In the New York Times Magazine, a peculiar article by Claudia Rankine, a Yale English professor, muses about a provocative question. It’s peculiar not just in its putative subject matter, white privilege, but in its buried lede. The article purports to be about Rankine’s inquiry of white men about what they think of their privilege. This would be odd enough, since the perspective of white privilege exists primarily from the outside. It’s like asking a fish to talk about its feelings on water.
Perhaps this is why one day in New Haven, staring into the semicircle of oak trees in my backyard, I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege. I imagined myself — a middle-aged black woman — walking up to strangers and doing so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Ind., did when his female colleague told him during a diversity-training session that he benefited from “white male privilege”? He became angry and accused her of using a racialized slur against him. (She was placed on paid administrative leave, and a reprimand was placed permanently in her file.) Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? Would they think I worked for Trevor Noah or Stephen Colbert and just forgot my camera crew? The running comment in our current political climate is that we all need to converse with people we don’t normally speak to, and though my husband is white, I found myself falling into easy banter with all kinds of strangers except white men. They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out. Maybe it was time to engage, even if my fantasies of these encounters seemed outlandish. I wanted to try.*
She manages to squeeze in there that she’s a middle-aged black woman married to a white man. She seized upon a random story of police captain as poster boy for white men, and blames white men for not seeking her out, ignoring the alternative of her seeking them out. So, here she was, theoretically, ready to indulge her fantasy encounters. Except she doesn’t actually do so. Instead, she muses about doing so, and from there devolving into fantasy explanations of what would happen if she did so. Except she doesn’t do so.
The closest she comes is when a guy cuts in front of her in the First Class line at the airport, where she parses his inner secret white privilege motives through the goo in her mind. Even her retelling of her therapist’s response is peculiar.
Later, when I discussed this moment with my therapist, she told me that she thought the man’s statement was in response to his flight mate, not me. I didn’t matter to him, she said; that’s why he could step in front of me in the first place. His embarrassment, if it was embarrassment, had everything to do with how he was seen by the person who did matter: his white male companion. I was allowing myself to have too much presence in his imagination, she said. Should this be a comfort? Was my total invisibility preferable to a targeted insult?
Some people imagine themselves the star of every story, including the stories occurring in other people’s worlds. And if, as the therapist suggested, she wasn’t the star, then she’s still the star by dint of her being rendered invisible, as if she was different than the hundred people one runs across in a random day.
And so we arrive at the buried lede: Through whose lens is this “conversation” about race to happen, that of the person to whom the inquiry is made or that of the person making inquiry?
In this story, problems arise from the intrusion of narcissistic delusions, a story told not of what happened, but what someone would imagine happened if she actually did what she thought about doing, except she didn’t bother and instead invented a conversation that never happened. But even if it happened, would it then be filtered through her perspective, retold, as it was to her therapist, the way she perceived it? Could she possibly give the responses honestly, or would she be constrained to reinvent them through her mind’s eye?
The answer, if there is one, reveals itself in the white man with whom she actually engages.
Back home, when I mentioned these encounters to my white husband, he was amused. “They’re just defensive,” he said. “White fragility,” he added, with a laugh. This white man who has spent the past 25 years in the world alongside me believes he understands and recognizes his own privilege. Certainly he knows the right terminology to use, even when these agreed-upon terms prevent us from stumbling into moments of real recognition. These phrases — white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation — have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.
Her husband, the white guy, used the right jargon, white fragility, “white defensiveness, white appropriation,” but still he was wrong.
He was not wrong, of course, but he joined all the “woke” white men who set their privilege outside themselves — as in, I know better than to be ignorant or defensive about my own privilege. Never mind that that capacity to set himself outside the pattern of white male dominance is the privilege. There’s no outrunning the kingdom, the power and the glory.
If there is no answer that doesn’t prove white privilege, then there isn’t much point in talking about it. Finally, an explanation of why the New York Times published an article about someone asking white men about privilege without every actually doing it, and instead indulging their narcissistic delusions to get their answer. And this is what they teach students at Yale.
*Forgive the long block quote, but Rankine is an academic, and short, less verbose, more readable paragraphs are an unforgivable sin in the Academy.