Proud to be an American?

I did a small ‘ethnoraphic study’, and spoke with a young lady who I assumed to be an African-American.  When she questioned me about racial discrimination in the southern states, I suggested that perhaps she might know better than I.  This is when she explained to me that she was from one of the Caribbean islands and came to this country when she was very young. I apologized and told her that it was very wrong of me to have made an assumption based solely on her skin color.

It is interesting to consider that how we think about race in ‘America’ is unique.  We, many times, use a hyphenated distinction to clarify an ancestral heritage.  For example, we might distinguish some ‘Americans’ as African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and even Native-Americans.  Yet, we rarely do so for those with a European heritage.  We should ask ourselves why this may be.  We might even ask ourselves what we mean when we use the term ‘American’.

I would suggest that using the term ‘American’ to describe U.S. Americans is quite ethnocentric, for sure.  There are two entire continents that are named America, in which there are many, many countires.  When ‘we’ refer to the U.S.A. as ‘America’ it is not acknowledging that there are other Americans who are, in fact, not U.S. citizens.

I think that it is good for me to identify myself as a U.S. American of European descent.  This is not unlike my recent and intentional use of my white-skin racial classification.  If I intentionally acknowledge my dual privileges as a U.S. American of European descent and my white-skin privilege, then I am more likely to be acknowledging others’ disadvantage.  Then I might be more likely to work to change the unjust system of power and privilege.  Attempting to be ‘colorblind’ does not acknowledge others uniqueness or their possible disadvantage.

I think it very important to acknowledge my extreme privilege because then I find myself acting with much more generosity toward others who do not enjoy the same privilege.  I have found the need to take this position because I have learned of the difficult life of Bolivian coffee growers, the Mexican migrant farm workers, and the Mexican women working in the maquiladoras just south of the U.S./Mexico border, for example.

Coffee growers, for the most part, live a very impoverished life – even as they grow one of the world’s most profitable commodities – and even as many of us are willing to sip Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks at $2.00 per cup while the growers, many times, do not even earn enough to cover the costs of growing.

Mexican migrant farm workers (including children) are oftentimes used for the harvest of the foods we eat (affecting their education that contributes to a cycle of poverty for these families).  The harvest of tomatoes (here in the U.S.A.) is one very good example of the use of child labor in agriculture.  The film, The Harvest, documents the unacceptable condition of child-workers that live this life.

The stories of the young women, who are exploited as they work in U.S.A. owned ‘American’ factories just south of the U.S./Mexican border (maquiladoras), are documented in the anthology, Ethnography at the Border, by Pablo Vila.  These stories have given new meaning to the description, ‘American Made’, for me.

Acknowledgment of my own extreme privilege in relation to these American neighbors of mine prompts me to now be aware of how my shopping decisions affect them personally and this encourages me to make changes in my actions to either better their situation, or else minimally, to not contribute further to the hardships they already endure.

For example, I now purchase my coffee from Equal Exchange, a cooperative of growers and distributors that was created so that coffee growers could avoid the use of ‘coyotes’ (middlemen) in the marketing of their product, and thereby realize a greater profit for the growers.  I now grow a larger and larger garden of my own each year so that I am not relying so much on the exploitation of child-labor for my food needs.  Additionally, I now make an attempt to know about the working conditions of those that produce the goods and services that I consume such as is the case in the maquiladoras.  This way, I can support the businesses that I believe offer working conditions that are less exploitative and offer greater equity of profit for their workers.

When we, U.S. Americans, do not acknowledge that there are, in fact, very real differences in the life circumstances between us and our less-privileged American neighbors, we are much less likely to see our own position of domination in this hierarchical system of oppression.

If any of us drink coffee or tea, or consume chocolate that is not ‘fairly traded’ or if we eat foods that we did not grow ourselves, or used goods that are produced overseas in ‘developing nations’, there is a very real possibility that we are, through our purchasing decisions, oppressing and exploiting others.  We all play a part in a hierarchical system of domination, but for the most part, are completely unaware of this fact.  In the very same way that many white-skinned folks are ignorant to their position of racial privilege, so are most U.S. citizens ignorant to their position of extreme privilege in world wide affairs.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


White-Skin Privilege Checklist

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College for Research on Women, penned the essay, White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (Andersen & Collins, 2013, pp. 49-53).  She stated that her work in women’s studies led her to realize that although men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, and that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious.   This is when she considered how women of color stated that white women are oppressive, too.  This helped her to understand why white-skinned folks “are justly seen as oppressive, even when they don’t see themselves that way”.   She began to list the ways in which she enjoyed unearned white-skin privilege and had been “conditioned into oblivion about its existence”.

