Quick, Cry Foul! They’re on the Come Up! – Confronting the Myth of Black Privilege

BY: TARA JACKSON

Beyoncé’s Super Bowl celebration of ‘blackness’ put a dent in the hopes of some that Game Day would “be a time to escape all of the nonsense.” [1] Upon discovering that the cast of The Wiz Live was all black, many cried ‘reverse-racism.’ [2] How dare they start #BlackLivesMatter? All Lives Matter!

Regardless of where we stand on the halftime show, live musicals, and #BLM, we can all agree that the mere fact that these exchanges exist proves that racial tensions continue to be alive and well. Recently, Abigail Fisher’s never-ending case against affirmative action[3] has renewed the buzz surrounding the idea that ‘black privilege’ exists. Additionally, the election of America’s first black President and instances of white Americans attempting to mimic ‘blackness’[4], have inspired some to contend that the disadvantages of being black have now been neutralized by special privileges granted to people of color. But, have they really?

Privilege is “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most.”[5] As Peggy McIntosh[6] put it aptly, we are “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on [Whites]”.[7] Some claim that America “swim[s] in white supremacy.”[8] It is very easy to ignore one’s status as being privileged, especially when “the characteristics of the privileged group define the societal norm.”[9] Even McIntosh herself admits that, as a white woman, confronting the idea that she was the beneficiary of privilege was a difficult task.[10]

Let’s take a moment to put some of these so-called ‘black privileges’ into perspective. First, the notion that having Black History Month is a privilege presupposes that there is no celebration of White History. Well, white children need not look very far to see images of people like them while studying for history class, touring our national monuments, and even taking dollar out to buy candy.[11] Indeed, these students can clearly see that members of their race are widely represented and celebrated.

Next, saying that black lives matter does not mean white lives do not. The phrase is meant to make us color-conscious—simply saying “All Lives Matter” does not afford us the opportunity to confront the covert and overt institutional racism to which blacks have been systemically subjected.[12] When a prominent Black Lives Matter activist was asked to speak about the phrase, she described that living in a world where blacks are gunned down, incarcerated in mass, and forced into prison slavery, demands special focus on black lives.[13] You see, “when black lives truly do matter they will not be black lives anymore, they will be lives.”[14]

Until that is the case, the idea of colorblindness as a solution to the racial issues plaguing this nation is grounded on the fallacy that America has evolved to a post-racial society.[15] For now, we are not yet on equal footing; what some may believe to be ‘black privileges’ are simply steps towards equality.


[1] See Diane Falzone, Backlash to Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance continues to grow, Fox News (February 12, 2016), http://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/2016/02/12/backlash-to-beyonce-super-bowl-performance-continues-to-grow/.

[2] See Leonard Greene, Greene: ‘Reverse racism’ social media backlash over ‘The Wiz’ is absurd, NY Daily News (December 5, 2015), http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/greene-nbc-wiz-prompted-cries-reverse-racism-article-1.2456455 (In case you are not aware, The Wizard of Oz, which is what The Wiz Live is based on, has an all-white cast).

[3] Fisher v. Univ. of Tex., 136 S. Ct. 533 (2015). This case, which began in 2009, involves a student (Abigail Fisher) filing suit against the university, claiming that the school’s use of race as a consideration in admission decisions was in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. She claimed that she was denied admission because she is white and the school’s affirmative action policies resulted in the acceptance of African American and Hispanic students with lesser credentials.

[4] Some examples include Rachel Dolezal, Iggy Azalea and, surprisingly, Elvis Presley who some “referred to as ‘The White Negro’ [because they believed] that his lyrics and bodily gyrations were a corrupting influence on white middle-class youths.” Stacey P. Patton, The Rap of Whites Who Try to Act Black, Washington Post (March 16, 2008), http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/14/AR2008031403385.html.; see also Celeste McCaw, The New Identity Theft: Cultural Appropriation and Redefining Identity in America, Univ. of Miami Sch. of Law Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev., http://race-and-social-justice-review.law.miami.edu/identity-theft-cultural-appropriation-redefining-identity-america/.

[5] Francis E. Kendall, Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race 22 (2nd ed. 2012).

[6] Peggy McIntosh is an activist and retired associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Women’s Studies. She is credited for popularizing the term ‘white privilege’ in her 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. She is also the founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum ).

[7] Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, (1990), https://www.deanza.edu/faculty/lewisjulie/White%20Priviledge%20Unpacking%20the%20Invisible%20Knapsack.pdf.

[8] John Blake, It’s time to talk about ‘black privilege’, CNN (March 31, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/30/us/black-privilege/.

[9] Stephanie M. Wildman, Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America 13 (Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic eds., 1996) (citing Peggy McIntosh, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: White Privilege, Creation Spirituality, Jan.-Feb. 1992 at 33).

[10] Joshua Rothman, The Origins of “Privilege”, New Yorker (May 12, 2014), http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege.

[11] On Racism and White Privilege, Teaching Tolerance, http://www.tolerance.org/article/racism-and-white-privilege.

[12] See John Halstead, Bursting the White Bubble of Colorblindness, Huffington Post (March 8, 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-halstead/white-bubble-of-colorblindness_b_9293086.html.

[13] Jessica Chasman, Black Lives Matter leader explains why ‘all lives matter’ is a racial slur, Washington Times (February 25, 2016), http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/feb/25/marissa-johnson-black-lives-matter-leader-explains/.

[14] Shelina Assomull, Black Lives and All Lives, Huffington Post (December 9, 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gvh-live-/black-lives-and-all-lives_b_8720364.html.

[15] See Toure, No Such Place as ‘Post-Racial’ America, N.Y. Times (November 8, 2011), http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/no-such-place-as-post-racial-america/.

2 thoughts on “Quick, Cry Foul! They’re on the Come Up! – Confronting the Myth of Black Privilege

  1. gil

    The people that are the first to jump into something like this to merely cause a raucous almost always should look first at their own fears and inadequacies. Reading into this as reverse-racism from a foundation of what would seem to be xenophobia along with racism is weak and wrong. By now we need to be more than comfortable with the beauty of living in a multiracial/multicultural country. I think that’s privilege we should all enjoy and be happy about.

    Reply
  2. Michelle Fenton

    Well done Tara!
    It is important for us to have these types of conversations regarding race, sex and equality. It is very clear on news programs and social media that the issue is alive and well. It dominates the headlines, which unfortunately has made us, well, jaded. It is easier said than done that we should move on and accept one another but that issue of prejudice and racism seems embedded within us. We should as a society live with love, humility and acceptance, maybe this will change the trajectory of racism worldwide.

    Reply

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