The Revolution Inside

From Latin American Odyssey, to a profound investigation of the Bolivarian revolution. Hugo Chavez says: Socialism or Death! Leftists rejoice, and Capitalists squeal. But what do the people of Venezuela think about all of this?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hey, Whitey, Give Me a Peso

signage in San Salvador... you can almost make out the chain restaurant "Mr. Donut" in the background.

So, I know I need to jump in and defend the use of the term "White Privilege" . I know I need to do that, because I had to think a lot about it before I could use it, or before it hit me quite right. Many of you out there who are reading this and are white-skinned (if there are any left ) or grew up in a "middle class" background in the US - will react to this term. The first response is something like this:

))) The term "White Privilege", doesn´t distinguish between good white people and bad white people.

Good white people, who hate their evil racist government, and bad white people, who support it. Good white people, who have friends from different cultures and read James Baldwin and think women are smarter then men. Bad white people, who believe in traditional families and hate queers; who think children should be spanked and cars should be loud.

My response: You are correct. With respect to privilege, the term doesn´t distinguish between good white people and bad white people. In fact, the people that are "good" white people are generally MORE privileged than the so-called bad white people. Right? The classic untouchable whites are referred to as "white trash". They´re coarse and racist and poor. And, they are economically disadvantaged. They are the flowers that grow in the shit of our system. Their poverty allows us to go to college and become managers.

Everytime you use the phrase "white trash" you are reinforcing your own class standing, and implicitly justifying your right to privilege as a white person. Otherwise, we´d probably just call them trash. Isn´t that sickening?

So, when talking about privilege, don´t forget your own. We are guilty, and we are responsible. The "good" white people, educated, working in social services and owning a house and a car... are more guilty and more responsible. Because however much good they´re doing with their job in the system, they are feeding off the flesh and bones of the rest of the world.

the roofs of a shantytown built over a stream in the middle of a wealthy urban area in San Salvador. Wealthy urban area not shown.

))) The privilege you´re talking about is really Class Privilege, not actually White Privilege.

My Response: Well, you´re right. But when you´re on the ground in Latin America, the rule of thumb used to determine class privilege is skin color.

"Hey, Chele, Dame Un Peso!"

It´s true that there are underprivileged whites. And it´s also true that a lot of people in the US with white skin don´t feel very privileged. But this is an artifact of how the system works in the US. It keeps the lower classes fighting with/competing with the middle classes, leaving the super-rich to govern from their climate-controlled space bubbles.

There is a difference between extraordinary privilege and access (which most people in the US have, relative to the rest of the world), versus unimaginably gigantic privilege and access, which only a small percentage of people have in each culture. And when looking at the effects of inequality on one´s well-being, local relative inequality matters more than global access to privilege. That is, if you are living in a community where everyone makes $100K a year, and your family only makes $50K per year, you´re going to experience the stressors of being poor in that community. In fact, in communities where everyone makes $500 a year, they`re probably more "happy" than most societies in the US, although they probably won´t have hot water and TVs.

I mean, the US is not a happy country, and the medium to upper middle classes are not happy, and apparently you can´t have both moderate financial success and happiness. The super rich are pretty happy, they live a long life, and they have lighter skin. The global poor are pretty happy, but they die young. They have darker skin.

On a global scale, the following statements are true:

  • the lighter your skin, the more privileges and access you have.
  • if you have gigantic privilege and access, there´s about a 90% chance you´re white.
  • and even if you´re not white and you have gigantic privilege and access, you will mostly be working with white people, on a global scale. You will have to be comfortable and conversant in white circles and culture.
  • relative inequality aside, even a poor white person from the US will have more ability to enter other countries than most other people will ever enjoy, whether or not they ever take advantage of this privilege.

And besides, when you see whose culture is invading nearly every other culture (psychologically, economically, or militarily), the symbol of status and power is white skin. It´s what is beautiful, luxurious. Desirable. When you get on a plane, the people who are decision makers or "educated" will gravitate to you, even if you never went to college.. because even though you thought you were kind of ordinary... you are in the global 10%! They have a laptop too! They have dyed their hair too! And when cut from your cultural moorings, you find that you have more in common than you thought. At least I can talk to this guy. Even though he´s kind of like a Republican.

There´s another reason why it´s better to talk about white privilege than class privilege - because the term class privilege allows white "middle class" or "working class" people to think of themselves as not privileged, just regular people. And that is somewhat true in a local sense, but not from a global perspective. You see, they can still save up for a vacation in the Caribbean someday. And when they do, they will stay at a resort! Just like the rich people! With a pool next to the ocean! Unless they`re unusually adventuresome or foolhardy, they`re not going to be eating lunch where the locals eat, where the regular people eat... where the majority of the world eats - at home.

a roundabout in honor of the great Salvadoran hero, Lord Robert Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts. In the background, the Coke advertisement says "Lucha Por Tus Sueños" - Fight for your dreams.

And what`s weird is that in some way, these folks will think of their vacation as well-deserved, a just reward for years of "hard" work - steady drudgery. As if there was some implication that the people on the other side of the island are receiving their just reward for... for what? For being born in Haiti? For being born in Nicaragua? It´s true that we might have had to work hard, to compete hard to get our job, to get up at the same time day after day. But we hear this idea of people having the choice whether to stay in their social circumstances or change them... but a little travel outside the western world will show you that most of the world doesn´t have a choice. That´s what borders are for - to protect your privilege to one day maybe have a vacation in the Caribbean. If we were to eliminate all the borders, then maybe we could talk a little more about people choosing to stay in their circumstances. After all, we already see a significant number of people doing some incredibly difficult work to improve the conditions of their lives, and we call them "illegals."

So, I guess my point is: look, I call it white privilege, cuz it´s the kind of privilege that accrues to white people mostly. And it´s a racist system that maintains that privilege... we don´t even need a big board room with white guys saying all sorts of racist things, scheming on how to ensure the domination of the white race. It`s built into the system we have. And it won`t just become unracist one day when the children who grew up with the No Child Left Behind Act.

Nope, those of us who receive white privilege must figure out how to use it for good. We need to start the work of dismantling the system that works effortlessly for our benefit. How does that happen?