White Americans have to constantly remind ourselves of our privilege. The reason is that a big part of our privilege comes from our race being seen as a “non-race.” I don’t have to wince when the television news shows the picture of a white man who is wanted for murder. No one thinks that the fact that the suspected murderer was white says anything about the white race. If I were black or Latino or Chinese or any other non-European, I would wince under similar circumstances because I would know that people did think the actions of other people of my race reflected on me.
In fact, this is how racism reinforces itself. If you think that blacks are stupid, you take every example of a stupid black person to bolster your theory. Every example of a smart black person is simply disregarded as exceptional and the theory lives on. It is why it is so hard to fight your own racism once you’ve stereotyped different groups. And it is as true of good stereotypes as much as bad. For example, we do the same things if we decide that Indians are a smart race.
The privilege inherent in white being the “default” race is a big part of Tim Wise’s excellent book White Like Me. But there is a tendency for white conservatives especially to claim that they don’t see the world this way. This is the basis of Stephen Colbert’s routine about not seeing race, “People tell me I’m white and I believe them because police officers call me ‘sir.'” I would go so far as to say that the more a white person can’t see their “default” race privilege, the more racist they are.
Yesterday, Paul Waldman wrote an excellent article on this very subject, The Infinite Circle of Black Responsibility. It is about how it is generally accepted without embarrassment that blacks ought to be held responsible for what other blacks say and do in a way that would never be applied to whites. The article starts with a great example of that ultimate exemplar of the Washington establishment, Tim Russert, asking then Senator Obama to comment on something Harry Belafonte had said about the Bush administration. And why? Only because both men were black.
That shows just how deep the problem goes. Waldman also quotes Bill O’Reilly, a man who would never admit to being racist, but is somehow surprised that upper class blacks act just like upper class whites. Most recently, O’Reilly went straight for the “isn’t that just like blacks” playbook. Waldman explains:
But what can we expect? Bill O’Reilly is a bigot. And he’s not self-aware enough to even know it. The rest of us who are aware of the way that the media constantly reinforce racist stereotypes must constantly work against such traps.