I have just returned from a trip to visit my family in rural Nebraska, and as great at it was to see my parents and sisters again, this trip has me reflecting on the cultural and political divides in this country. This weekend was somewhat surreal, considering that I spent Friday teaching at a private school in Manhattan, went home to an urban immigrant neighborhood in Newark, and then set foot in Nebraska a few short hours later.
To get to my hometown, you have to drive three hours west of Omaha, and travel back in time a few decades while you are at it. Although recent immigration from Asia and Latin America has changed the town's demographics somewhat (much for the better, I would argue), it is a startlingly monochromatic place in terms of race, religion, politics, and culture. The older I get, and the more times that I return, the more I reflect on its assumptions of white privilege, and the difficulty of combatting that particular disease.
When I talk to many of my family members, they speak of people who are not white as if they are abnormal, strange, and other. Their race is often the sole subject of conversation, as if nothing else about them is relevant. These words are rarely accompanied by any overtly bigoted commentary (although at times it is by a couple of race-fixated uncles), but the underlying assumptions of white normality are much more insidious and powerful than racial slurs. When I hear constant complaints about "government handouts" from people who make their living off of agriculture -perhaps both the whitest and most heavily subsidized sector of our economy- I can't help but to hear racial overtones.
I must admit, of course, that growing up where I did, it took me longer than it should have to own up to my own privilege. Part of this had to do with the aforementioned demographics of the town. With hardly any people of color to be seen, I never associated poverty with racism. In fact, the few African Americans in town tended to be middle class and even authority figures, such as one of the veteran English teachers at the high school, the assistant coach of my debate team and the founder of my Tae Kwan Do dojo. These factors make it very easy for many I know back home to deny the presence of white privilege, and to pretend that the color of their skin hasn't given them a leg up in life. Hence family members who benefit from the Department of Agriculture's largesse see it as their right, and able to look down on other recipients of government cash, who are on "welfare." The latter is associated with big cities far away that are alien both in regards to their values and their inhabitants, who are typically stereotyped and discussed in hushed tones. The fact that their own Nebraska livelihoods are built on programs that historically have disadvantaged blacks, from the GI Bill to the Federal Housing Authority to the Agricultural Adjustment Act, has never been presented to them.
Looking back on my own intellectual progress, I managed to get a little more perspective on things from my three teenage hobbies/obsessions: music, books, and competitive debate. In regards to music, I developed a love for Public Enemy circa Fear of a Black Planet, and the words of Chuck D both shocked and stimulated me at the same time. I suddenly became aware of how limited my own perspective had been, and how the color of one's skin made such an impact on their life prospects. My interest in PE, as well as that of a friend, led me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book that I spent a lot of time grappling with. My American history classes never really dealt with the issue of race. Since I was a major history nerd even then, Malcolm's alternative take on American history changed my view of the world and my place in it, forever.
Luckily, I also had an intellectual mentor to help my self-education become something more solid. For two years, a philosophy student at the local college was an assistant coach for my high school debate team. Not only did he turn me into a much better and more competent debater and mentor me through a reading of Plato's Republic, he confirmed the realities behind the words of Malcolm and Chuck D and got me to think a lot deeper about things in general. That I managed to develop an acknowledgement of my own white privilege was not the result of my own virtue, but an accident of pop culture affinities and coming into contact with the right person. This was not the case for the majority of my peers, or for the teenagers growing up in rural Nebraska today.
I felt compelled to write on this topic because of the Trayvon Martin case, which is clearly an example of the pernicious evil of white privilege. The killer of an innocent teenager went unprosecuted, in large part due to his race and the race of his victim. Until more people like the people I grew up with start to see their privilege and how it distorts their worldview and assumptions about others, we can expect more cases such as this. At a time when public discourse proclaims us to be a "post-racial" nation, the necessary reckoning by whites of their racial privilege, a reckoning needed to make this a truly democratic society, may never happen.