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Ask the White Guy on Racism, Bigotry & White Privilege

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

Comment: 
The article Ask the White Guy on ‘Is it Racism or Bigotry’ made me think and perhaps come up with a reason for so many of the “why can’t we just get over it” commen
ts I have seen on your website. I think there is a perception that many use living with racism as a rationalization for cultural and morale distance and justify bigoted actions or discrimination. It is as though they believe the fallacious argument “in America only whites can be racist; therefore white Americans are all racists.” One of the great points you make clearly is that bad behavior is bad regardless of whether it is bigotry or racism.

Answer:
You’re on to something. I think that the gut dislike of the definition of “racist” is due to people feeling that they’re not racist when the evidence is that our system has been racist (and still is to a degree). This dis-resonance is generated because most people don’t want to be a racist and don’t want to be associated with racists—and most people don’t want unearned privileges (which is a core byproduct of racism). The very definition of racism is offensive to most Americans because we want to believe that America is a meritocracy with the same opportunities for all, and although we’ve had our issues (and still do), we’re closer to that ideal than any other country. You can measure this with economics; our civil and human rights are what has created the greatest economy on earth. With all of our problems, we’ve still managed to create more inventions, liberate more people and have the longest living constitution in known history. If you heard Admiral Mullen speak about ending DADT, you saw the flame of our revolution still burning with incandescent clarity.

Most of us are proud of being an American. Pride in being a member of something is proportional to the “cost” of membership. It’s why we cherish our revolution and our veterans. It’s also why you see 80-year-old guys driving around with a globe and anchor sticker on their car (and 51-year-old guys driving around with USS New Jersey battleship license plates).

Bigotry has a lower psychological toll because it’s an individual act. You can do something bigoted one moment and correct yourself immediately. Racism is systemic, omnipresent and pervasive. Your Black counterpart in your office may not face any bigotry there, but the minute he stops at a department store, he knows it’s likely that he’ll be followed. My vice president of business development (who is a petite Black woman) was stopped in the parking lot of a local big-box mall in Clark, N.J. (a known racist town) and was surrounded by three cop cars. One cop asked her, “Is that your car?” (She drives a 740 BMW.) She said, “You already know whose car this is because you ran the plates; if you have a real problem, you need to step out of the car and do something about it.”

They backed off (if she had joined the Marines, Afghanistan would be as peaceful as Mayberry, but [ahem] not all white).

A byproduct of racism is white privilege. Most white people also have a visceral dislike for that concept too. I’ve accepted mine and learned that it can be a positive thing. I didn’t ask for it, but I have it. Now I use it to open doors for others for the greater good. Using white privilege that way makes you feel good, helps society—and doesn’t diminish your white privilege.

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29 Comments

  • What a great article! I was raised to be a racist. We lived in the city and there was much animosity between the blacks and whites. We did not intermingle. I think about the ideolgoy of “what if I was in thier shoes” and truly feel bad. I have been robbed at knifepoint right outside my home in Philadelphia, I was 19, also many race related fights while in school and outside my home. The racist approach is one I have shed over the years although my family is still caught up in the hate ideology. They do not know how I feel and as far as they know, I am a good white person. Thank you.

  • I agree, but jsut accepting it just does not sound very nice. Any privilege comes with resposibiltiy to open doors for others. Perpetuating the accent on the “white” does not strike me as a good thing. It would be a better world if we could just say, “Using privilege that way makes you feel good, helps society and doesn’t diminish your privelege.” As it is, the very last part of your last sentence is like nails on a chalk board to me, true or not. A racist would be all about not diminishing their “white” privelege and it sounds like a way for them to hide behind “good deeds”, yet still be racist. Or should we take the good deeds anywhere we can get them?

  • Do you live in Richmond, VA? This seems to be one of the most racist cities in America. If you are Black you experience racism from Whites. If you are White you experience racisn from the Blacks. If you are of foreign decent, Hispanic or others you get it from both sides! What we forget is that the United States was one of the few places in the world that was founded by people of enumerable backgrounds. Don’t we need to use the priveleges afforded us by what ever creator we believe in as human beings, to help people who need it. In many ways John Lennon was very right in his song Imagine. Let’s face it, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, Athiest, Gay, Straight or whatever in the end we all go to the grave. Let’s do what we can to help others while we still have breath in us.

  • People don’t want to be associated with racism because they equate it to acts of meanness. Racism is about superiority, and even if theydon’t choose to, Whites have no choice but to feel superior because all of their institutions project eurocentrism – White is right. Name one that doesn’t.

  • Anonymous

    Every one of my clients is a white male. As a black female, I admit I struggle to provide them with the level of service that they expect given that I rarely witness or receive it outside of work. And after several years in Richmond, VA, I concur that it is a rather hateful place and still extremely segregated.

