To truly understand a nation, a culture, or its people, it
helps to know what they take for granted.
After all, sometimes the things that go unspoken are more powerful than
the spoken word, if for no other reason than the tendency of unspoken
assumptions to reinforce core ways of thinking, feeling and acting,
without ever having to be verbalized (and thus subjected to challenge) at
What's more, when people take certain things for granted, anything that
goes against the grain of what they perceive as "normal" will
tend to stand out like a sore thumb, and invite a hostility that seems
reasonable, at least to those dispensing it, precisely because their
unspoken assumptions have gone uninterrogated for so long.
Thus, every February I encounter people who are apoplectic at the thought
of Black History Month, and who insist with no sense of irony or misgiving
that there should be no such thing, since, after all, there is no White
History Month--a position to which they can only adhere because they have
taken for granted that "American history" as told to them
previously was comprehensive and accurate, as opposed to being largely the
particular history of the dominant group.
In other words, the normalcy of the white narrative, which has rendered
every month since they popped out of their momma's wombs White History
Month, escapes them, and makes the efforts of multiculturalists seem to be
the unique break with an otherwise neutral color-blindness.
Sorta' like those who e-mail me on a semi-regular basis to insist, as if
they have just stumbled upon a truth of unparalleled profundity, that
there should be an Ivory Magazine to balance out Ebony, or that we need a
White Entertainment Television network to balance out BET, or a NAAWP to
balance out the NAACP.
Again, these dear souls ignore what is obvious to virtually all persons of
color but which remains unseen by those whose reality gets to be viewed as
the norm: namely, that there are already two Ivory Magazines--Vogue and
Cosmopolitan; that there are several WETs, which just so happen to go by
the names of CBS, NBC and ABC; and that the Fortune 500, U.S. Congress and
Fraternal Orders of Police are all doing a pretty good job holding it down
for us white folks on the organizational front. Just because the norm is
not racially-named, doesn't mean it isn't racialized.
Likewise the ongoing backlash against affirmative action, by those who
seem to believe that opportunity would truly be equal in the absence of
these presumably unjust efforts to ensure access to jobs and higher
education for persons of color.
We are to believe that before affirmative action things were fine, and
that were such efforts abolished now, things would return to this utopic
state of affairs: to hell with the persistent evidence that people of
color continue to face discrimination in employment, housing, education
and all other institutional settings in the U.S.
So if the University of Michigan gives applicants of color
twenty points on a 150-point admission scale, so as to promote racial
diversity and balance out the disadvantages to which such students are
often subjected in their K-12 schooling experience, that is seen as unfair
But when the same school gives out 16 points to kids from the lily-white
Upper Peninsula, or four points for children of overwhelmingly white
alumni, or ten points for students who went to the state's "top"
schools (who will be disproportionately white), or 8 points for those who
took a full slate of Advanced Placement classes in high schools (which
classes are far less available in schools serving students of color), this
is seen as perfectly fair, and not at all racially preferential.
What's more, the whites who received all those bonus points due to their
racial and class position will not be thought of by anyone as having
received unearned advantages, in spite of the almost entirely ascriptive
nature of the categories into which they fell that qualified them for such
bonuses. No matter their "qualifications," it will be taken for
granted that any white student at a college or University belongs there.
This is why Jennifer Gratz, the lead plaintiff in the successful
"reverse discrimination" suit against Michigan's undergraduate
affirmative action policy, found it a supreme injustice that a few dozen
black, Latino and American Indian students were admitted ahead of her,
despite having lower SATs and grades; but she thought nothing of the fact
that more than 1400 other white students also were admitted ahead of her
and her co-plaintiffs, despite having lower scores and grades.
"Lesser qualified" whites are acceptable, you see, while
"lesser qualified" people of color must be eliminated from their
unearned perches of opportunity. This is the kind of racist logic that
people like Gratz, who now heads up the state's anti-affirmative action
initiative with the financial backing of Ward Connerly, find acceptable.
This kind of logic also explains the effort of whites at Roger Williams
University to start a "white scholarship fund," on the pretense
that scholarships for students of color are unfair and place whites at a
This, despite the unmentioned fact that about 93 percent of all college
scholarship money goes to whites; despite the fact that students of color
at elite and expensive colleges come from families with about half the
average income of whites; despite the fact that there are scholarships for
pretty much every kind of student under the sun, including children of
Tupperware dealers, kids whose parents raise horses, kids who are
left-handed, kids whose families descend from the founding fathers: you
name it, and there's money available for it.
While there are plenty of whites unable to afford college, the fault for
this unhappy reality lies not with minority scholarships, but rather with
the decisions of almost exclusively white University elites to raise the
price of higher education into the stratosphere, to the detriment of most
But to place blame where it really belongs, on rich white people, would be
illogical. After all, we take it for granted that one day we too might be
wealthy, and we wouldn't want others to question our decisions and
prerogatives come that day either.
Better to blame the dark-skinned for our hardship, since we can take it
for granted that hey're powerless to do anything about it.
Whites, as it turns out, take most everything for granted in this country;
which makes perfect sense, because dominant groups usually have that
We take for granted that we won't be racially profiled even when members
of our group engage in criminality at a disproportionate rate, whether the
crime is corporate fraud, serial killing, child molestation, abortion
clinic bombings or drunk driving. And indeed we won't be.
We take it for granted that our terrorism won't result in whites as a
group being viewed with generalized suspicion. So Tim McVeigh represents
only Tim McVeigh, while Mohammed Atta gets to serve as a proxy for every
other person who either has his name or follows a prophet of that name.
