from where their mother stood in the driveway. Then the red lights turned off and the stop sign folded out of sight, but the bus just sat there, going nowhere, rain coming down in buckets and me wanting to get going and then I figured the driver must be speaking to the mother standing in the driveway and suddenly I just turned the wheel and put my foot on the gas and went out alongside the bus.

Those next few seconds haunted me for the rest of the day. It wasn’t that I had broken the law or hit someone—I had not. What haunted me was my reckless state of mind in that instant when I decided I shouldn’t have to wait, as if an extra thirty seconds was more important than whatever might happen on the far side of the bus. It was how a part of my mind just switched off, impervious to the possibility of something unforseen, not supposed to happen, beyond my control—a child getting back off the bus to retrieve a lunch box and the driver not turning on the flashers soon enough—that’s all it would have taken. A life literally might have hung in the balance while my mind was somewhere else for the second or two that it takes to kill someone with a car.

What I couldn’t shake was the memory of my impatience, the anger at having to wait, at the mercy of ‘those people’ who were holding me up. If I had put words to how I felt sitting in the car, it would have been, “You’re in my way.” And I realized that’s just what other drivers are saying to me when they ride my bumper, get out of my way, because they are in a hurry, because what they have to do is more important than whatever someone else might have in mind, including, especially if it’s a deer or a squirrel or a turtle, just living your life for one more day.

And then I ask myself, what could be so important that it’s worth taking a life for no other reason than my not wanting to slow down and wait? Who do I think I am?

It’s one of those questions that stops me in my tracks, because I know the answer already, that whatever I am, it’s a lot less than what I think. But the question is more than that. I’d really like to know. Who do I think I am? What do I have to say to the young deer lying in the road that might explain what was so important that she should be knocked down and left alone to die, like countless others before her? Or what could I have said if something truly horrible had happened that morning in the rain? That I was sorry?

I was haunted by the confrontation with my own private arrogant exceptionalism, that my life, my agenda is somehow special, more important than the person in the car in front of me or the animal in the tall grass beside the road. In an instant, everything is reduced to an obstacle in the way of what I want, what I think I deserve, where I think I ‘need’ to be and when. The car only amplifies the effect, insulating me from everything and everyone outside this bubble carrying me swiftly down the road.

I was not only haunted, but humbled to realize that in fact I am not special at all. None of us is. And only the blink of an eye separates the arrogance of living my life as if it were unconnected to all the life around me and being brought face-to-face with some horror that I have done while I was thinking about something else or in the grip of my impatience.

I was humbled by the reminder that we literally exist only in relation to everything else, that the idea of humanity as something set above and apart, independent, unaccountable, superior, is not only pure fiction, but bizarre and dangerous. Not to mention that I could imagine myself as separate from everything outside the content of my little mind as ‘I’ drive ‘my’ car to where ‘I’ think ‘I’ am supposed to be.

The other day I was driving along when I saw a turtle in the road, trying to get to the marshy water on the other side. I put on the flashers and stopped the car in the middle of the lane and got out and walked over to where it stood and eyed me from the pavement.

I leaned down and grasped the outer edges of its shell just as it tried to reverse its course and scurry back to where it started. A car approached, slowed, and then stopped as I held up my other hand and walked across the road, speaking softly to the turtle which had disappeared inside its shell. I set it down just beyond the sandy shoulder, pointing it toward the marsh a few feet away.

The car went on by, children trying to see the turtle making its way down the slope toward the water. The driver waved, smiling.

I resisted the temptation to think I had just done something virtuous. This small act was far more elemental. It was a simple act of kindness, as in kin and kindred, being naturally well-disposed to my own kind, a being with whom I share important things in common, beginning with wanting nothing more in that moment than to get safely to the other side of the road.

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