  • Anonymous

    I contend that we have never had the “conversation on race” that will-for me–be the basis of our moving forward. Institutional racism as a construct is impossible for people of color and women to demonstrate, if they do not have the power to affect people’s lives, based on their racism. There might be instances in which women and people of color have ascended to positions where they might be racist against whites, but I think those instances are still rare. Personal racism by people of color is possible, but that is a different construct. White privilege is a phenomenon that–although unearned or un utilized by many people who are White– still has an impact on those who are ‘of color”. There are manifold examples of this; one of the simplest is the experience of being “shadowed” while shopping in stores, by security personnel or clerks who are making the assumption that people “of color” may shoplift. If a person is White, that may not happen as often as it does for persons “of color”; I find that it happens with me more often than not. Another example is waiting in line to be served, with someone who is White standing behind you in the line–and that person being served, first. It is almost as if the person of color is “invisible” . I think Mr. Visconti has an excellent point has a good point where he says this “privilege” can be put to good use. As I said initially, we in America have not yet had the “conversation on race”, with all of its manifestations, that we need to have. Something resembling the South African “Reconciliation Commissions” comes to mind. We all need to expatiate our demons, so that we can start again with a common ground of mutual understanding. We really are on a precipice: We can either do what is necessary to achieve our full potential as a society and nation, or we can slide into the abyss, watch our standing in the world decline, and miss a priceless opportunity to optomize what our Nation might become.

  • Anonymous

    What an excellent article!!! The example in the third paragraph is the clearest description of the difference between racism and bigotry I have ever read. I totally get it now. Call me “slow but teachable”. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    In many of the sociological writings on white privilege, it is asserted that white privilege cannot be used or controlled or manipulated in any way by those who receive it. I tend to subscribe to that description. Nevertheless, I read your article with the expectation that I would see some way to use white privilege, but there’s only a metaphor: to open doors. Keeping in mind that white privilege is not the same as one’s economic or social status (i.e., even the poorest, least educated white person has white privilege), how exactly do you open the doors, and what are the doors in this metaphor?

  • Anonymous

    I love the comment from the petite black woman to the police! Is it racist (or sexist) of me to give her a “you go girl!” shout out?

  • Anonymous

    I have been very surprised to hear my seemingly enlightened fellow white friends use the whole “get over it” logic when I mention that white privilege exists. One in particular said a black friend had mentioned to him something to the effect of “your ancestors owned my ancestors”. His re-telling of this incident was followed by a very heartfelt “get over it”. He used the whole “my people weren’t here during slavery” logic to absolve himself and would not accept that his relatively comfortable life today was due to the riches and preference brought to white society via slavery.

  • Anonymous

    There are racual issues with humankind. We need to stop making the US Black and White. The US consist of numerours cultures from across the world, north, south, east and west.

    Mankind need to show more respect and love for the human race, rich or poor.

  • Anonymous

    To the reader who commented about his friend (He used the whole “my people weren’t here during slavery” logic to absolve himself). .. Before I read this article I would have been angry and totally agreed with your friend. I would have thought to myself “I have done so much to promote the welfare of minorities”. Now I realize I was in the position to do so because of white privilege. I have said those exact words “my ancestors weren’t here during slavery” to my African American friends. In retrospect I realize they were truly patient with me. I don’t think I need to be “absolved” for the institution of slavery in America but understand now that there are still unearned benefits from a system that supposedly ceased to exist over a hundred years ago.

  • Dear Luke: I just read your article and it is thought provoking. I am 41 years old, whilte, female and a veteran (1987-1991). For two years I worked as a Veterans Service Officer for the state of Oregon (2002-2004) and worked on the Women’s Veteran’s Conference. Oregon offers a Veteran license plate, and it was interesting how many of the women veterans don’t want the plate. We are proud, but it really irriates us when people ask our husbands where they served. Maybe this could be the topic of one of your future articles? Please keep them coming, I really enjoy reading your articles and challenging my own assumptions.

  • White privilege: I get what you are saying yet I have never felt it. I think to feel privileged you probably need to be in that top 1% of wage earners in America that Republicans work so hard at protecting.

    I am white, but I have never felt any privilege. Coming from a lower to lower middle class family and working hard to get to mid to upper middle class, I may be there financially but I still feel like the poor girl in elementary school whose dresses, coat and shoes were not up to par with even most of the black kids in my class. The black kids were as critical of my dresses as the white kids. But at least they did envy my hair. Having nice hair was my privilege?

    As an adult I did not have the opportunity to attend college, so that is used against me at times by my white privileged peers, and also thrown in my face by anyone else of any race who has attended college. Yet I have succeeded but have to work harder.

    I get that at a glance I look like I am in the “club”. But most white people take a second look and judge. So don’t be too envious my black friends. I get no perks from “privilege” yet I feel all the guilt!

