Duluth, Minnesota is the site of an unexpected effort in raising awareness of a concept the very name of which causes many folks to simply shut down and stop listening; they’re talking about white privilege, and how it contributes to a culture of institutionalized racism.
The Un-Fair Campaign has unleashed a series of billboards, and now a YouTube video making the rounds of conservative websites, where the audience has greeted it with a rousing chorus of disgust and overt white supremacy. The content of the video is familiar to anyone who’s been directed to read Peggy McIntosh’s concise and straightforward “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and odds are good if you’ve ever had a conversation about race online, you have either directed someone else to this document, or been pointed that way yourself.
McIntosh’s work is ubiquitous because it provides simple and clear examples of how institutionalized racism works, and why racism is not simply about people saying things that are offensive, but is about systems that are invisible to those who benefit from them and all too apparent to those who don’t.
The video participants make observations about privilege that are also written on their faces, things like, “We’re privileged that people see us, and not a color,” and “We’re privileged that we don’t get followed by security when we go shopping.”
The video is quick and memorable, but the campaign website is stunning in its thoroughness, to the extent that I wonder if anyone not already on board with anti-racist activism would plow through its excellent wealth of information.
I find this campaign especially fascinating because the community of Duluth, MN is 90 percent white -- a fact that makes this effort to speak directly to white folks more understandable, but it’s also pretty impressive to see such a movement spring up in a place that could just as easily ignore racism as irrelevant to their interests. Which I suppose is the point.
Unfortunately, as is usually the case, most of the YouTube comments (which you should NEVER EVER READ) and blog posts on this campaign focus on the idea of “white guilt,” a concept most typically applied to folks of liberal and lefty political persuasions, used to defang the idea that racism is a thing white people ought to notice and care about, and instead that any awareness of social disparity is simply an effort at making white folks “feel bad.”
Guilt, however, is at least 50 percent in our own heads -- even the worst guilt trip in the world can’t make you feel guilty without your consent.
Of the many brilliant anti-racist activists I’ve known over the years, very few of them ever seemed invested in purposely making people feel bad -- see, that’s less effective activism in my opinion, because it’s been my experience that when people feel bad, they don’t feel motivated to think critically about their actions or language and its effect on the culture in which we all live. Indeed, they just want to get away from the conversation altogether.
I have said before that shame is not a motivator, it is a paralytic, and I strongly believe that to be true; shame may work to get someone to stop doing something immediately, but it does not often inspire them to be a better person.
The trouble is, when white folks hear "racism," we tend to take it really personally, as an accusation, or as a challenge. And the kind of racism being addressed by this video is not about your ability to say the fabled n-word, it is about the systems in place that undercut efforts at equality. Simply put, it's less about us, individually, and more about the culture in which we participate, and which collectively we have some power to change.
The effects of institutionalized racism can be seen in social statistics from the disproportionate number of people of color in prison (and on death row) to the much higher rates of cancer and other fatal illnesses amongst certain non-white groups. These are macro issues, and they don't give a damn how "bad" you feel.
I don’t see shame in this ad; I see a series of white people, many of them older, speaking frankly and in clear terms about the realities of racial discrimination in their community. Being aware of reality is not a guilt trip, and I suspect the reason a lot of people respond to it as such is because becoming aware of racism means -- if you fancy yourself a good person -- that you have to do something about it. And the idea of doing something about it is OVERWHELMING.
Fortunately, the Un-Fair Campaign has some ideas. The first thing we can all strive to do -- and it is a process, not a goal to complete -- is open our minds to the idea that this world is not fair, and that people in it are discriminated against both individually and institutionally, and that these facts are largely invisible to most white folks. First, we have to see racism. Only then do we have a hope of changing it.