My college students and I additionally studied the work of the white documentary filmmaker Whitney Dow. In the final couple of years, Dow has been a part of Columbia University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (Incite), which gathered knowledge on greater than 850 individuals who determine as white or partly white and the communities by which they reside. He filmed greater than 100 of their oral histories. This work, like McIntosh’s, was one other mind-set concerning the ordinariness of white hierarchical pondering. I requested Dow what he discovered in his conversations with white males. “They are struggling to construct a just narrative for themselves as new information comes in, and they are having to restructure and refashion their own narratives and coming up short,” he stated. “I include myself in that,” he added after a second. “We are seeing the deconstruction of the white-male archetype. The individual actor on the grand stage always had the support of a genocidal government, but this is not the narrative we grew up with. It’s a challenge to adjust.”
The interviews, collected in Incite’s preliminary report, “Facing Whiteness,” fluctuate tremendously when it comes to data of American historical past and experiences. One interviewee declares: “The first slave owner in America was a black man. How many people know that? The slaves that were brought to America were sold to the white man by blacks. So, I don’t feel that we owe them any special privileges other than that anybody else has, any other race.” While this interviewee denies any privilege, one other has come to see how his whiteness allows his mobility in America: “I have to accept the reality that because I’m a man, I — whether I was aware of that or not at any specific time — probably had some sort of hand up in a situation.” He added, “The longer I’m in law enforcement and the more aware I am of the world around me, the more I realize that being of Anglo-Saxon descent, being a man and being in a region of America that is somewhat rural, and because it’s rural by default mostly white, means that I definitely get preference.” This interviewee, who whereas recognizing his privilege, and who in accordance to Whitney Dow had been “pretty ostracized because of his progressiveness” within the office, nonetheless signifies — by his use of phrases like “probably” and phrases like “because it’s rural by default mostly white” — that he believes white privilege is in play in solely sure circumstances. Full comprehension would come with the understanding that white privilege comes with expectations of safety and preferences irrespective of the place he lives within the nation.
How angry could I be at the white man on the plane, the one who glanced at me each time he stood up the way you look at a stone you had tripped on? I understood that the man’s behavior was also his socialization. My own socialization had, in many ways, prepared me for him. I was not overwhelmed by our encounter because my blackness is “consent not to be a single being.” This phrase, which finds its origins in the work of the West Indian writer Édouard Glissant but was reintroduced to me in the recent work of the poet and critical theorist Fred Moten, gestures toward the fact that I can refuse the white man’s stereotypes of blackness, even as he interacts with those stereotypes. What I wanted was to know what the white man saw or didn’t see when he walked in front of me at the gate.
It’s hard to exist and also accept my lack of existence. Frank Wilderson III, chair of African-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, borrows the sociological term “social death” to explain my there-but-not-there status in a historically anti-black society. The outrage — and if we are generous, the embarrassment — that occasioned the white passenger’s comment were a reaction to the unseen taking up space; space itself is one of the understood privileges of whiteness.
I was waiting in another line for access to another plane in another city as another group of white men approached. When they realized they would have to get behind a dozen or so people already in line, they simply formed their own line next to us. I said to the white man standing in front of me, “Now, that is the height of white male privilege.” He laughed and remained smiling all the way to his seat. He wished me a good flight. We had shared something. I don’t know if it was the same thing for each of us — the same recognition of racialized privilege — but I could live with that polite form of unintelligibility.
I found the suited men who refused to fall in line exhilarating and amusing (as well as obnoxious). Watching them was like watching a spontaneous play about white male privilege in one act. I appreciated the drama. One or two of them chuckled at their own audacity. The gate agent did an interesting sort of check-in by merging the newly formed line with the actual line. The people in my line, almost all white and male themselves, were in turn quizzical and accepting.
After I watched this scene play out, I filed it away to use as an example in my class. How would my students read this moment? Some would no doubt be enraged by the white female gate agent who let it happen. I would ask why it was easier to be angry with her than with the group of men. Because she doesn’t recognize or utilize her institutional power, someone would say. Based on past classes, I could assume the white male students would be quick to distance themselves from the men at the gate; white solidarity has no place in a class that sets out to make visible the default positions of whiteness.