  • I take issue with your assertion that, as it regards meritocracy, “… although we’ve had our issues (and still do), we’re closer to that ideal than any other country.” I call this the “Oprah Syndrome,” that is, just because Oprah, Bill Cosby and Beyonce are household names, it somehow speaks to a racial meritocracy in America. Nothing could be further from the truth. Blacks, and minorities in general, are still pigeon holed into certain jobs, i.e., entertainers and athletes mostly. And while we have an African-American president, there has never been a Black director of the CIA, Secretary of Defense, or the Federal Reserve. And while the ‘Terminator,’ Jesse Ventura, Ronald Reagan and many other whites were able to turn their entertainment careers into political ones, Charles Barkley and others like him are soundly jeered for even contemplating an entry into politics. Studies still say that doctors treat Blacks differently, that banks treat Blacks differently, as do predatory lenders and car repair shops. Although farm subsidies are up, Black farmers have yet to receive that which was due to them, but according to conservatives, Blacks tricked by white realtors into purchasing homes they could not afford, and on which the realtors profited, are the cause of America’s financial recession. Is that the new meritocracy? That Blacks now legitimately ‘merit’ blame for all of America’s ills simply because Oprah is a billionaire? I remind you all that Madame C.J. Walker, a Black woman, was America’s first self made millionaire … but they were still lynching Black people at the time!

  • How to have this healing, national conversation on race? I agree with others that it is warranted, if not an essential first step toward reconciliation. White privilege, going back to the beginning of unseating the Native Americans, is the result of violence, death, oppression, lies, and deceit. Why – I could hardly blame those who feel the first step in the conversation is to PROVE their points of discrimination, to punch back with logic, proof, and exercises to reveal injustice. While I agree such content is meaningful, I believe our reconciliation must first start with deep understanding of and feeling for our oneness and what we have in common. There’s my two cents on an early step in the process – for those who take the action to having these conversations in your schools, religious organizations, or businessess.

  • Anonymous

    Luke,
    Thanks for an insightful analysis, as always, of the discomfort of dominant groupsgroups.

  • Anonymous

    I think the definitions of racism and bogotry and (although not mentioned here) predjudice, are being mixed up here. Racism is the belief that genetic factors like race are a primary determinant of human capacities and that one race is superior over another; Bigotry is a person’s intolerance toward another race because of their personal opinions and predjudices about that race; Predjudice is a preconceived judgement toward a race without having absolute knowledge that it pertains to all members of the race. These things are all very present in America today. When President Obama was elected, everyone was acting as if that one victory alone would erase racism, bigotry and predjudice forever and that in and of itself, it meant we had finally seen their absence. Not true on any level. I will not make any blanket statements here about any race as if I were an expert. I can only share my own thoughts. I believe more white people are racist than Black people for the sole reason that racism is defined as a “belief that genetics determine human capacities and causes one race to be superior to another”. I say this because I do not personally believe that many Black people believe that genetics “causes a difference” or that their race is “superior” to any other because of this. That’s just my personal opinion. I believe this because, pulling even solely from slavery times, it is evident that some white people have indeed believed this concept. I also believe that there are probably just as many white bigots as there are Black bigots. And I believe all people have predjudices, just different people let their different predjudices drive their actions to different degrees. I don’t think these things have anything to do with being proud to be an American. Americans have backgrounds from all over the world. Nevertheless, we fight amongst ourselves and magnify our differences. It is almost like self hate. We are all American but we hate that we are a melting pot? We are proud to be American in the sense that we all know we enjoy many civil liberties that people from other countries do not enjoy. In despite of that, through racism and bogotry and predudice, we do not embrace what being an American really comes down to. And as a Black woman (and this could absolutely be one of my predjudices but) I believe that white privilege exists and is utilized today as the silent sleeper cell version of the blatant race discrimination of the 60′s and 70′s.

  • Anonymous

    I also take issue with the claim that the U.S. is closer to an ideal meritocracy than any country. In a country where slightly more than half of our citizens are women, only 15% of congressional representives are women. Is that because women lack merit? We also have never had a female president, despite the fact that women are the majority population of this country. Many countries have elected female presidents and produce much better gender balance in national political representation. As evidenced by the faces of Fortune 500 CEOs, top Wall Street power brokers, etc., women and people of color are still rarely included in the predominately white male U.S. political and economic power structures. And it’s hard to believe that exclusion is based on lack of merit. Sadly, race, class and gender still trump, or at least challenge, merit in the U.S. Let’s look to other countries/cultures who may be doing better than us in these areas and see what we can learn. We can still have pride in what we do well as Americans and yet learn from others who are doing better than us in some realms.

  • Anonymous

    I have enjoyed the comments, keep them comming.

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