Home > Miscellaneous > Can I Talk About Race if I Have a Barely Noticeable Tan?

Can I Talk About Race if I Have a Barely Noticeable Tan?

Hey ladies and gentlemen. Neither you nor I knew if I would ever revisit this blog. Here I am. The occasion? I wanted to take a break from my regular discussion of controversial issues to talk about race. I’ve talked a little about the topic in the past. I don’t talk about it much.

Why now? Cuz my stupid friend who’s not stupid at all but actually pretty smart, genuine, kind, open-minded, open-hearted, generous with consuming the creative projects of others, and a good writer wrote this.* You should read this blog post even though I’m going to spend some time disagreeing with it. John humbly and honestly deals with his thoughts on race and privilege and he is just generally a person worth reading. The post is based on a Macklemore song entitled: “White Privilege II.” Can you guess what the song is about?

I didn’t actually listen to the song. I read the lyrics. I don’t enjoy Macklemore’s music. It’s just not my style. I’m becoming an old curmudgeon with musical tastes which remain largely unchanged.

White Privilege

Up front: I generally don’t like talk about white privilege. I don’t think it’s a helpful concept. Do you know what the concept does? What it does is group a massive chunk of the population together by race, and then invites people to make assumptions about their lives, thoughts, worldview, and experiences based upon the color of their skin. As someone who is very interested in the unique lives and stories of individuals, I’m not really into making assumptions about others based upon the color of their skin.

That being said, I readily admit I am privileged. Looking back at my life, there are many privileges I can easily recognize. I grew up in an upper middle class household. I grew up in a safe neighborhood. I had two parents in my life well into adulthood. I was cared for. I was homeschooled for a few years of my life. I’m of average attractiveness, at least average enough I didn’t suffer much mocking by my peers. I was naturally able to do well in school. I was more athletic than most. I have had many good friends.

These were major aspects of my life which privileged me in relative to many people. They were easily noticeable. Do you know what I never noticed? Privilege due to my race. Should we blame my white blinders? Maybe. I wonder though, if I can’t see due to my white blinders, why don’t I also have my wealthy family, two parent household, or athlete blinders on? Why would I readily see and acknowledge one privilege and not another?

While surely there are cases where people with skin colors of various shades have certain privileges others do not, this doesn’t mean I think white privilege is a helpful idea with which we should permeate culture. It can lead to a lot of insanity. The concept, from my perspective, misidentifies those white people who were not as privileged as I am (not to mention ignores the black people who were more privileged than I).

White privilege assumes members of a particular race have had similar experiences. What about the white people who grew up with only a drug addicted mother at home? What about those who spent a lot of their childhood hungry? Who were abused and molested by dangerous men their mother brought into their house? Who lived in fear? Who were embarrassed to even show up at school? Who were in some danger of getting killed or robbed because of the neighborhood they lived in? A liberal application of the word “privilege” certainly fits my life, but is it fair to apply such words to the millions of others who share my skin color but not my experiences?

Are These Wrongs Racist?

When describing the song, John says,

The newest song, “White Privilege II,” exposes Macklemore’s own struggle with privilege and his desire to advocate for what’s right and standing in solidarity with people who’ve been wronged—by things like disproportionate police brutality, systemic injustice in schools, cultural appropriation, and more.

I want to talk about some of these wrongs which have been brought up.

Disproportionate Police Brutality

The first one is “disproportionate police brutality.” This is absolutely a real thing. If you look at the numbers of deaths of blacks compared to deaths of whites at the hands of police officers (as well as other numbers related to police brutality), there is a significantly higher percentage of blacks who suffer police brutality. But this begs the question: why?

I’m no defender of the government monopoly on security services, but I have serious questions about whether racism is the reason behind a disproportionate number of blacks experiencing police brutality. I’ve never see numbers related to police brutality comparing races which also accounted for things like: single parent household, household income level, corporal punishment in the home, and education level of the individual and of their parents. Maybe these factors, and factors like them, explain the disparity without even needing to factor race?

I strongly suspect if these factors and others were taken into account, it would be very difficult to find a racial difference. If anyone has numbers relating to race which are normalized for many of these other contributing factors, I would really like to see them because I’ve never been able to find something like that.

Sometimes people assume things like African Americans having things like lower incomes, less education, higher levels of single parent households, etc, than Caucasians is the result of racism of the present or an indicator of the continuing impact of slavery. There is no reason to assume this. In this brief interview Thomas Sowell explains briefly why such disparities still exist and are often very noticeable without needing to reference an event from 150 years ago to explain the data. If you’re interested, Walter E. Williams and Thomas Sowell do some really good work in this area.

I understand there are many stories about black people who were pulled over or stopped by police for doing nothing wrong at all. Many of us have heard them from people who believe they were racially profiled. I do not doubt the veracity of these stories. I make no claims about whether they were racially motivated stops or not. They may have been, they may not have been.

In case you don’t know me, I’m whitey mcwhitester and could not be mistaken for a person of color unless I was interacting with someone who was blind. Despite this, I have also had run-ins with the police for doing nothing wrong.

In highschool, when I was 16-18 years old, I would go jogging at night. During these nighttime runs, I was stopped by police frequently. So frequently that even though I didn’t bring a wallet with me, I made sure to always bring an ID. Many times I would think about where I was going to jog, and would deliberately avoid places where I thought it was more likely I would run into the police, because getting stopped was so annoying.

My highschool friends and I were also pulled over on occasion while driving for being suspicious. Nothing wrong with the car to justify a stopping. No crazy driving. No laws broken. No drugs (except sugar and caffeine from the Mountain Dew). Just a buncha dudes in a car acting suspiciously by driving around.

