Has White Male Privilege Run Amok?

Challenging Karen Finney's racial identity is just another way of attacking the "tanning" of America.

Karen Finney (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Finney has not yet commented on Graham’s insensitive and ignorant tweets, which can be considered a dignified way to argue that nobody should care about what Graham thinks. On the other hand, Finney’s silence presents us all with an opportunity to contribute to the conversation by raising more important questions. Questions like: Who is Graham? Why does he believe he’s most qualified to know Finney’s racial background? What evidence can be considered if we are going to ask what her background is? Why does it matter, anyway?

Then there are the age-old questions such as: Is race real? Is it biological? Sociological? Visible? For Finney and Graham, as for all of us, the answers are complicated. Race is an all too real fact of life that may also be, to some degree, a fiction.

Thankfully, some tweeps leaned in to complicate Graham’s rhetoric and challenge his privilege. Take Eric Deggans, who asked Graham, “So … ethnic diversity only counts if the host looks definitively like a nonwhite person? Graham was quick to respond: “No, it counts. Didn’t mean to say MSNBC doesn’t get credit for diversity. Just saying it’s not so self-evident.” Graham’s use of the term “self-evident” implies that his white male perspective is the only one that matters. It also hints at the fact that he is really only addressing other white males. 

Without interruptions like Deggans’, questions about Finney’s racial identity and worth are sure to devolve into ham-fisted attacks on affirmative action and on her professional “qualifications” and personal “character,” implying that Finney is a liar passing as an African-American journalist in order to benefit from unfair advantage as a woman of color at MSNBC.

As with the flurry of attention given to Elizabeth Warren’s racial identity during her 2012 campaign for senator of Massachusetts, Karen Finney’s racial identity is ultimately less significant than the fact that questions about her race persist as a means to disqualify her and others. Such questions not only demonstrate the ongoing problems of racial identification and passing in the 21st century but also prove that our vision of a postracial, “tan” America is not yet realized.

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg and the award-winning author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady. Follow her on Twitter.