We take it for granted that our dishonesty will be viewed in purely
individualistic terms, while the dishonesty of others will result in
aspersions being cast upon the entire group from which they come.
Thus, Jayson Blair's deceptions at the New York Times provoke howls of
indignation at any effort to provide opportunity to journalists of
color--because after all, diversity and quality are proven by this one
man's exploits to be incompatible--but Jack Kelley's equally egregious
fabrications and fraud at USA Today fails to prompt calls for an end to
hiring white guys as reporters, or for scrutinizing them more carefully,
or for closing down whatever avenues of opportunity have helped keep the
profession so white for so long.
We take it for granted that we will never be viewed as one of those
dreaded "special interest" groups, precisely because whatever
serves our interests is presumed universal.
So, for example, while politicians who pursue the support of black,
Latino, gay or other "minority" voters are said to be pandering
to special interests, those who bend over backwards to secure the backing
of NASCAR dads and soccer moms, whose racial composition is as
self-evident as it is unmentioned, are said to be politically savvy and
merely trying to connect with "normal folks."
We take it for granted that "classical music" is a perfectly
legitimate term for what really amounts to one particular classical form
(mostly European orchestral and piano concerto music), ignoring that there
are, indeed, classical forms of all musical styles, as well as their more
We take it for granted that the only controversy regarding Jesus is
whether or not he was killed by Jews or Romans; or whether the depiction
of his execution by Mel Gibson is too violent for children, all the while
ignoring a much larger issue, which is why does Gibson (and for that
matter every other white filmmaker or artist in the history of the faith)
feel the need to make Jesus white: something he surely could not have been
and was not, with all due apology to Michelangelo, Constantine, Pat
Robertson, and the producers of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
That the only physical descriptions of Jesus in the Bible indicate that he
had feet the color of burnt brass, and hair like wool, poses a slight
problem for Gibson and other followers of the white Jesus hanging in their
churches, adorning their crucifixes (if Catholic), and gracing the
Christmas cards they send each December.
It is the same problem posed by the anthropological evidence concerning
the physical appearance of first century Jews from that part of Northern
Africa we prefer to call the "Middle East" (and why is that I
wonder?). Namely, Jesus did not look like a long-haired version of my
Ashkenazi Jewish, Eastern European great-grandfather in his prime.
But to even bring this up is to send most white Christians (and sadly,
even many of color) into fits, replete with assurances that "it
doesn't matter what Jesus looked like, it only matters what he did."
Which is all fine and good, until you realize that indeed it must matter
to them what Jesus looked like; otherwise, they wouldn't be so averse to
presenting him as the man of color he most assuredly was: a man dark
enough to guarantee that were he to come back tomorrow, and find himself
on the wrong side of New York City at the wrong time of night, reaching
for his keys or his wallet in the presence of the Street Crimes Unit, he'd
be dispatched far more expeditiously than was done at Golgotha 2000 years
But never fear: we needn't grapple with that because we can merely take it
for granted that Jesus had to look like us, as did Adam and Eve, and as
does God himself. And indeed, most whites believe this to be true, as
proven by every single picture Bible for kids made by a white person, all
of which present these figures in such a way.
Consider the classic and widely distributed Robert Maxwell Bible Series
for children, popularly known as the "blue books," which are
found in virtually every pediatrician and OBGYN's office in the U.S. In
Volume I, readers learn (at least visually speaking) that the Garden of
Eden was in Oslo: a little-known fact that will stun Biblical scholars to
It would all be quite funny were it not so incontestably insane, so
pathological in terms of the scope of our nuttiness. What else, after all,
can explain the fact that when a New Jersey theatre company put on a
passion play a few years ago with a black actor in the lead role, they
received hundreds of hateful phone calls and even death threats for daring
to portray Jesus as anyone darker than, say, Shaun Cassidy?
What else but a tenuous (at best) grip on reality can explain the
quickness with which many white Americans ran around after 9/11 saying
truly stupid shit like "now we know what it means to be attacked for
who we are?" Now we know? Hell, some folks always knew what
that was like, though their pain and suffering never counted for much in
the eyes of the majority.
What else but delusion on a scale necessitating medication could lead one
to say--as two whites did on CNN in the wake of the first O.J. Simpson
verdict--that they now realized everything they had been told about the
American justice system being fair was a lie? Now they realized it! See
the theme here?
That's what privilege is, for all those who constantly ask me what I mean
when I speak of white privilege. It's the ability to presume that your
reality is the reality; that your experiences, if white, are universal,
and not particular to your racial identity.
It's the ability to assume that you belong and that others will presume
that too; the ability to define reality for others, and expect that
definition to stick (because you have the power to ensure that it becomes
the dominant narrative).
And it's the ability to ignore all evidence to the contrary, claim that
you yourself are the victim, and get everyone from the President to the
Supreme Court to the average white guy on the street to believe it.
It is Times New Roman font, one inch margins, left hand justified. In
other words, it is the default position on the computer of American life.
And it has rendered vast numbers of its recipients utterly incapable of
Only by rebelling against it, and insisting on our own freedom from the
mental straightjacket into which we have been placed as whites by this
system, can we hope to regain our full humanity, and be of any use as
allies to people of color in their struggle against racism.
Tim Wise is an antiracist activist, essayist and father. He can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org. Death threats, while neither appreciated nor desired,
will be graded for form, content and originality