The following are the examples that Dr. McIntosh provided of the ways in which white-skinned folks like me have privilege simply because we have been born with white-skin.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

20. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

25. If my day of the week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial undertones.

26. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

Andersen, M. L., & Hill Collins, P. (2013). Race, class, and gender : An anthology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review: Honky by Dalton Conley

HonkyHonky by Dalton Conley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sociologist, Dalton Conley, grew up as a white boy who lived in a predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood of the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the 1970s and 1980s. In his ‘memoir’, Honky, he has offered the reader a unique lens through which to see the social constructions of race and class and how they intersect, plus also how these classifications offer some groups greater opportunity and privilege than they do for others. This important concept has larger societal implications.

The notion of race was not something of which Dalton was aware during his early years. He wrote that at the age of three, the new ‘sister’ he chose to ‘kidnap’ (the daughter of a family of black separatists) made that clear. Yet as time went by, the constructs of race did become apparent to him.

First he began to notice how he was different from others. He did not always receive the same ‘equal’ treatment that his playmates received. He desired to be part of their group, and to be called ‘nigga’ as the other boys were. He felt to be an outcast because he was never fully included in the neighborhood’s social circles. Dalton learned first hand the stigma of being a ‘minority’, even as he was simultaneously a member of the majority controlling group in the larger society.

When he grew a little older, he became aware of some privileges that certain notions of race can offer. For example, the discipline for misbehavior that he received from teachers and faculty at his school was much more forgiving and lenient than what the other classmates received. Additionally, because he did not belong in the ‘black class’ or the ‘Chinese class’ his family was able to choose which class they preferred for him. Choice is a privilege other students were not offered. Dalton had begun to learn about white-skin privilege. Dalton learned that having white skin offers the privileges of greater leniency in discipline and greater choices in opportunity, too. Yet did he, at that time, actually realize that this reality also necessitates the fact that others live oppressed experiences? Perhaps not fully.

As time passed, choice became understood as a privilege once again, after one of Dalton’s neighborhood friends was shot and paralyzed. At that time, because the social capital he had access to, that of his parent’s connections, he was able to attend an elite school across town, one that predominately consisted of middle-class white students. Here, the different style use of language (including body language) became apparent to him. For example, Dalton’s experience with the power of silence in certain situations gave him a realization of the benefits of certain types of cultural capital. This experience with privileged middle-class white students, attending a privileged middle-class white school, made clear the intersection of class and race and how lives are affected not only by one’s choices, but additionally by other forces which they might not otherwise be able to control, such as family connections (or lack of) and the language one learns and uses. Choice is a privilege that only some groups are offered.

Reading about Conley’s experiences has made the realities of racism (including systemic racism), and how they intersect with class distinctions much more clear to me, a person with white skin. What I have realized is that a child’s socioeconomic status has a major impact in the life opportunities they may receive. A child born into a family that has wealth is offered opportunities of choice, is influenced positively by cultural capital, and benefits from social capital connections. Poverty does not offer much in the way of property, power, or privilege, and children born into poverty do not realize the same choices, cultural capital and social capital benefits that the higher classes enjoy.

This has helped me to understand more deeply such situations as the realities that African-Americans must face today because of their ancestor’s experience of slavery. After their ’emancipation’ the ‘Freedmen’ did not have any wealth, nor power, nor privilege on which they could build. It was as though they were set to run a race, but the other runners had been given a big head start. To this day, the effects of slavery are still apparent in our segregated society where, for the most part, African-Americans are still trying to catch up in this ‘race’. This revelation has made it very clear to me that the U.S.A. is not the meritocracy that so many of us believe it to be. Perhaps it is a meritocracy for only a very select few.

As with Conley, I find it easier to see with a broader and more inclusive lens when I am able to encounter alternate experiences, either through real-life experience, through education, or through media sources, such as film, books, etc. The book Honky has been an eye-opener for me.

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© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.