White Privilege

Suzan Shown Harjo

White privilege in America first stood for wealth advantage, the provenance of white men, no matter how amassed, deserved, shared or inbred. Among its prominent symbols are oil baron J.D. Rockefeller, Monopoly guy with a fistful of cash, television’s The Millionaire, film’s Gordon (“Greed is good”) Gekko and cartoonish tycoon Donald Trump.

The Republican presidential primary has supplied 2012 models for white and privileged Americans: Newt Gingrich, with his fat-cat “historian” consulting fees and half-million-dollar Tiffany account; Rick Santorum, with his McMansion in the suburbs of the Washington, D.C. he despises but cannot bear to leave; and the presumptive GOP nominee, Mr. 1%, Mitt Romney, with his car elevators, Cayman Islands shelters and undisclosed tax returns.

No one should have been surprised to learn that Romney has secret designs to gut the housing and education departments—two of the federal agencies most responsible for providing a leg up to the impoverished and disadvantaged—in order to help pay for his priority: tax breaks for billionaires.

It was no stunner either that his “all moms are working moms” rule does not apply to mothers on welfare; he says their toddlers should go to day care so the moms can have the “dignity of work.” That rich white men are out of touch with the majority of poor people and single parents is no news flash, although the past months’ headlines suggest otherwise.

What isn’t covered in the context of white privilege are such stories as the General Services Administration scandal over a 300-employee conference that cost $823,000 and continues to topple its top executives. The real scandal and a really good example of white privilege is the fact that the GSA officials who’ve resigned, been fired or remain under investigation were ever hired in responsible jobs and paid annual salaries at or near the quarter-million-dollar mark. Imagine so many non-white officials with such poor judgment (or even with good judgment) being hired in the first place.

Now we come to the overtly racial aspects of white privilege. Notice I did not mention Herman Cain, former Republican presidential candidate and past CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, as a model of white privilege. That’s because I have questions: if a black man joins white men and takes on their prejudices and their privileges, is he part of white privilege and is there such a thing as black privilege?

Similar questions could be asked about Justice Clarence Thomas, who is the second African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and whose white wife is an ardent opponent of President Obama. When Thomas votes against Native American land rights actions, does he do so as one who enjoys the privileges of white privilege, or does he have a unique perspective as a black man or from a perch of black privilege? When he joins the high court’s Catholic majority in citing the Catholic Church’s 500-plus-years-old Doctrine of Discovery as the first legal justification for the wholesale theft of Native lands, is he voting from white European (inherited American) privilege or simply as a practitioner of Catholicism?

Many white folks have privileged a certain history and narrative that whitewashes their ancestors’ actions and unclean hands, that justifies ongoing unjust or racist actions and that perpetuates their privilege. This is accomplished through legal, educational and social systems, where only certain privileged ones may dissect race and other races in “scholarly,” “scientific” or “objective” terms.

An example of this is in American sports, where only the Native Peoples, to the exclusion of all others, are lampooned, dehumanized and slurred. When African American fans of the Washington, D.C. football team defend its disparaging name, are they acting out of white privilege or black privilege; and, if the latter, why? When Native American fans of teams with racist stereotypes defend them, are they just floating down the mainstream? Are they acting out of white privilege or Native privilege and, if the latter, what on earth would that be?

All sorts of excuses are made for whites who harm non-whites, mainly that they act out of fear. No one really acknowledges what their fear is: That non-whites, once in charge of anything, will be as bad to the whites as they have been to us.

George Zimmerman’s defense against murder will likely be “fear.” He was booked as “white” after he profiled, stalked, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, who was walking home. With one parent who is white and the other from Peru, the shooter’s been reported as Hispanic, white Hispanic or white. Radio personality Rush Limbaugh, one of the most ostentatiously privileged of the white media, froths at the mouth when Zimmerman is called white or white Hispanic, or the killing of the teenager was a white-on-black crime.

Too much white privilege; too few answers.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), an award-winning columnist and a poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples to protect sacred places and recover more than 1 million acres of land, is president of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C.