I’ve also been pulled over for no reason while I was by myself. One one occasion I was told to get out of my car. When I did, the officer told me to get into the squad car. Then he grabbed my wrist, twisted it and my arm behind my back without warning. I’m lucky I had been drinking at bar bible study that night, or I might have not have been in such a good mood and may have instinctively responded to the wrist twist with self-defense. With my arm twisted behind my back he led me to his vehicle with his partner, put me in the back of the squad car, and locked the doors. Then they ran the license plates and registration on my car. They thought I had stolen my own vehicle and said as much.

In my interpretations of these events, I never assumed these stops were racially motivated. I assumed they were related to my age and sex, but not my race. However, I think if I was black growing up in this world, I would have concluded these stops without reason were an act of racial profiling, but I would have been mistaken. What people would have taught me about myself and the world around me would have caused me to make false conclusions about how I was treated and why I was treated in such a way.

Perhaps this is my white privilege in action: Because I was never taught people would be mistreating me because of my race, I never assume they are (unless they make racial comments). I would hate to grow up in a world where people taught me I was being suspected of a crime, ignored, held back, and mistreated by the system and people within it simply because of my skin color. An education like this would cause me to walk around misinterpreting many of my interactions with others. Maybe we are teaching people to misinterpret some of their life experiences.

Systemic Injustice in Schools

I don’t have much to say about the second point: systemic injustice in schools for blacks, because I know nothing about it. If it is related to school funding, I would be interested to know whether whiter schools in a similar area with a similar per capita income level receive more funding simply because of the skin color. Or is perhaps the funding level related to factors other than race?

Cultural Appropriation

My understanding of this term is that it refers to someone experiencing an aspect of someone else’s culture, enjoying it, then imitating and integrating the piece of culture into their lives. This was classified as a “wrong.” I’m not sure what’s wrong about it. This is something people do all the time with other people. They like music they hear others listening to, movies others watched, clothing styles others wear, language others use, and they integrate these things into their lives. Cultural appropriation is one of the primary ways we discover our likes and are shaped by the world around us.

What could possibly be wrong about this? The idea seems to be that white people appropriating black culture is a way of wronging the black community. If this is what is meant, I am disturbed. To say whites appropriating black culture is wrong is to discriminate because of someone’s race. You have the wrong skin color and therefore you aren’t fit to dress or talk or act or eat a certain way. That’s only for people whose skin is a different color than yours. Does anyone else find this to be kind of a distorted way of viewing people and groups?

Not Caring About Race Is Not the Same as Not Caring About Someone’s Story

As a general rule, I don’t really care about your race. It’s a physical characteristic. We should both recognize the loaded history behind the characteristic and that, it’s not all that objectively different than eye color or hair color. While I don’t care about your race, this doesn’t mean I’m not sensitive to your experiences or that I don’t care what you have gone through as a result of your race.

I care about your story. Your life. Your experiences. How others have treated you. If you’ve experienced racism, that’s a big deal and I’d like to hear about it. I also want to hear about it if you were mocked for your eye color, hairstyle, or other superficial qualities like skin color. These experiences are a part of your story and shape who you are.

I will not, however, make assumptions about you based on your race. I won’t assume you’ve experienced racism because of your skin color nor will I assume you’ve experienced privilege. I do not believe relying on presumption is a fair way to treat another human being. Everyone is an individual with unique experiences and deserves to be thought of as such.

John goes on to say,

Racism and partiality are problems we can’t ignore or run away from.

Certainly not. But can we please be absolutely confident someone or thing is racist before we use the descriptor? Calling someone a racist is one of the worst terms you can apply to them. I’d rather have every racial epithet in the book thrown at me than accused of racism. We better be very confident with very strong evidence to back it up in order to call someone a racist.

It is scary to me when people notice differences between groups and start throwing around terms like “systemic racism.” Sometimes there is systemic racism. There are many systems which explicitly favor one race over another. However, it is unfair to look at the results of systems (rather than how they are setup) and say something like, “Asians do better than whites in school and their average income level is higher, therefore there is systemic racism favoring Asians and suppressing whites.” We need different evidence to substantiate such claims than differences in results.

I know racism still exists in the world. I’m not trying to pretend it doesn’t. I am afraid of people assuming it’s ubiquitous and in their confirmation bias, seeing it in places where it is not. When we do see racism in practice, many of us should assertively speak out against it. Everyone should avoid participating it. It is much easier to spot and maintain focus on racist acts when we are more careful to make sure what we are pointing out is indeed racism.

I think conversations about race are important as racism has been such a given in the world since the earliest recorded history. I am concerned sometimes these conversations lead to more division and more group delineation, not less. I am concerned about the identifications of people as oppressed or privileged based on skin color which seem to happen so freely. I am concerned about people losing their individuality in the minds of others and just being identified as a member of a group. I’m concerned that some of the calls for people to talk about race or acknowledging of white privilege or bringing up of things like systemic racism, are sometimes self-centered posturing by the person to make themselves look better, more liked, or feel better about themselves.

Walter Williams, an economist, says something I believe to be insightful in one of the articles I linked to above. He says he thinks a lot of this white privilege conversation is actually based around white guilt over what other white people did to black people decades ago.** Don’t worry, Walter is black so his opinion counts. For anyone who feels guilt about their white skin color, Dr. Williams has a pardon for you. You’ve been absolved of guilt by association so now without guilt you are “thus obliged not to act like a damn fool in your relationships with Americans of African ancestry.”

* John is so likeable, I hate writing something which disagrees with what he says, even though I think he will be happy to have inspired me to write something in response to his words.
** It should be noted that to feel guilty about what people of your same skin color have done is to prioritize your association with people of your skin color above people of other skin colors. While this may not be racist, it is certainly the type of collectivist mindset which creates division between groups that can lead to racism and often does. Ideally, the level of solidarity and association we feel with others should have very little to do with race.

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