But relationships are never solely about the two people involved. Each person carries into the mix a host of familial, cultural, religious and social bags, if not consciously, then subconsciously. For the white American man, this involves a powerful and double privilege, one very few can acknowledge, let alone take responsibility for.
Many white men have said to me, “I don’t even think of myself as white!”—which, of course, is the privilege writ large. Not having to think of oneself in racial terms—never, ever, not even one teensy little bit—is a psychological advantage nearly equal to the very real social and economic ones which white men in America enjoy. To look at society and see yourself reflected—positively for the most part—everywhere is a sweet and affirming thing. Having one’s way of being in the world, one’s way of inhabiting society be not just “a way” but “the way”—the standard, the default—is a privilege with great heft. But to suggest as much to the average white American male is to risk being dismissed as whining or playing the old race card. Or just plain imagining things.
As the essayist and speaker Tim Wise puts it, don’t ask a fish to appreciate, or to acknowledge, water. “Even if fish could speak they would likely have no explanation for the element they swim in every minute of every day of their lives. Water simply is. Fish take it for granted.”
I see the same confusion about privilege and the same belief that all you need is love in the students I teach, students who are, for the most part, white, suburban and well-to-do. They believe, bless their hearts, that racism and the inequality it creates, is an individual thing. They believe that if they are personally nice to any black person or Latino person, etc., who crosses their path, then the problem of racial inequality in America will be solved soon enough. It’s a lovely notion and utterly ridiculous. Not to mention ironic as hell.
Ironic because the young people of today do, in fact, carry less baggage about race than the Americans of my generation and age. They are not baggage-free, nor are they colorblind, as many would like believe; still, there is no doubt they encounter the issue in a different way than their predecessors, and this is both exciting and heartening to see.
But that didn’t happen because their grandparents went around smiling at black folks on the street car. It wasn’t niceness that launched the Civil Rights Movement or passed Brown vs. Board of Education or the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. It wasn’t some kind of inactive, casual non-animosity that created a world in which my students could reasonably look around and believe that progress on racial inequity was not only possible but inevitable.
These young people are deeply well-intentioned and just as deeply in need of what sociologist C. Wright Mills called a sociological imagination—the ability to link individual experience with greater societal patterns and with the course of history. If they had that, they would know that personal niceness, no matter how pleasant it makes buying groceries at Trader Joe’s, will not end inequality in juvenile justice or health care or housing or public education, or anything.
Niceness will not, for example, change the fact that black children—regardless of income—are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than the children of poor whites, even though the rate of serious rule infractions between the two groups is virtually identical (see Tim Wise). Nice mortgage lenders didn’t stop black and Latino homeowners from being nearly twice as likely than whites to receive high-cost subprime mortgages at all levels of income. Kindly-smiling judges don’t change the fact that although black Americans make up roughly 14 percent of monthly drug users, werepresent 37 percent of drug arrests, 53 percent of convictions and 67 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses, according to The Sentencing Project. More-pleasant white doctors won’t keep black babies from being 2.5 times more likely than white infants to die before their first birthday.