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arw00's picture
There is alot wrong with this country and white priveledge as you call it is present. I am however white, dont have white priveledge and side with native america. what does that make me. not all whites fit into this article and you make no allowance for that. I am offended
richardwilson's picture
Suzan, I look white, my dad looks Indian, sisters look Indian, one looks white, we are all half Indian and half Irish. We grew up poor, very poor. Im 43 and have been arrested numerous times, mostly thru my own fault, all 25 years ago. Ive been beaten up for being "half-breed" and an "Indian". But, Ive been beaten up by Indians for being white. No one wanted me, to this day I have no clue where I belong.I do know I do not belong with rich whites, they are not my people. Maybe all working people are my people?I used to blame "the system". I rarely blamed the one who had control:me. I look white and Im considered "white" by those who look at me, but I have no priveleges. I rent an apartment, get welfare and try to do"the next good thing", whatever that is.Right now, it's to fight for working class Americans, of all colors, all religions, especially the most vulnerable.Florida, thank God, is not what most places in the US are like. Many are, there are some exceptions. Florida isnt the rule, almost the rule. Our progress is slower than a snail on Haldol.Be well, thanks for the article.
thechief's picture
I sometimes think about white privilege and remember how lucky I am. I am from a per cap tribe and got my school paid for. My friends not from my tribe(white, black, Hispanic, and asian) always tell me how easy I have it. I think it's something not worth worrying about. Somebody will always be richer, smarter, more entitled then you or better looking. At the end of the day taking care of my kids is priority, worrying about others doesn't help.
beaver's picture
If you look White, you are treated as White, and you have White privilege. End of story.
fslafountaine's picture
I prefer to use the term "European-Americans" instead of the term "White". The term "European-Americans" is more professional and scholarly. Too many lower-class persons try to appropriate the term "White", especially immigrants who are not British or French in origin. Anyway, many European immigrants are/were dark complexioned or dark skinned.
myche's picture
Not all whites are of the privilege class. This is a case the privilege class happens to be made up of white males, the privileges they claim do not extend to all whites. Nor do all whites approve of the way that the privilege class has abused the rest of the people in America. Whites like Native American's are not a monolithic group. Englishmen are culturally different from the Irish, the French, the Spanish, the Scandinavian as well as the Romanian and Russian and all other ethnic groups that could fall under the designation of white. Women and transgenders have also been to a large extent left out of the privilege class to the extent they are not immediate family members of the privileged. European kings claimed the right to discovery with the Pope legitimatizing the Catholic kings. But much of troubles that spilled over to the Native Americans in the Americans came as a battle between the privileged in different European countries and the under privileged spilled over into the Americas and totally disregarded the rights of the Native Americans and basically stole their lands much as they tried to steal each other's in Europe. Again today a small number of people have grabbed the economic power and wealth in America and are trying to corner all of the wealth for themselves. Most of them happen to be white. But these privileged are displacing most of the other whites also as well as the Native Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, and all other people who have not attained their power or wealth. All of us need to stand up against the class that Romney represents and this is not a white verses non white issue.
myche's picture
The Native Americans are not the only ones who have sports teams named after them. I am Scandinavian and Irish. We have the Vikings from Minnesota and the Fighting Irish. When sports fans go to Viking games and Notre-dame games they act just as silly and stupid as to the sports fans that go to games named after Native American peoples. The difference is that we Vikings and Irish have a sense of humor about it and take pride in it. Now that does not mean that Native Americans have to do the same. But Native Americans are not the only ones that this is true of. But again life is not as simple as us against them. My grandchild is half Navajo-Hopi-and Sioux and half Irish-Norwegian-Swede-Finish-English-Polish-German and who knows what else. I am a transgendered female. All this is to say is that life is not so simple. Its really not just us against them. Sometimes its us against us. When it comes to social problems A may equal B but often B does not equal A. Most privileged are white does not mean that all who are white are privileged. It does not even mean that all people who appear white are white and all people who appear non white are non white.
maunka's picture
Hinikaragi! Suzan: Interesting article and I would add highlight your comment about the "Supreme Court" having a Catholic majority and it's guiding legal principles (rationalization) that are rooted in the Christain Doctrine of Discovery. Those of us that are continually oppressed by this unilateral religious doctrine understand that the "Supreme Court" is really the "Supreme Church." We know non-christian Native Nations lose 80% of the time in that "legal" forum. Maybe we need to think about "Christian privilege" as it relates to the "Supreme Church's" dispossession of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness of non-christian people, especially those of an indigenous relation, and living on and off "Indian Reservations." The idea that there is a separation of church and state in the U.S. does not really exist. All we need to do is look to the Marshall Trilogy and the Papal Bulls; not to mention the supreme court justices religious affiliation. Just thought, keep the dialogue going.