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Still on White Privilege

I often wonder whether even those who acknowledge the phenomenon of white privilege and work assiduously to obviate its impact on, specifically, black lives, know how widespread is its impact and how enmeshed it is in the very framework of life in this country.

I say this because, as someone whose citizenship of this country is not even thirty years old, given all the prattle about “post-racial society” or “the declining significance of race” in the lives of Americans, especially African Americans, I am reminded daily of how much my life as an African immigrant is structured by the since-disestablished but ever active racial rules that structure the lives of black people.  That recent immigrants like me must bear the ongoing transaction costs imposed on living black in the United States is proof of the recalcitrance of race as a principle of social living till date.

Let’s begin with the mundane.  Even something as simple as enjoying the outdoors is not as easily presented for black people.  The funny take on that by Blair Underwood, [], hits the nail on the head when it comes to its absurdity.  But many of us who live daily with an acute sense of what limitations people place on us know this too well. 

Thus, when I read recently that the Trump administration that is otherwise committed to paring down various environmental regulations has approved Idaho’s wildlife conservation plan, what crossed my mind immediately is how, ordinarily, few would see any connection between this great stride in conservation and what we call white privilege.  All we need do is peel back a bit to see that the access to this treasure, to the enjoyment by humans that it is supposed to afford, may indeed be limited to or, at least, not be presented in the same manner to many Americans of African descent.  To have Park Rangers intrude on your solitude just because you seem like an oddity—black people “don’t” hike, that is the idea—and have fellow hikers turn you into a “celebrity” of sorts—given your rarity and their odd mix of anxiety, embarrassment, and relief—must leave one feeling somewhat confused, if not exasperated.

Of course, if you look different and you happen to show up in a place where your kind is not routinely encountered, you might elicit similar reactions but I doubt that such reactions would reek of the unspoken anxieties that racism brings in its wake in the current situation.  Black people are not rarities in this clime.

Just like guys are too quick to proclaim how we have not oppressed any woman, in particular, so are many white people somewhat equally quick to deny that they are beneficiaries of white privilege.  The analogy with sexism can be quite illuminating in this respect.  When women must take extra precautions to do the most mundane things, for example, walking back to their residence after studying at night on campuses, and have to wait on chaperones, they are victims of asymmetrical transaction costs of social living that are not exacted on men. 

When we have to be chaperoned in stores by pretend-helpful attendants, such is an instance of transaction costs that our white cohorts do not pay.  There are so many examples of these   unbearable transaction costs that if we do not, over time, learn to take them in our strides, and just regard them as what they are—costs attached to living while black—many of us would probably die from choking on our anger.

If I were lauded for being the “first black professor of philosophy” in any institution in Mongolia or China or Japan, I would take the adjectivization of my accomplishment.  But when such is predicated of me in the United States, I often am offended and I shun it as a matter of principle.  Given the percentage of black people in the population and their long history in this country, for me to be the first black professor of philosophy in any department in this country is not something I am proud of; rather, it is an indictment of the institution that, given what I know of black excellence in the history of the country, thought that I would be the first of my kind “credentialed” enough to be worthy of a position there. 

It is an awareness of, again, the asymmetry involved in anointing “first blacks” and, in extremely rare cases, “first whites” in motley life situations.  A “first white” is usually an enlargement of the attainment; a “first black” is often a diminution of the achievement.  This is a running theme in the thoughts of Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Amilcar Cabral who, all, in different ways question the propriety of adjectivizing their ideas as if the capture of the universal is beyond the ken of thinkers who happen—yes, a pure accident, if there be any—to be black, African, or what have you.  Notice the whiteness of Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, André Malraux, or George Bernard Shaw, is never referenced.  The first set are “black writers”; the second, “writers”, simpliciter.

A direct emanation from the foregoing is that we are never regarded as qualified thinkers of the universal.  But it gets even more absurd.  We are never even considered to be genuine experts on our own reality: we are never capable of the “detachment” that “objective theorizing” about phenomena requires.  It is why white “experts” are easily sought out when what is to be explained are aspects of our experience as black people.  Of course, we are never considered to be “expert” enough to comment on aspects of the experience of white people.

Nor are our lives ordinary.  Each of our lives is a candidate for “spectaculization”: you are an African immigrant or a black American?  You must be a survivor, of poverty and violence in the one case or both plus disease, in the other.  It is why when we do the simplest things, they are rated extraordinary because we are not supposed to be able to do them: smart, articulate, sophisticated, erudite.  We are forever wondering why we are being complimented especially when, as is often the case, we know how ordinary, given our cohort in our original places, we are compared to others we used to hang with “back home”, as it were.

We are never trusted to be what we are or claim to be, it does not matter how impressive our credentials are.  There is a sense that you would come up short or that you would need special help along your journey.  And you easily kindle hostility in your self-appointed benefactors when it turns that you would be okay, without their help.  I would not like to be misunderstood.  I am not talking of mentors, colleagues who are genuinely interested in seeing their junior progress in the field.  This is not limited to your colleagues.  As recently as this semester, a colleague was asked by a student if they had a Ph.D.!  And institutions are not averse to place more hoops on our way to advancement than are required of our white counterparts.  I do not speak only from my own experience.  The authors collected in the superb anthology, Presumed Incompetent, more than buttress what I am referencing here.

I must not end without a word on the craze for “diversity and inclusion” across the land, especially in higher education institutions.  Diversity is not when I am attractive to you because I am fluent in your register.  Diversity is when you, too, strive to expand your repertoire of registers not because you must, like I did, but because you wish to take seriously other ways of being human that my other registers represent and would like to educate yourself in them.  It is the difference between tolerance and embrace.

Finally, please don’t ask me whether I like it here, where I learned to speak English, or, even, where I am from.  This is home now and that is all that matters.  If I experience those questions as burdens, and I am only twenty-some years old as a citizen, just imagine what it would be for African Americans for whom this has always been home.  Different is American, too.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.  He is a Public Voices Fellow.

Portside thanks him for his original submission to Portside.