Has White Male Privilege Run Amok?

Karen Finney (Kris Connor/Getty Images)
Karen Finney (Kris Connor/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Questions of racial identity and belonging have taken center stage this week with news that Karen Finney, political analyst and former deputy press secretary for Hillary Clinton, will host a new weekend show on MSNBC. In its announcement, MSNBC noted that Finney was the "first African-American spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee."


The most notable questions, tweeted by self-described right-wing Media Research Center "watchdog" and Newsbusters' pundit Tim Graham, were whether Finney was actually an "African American" and a journalist. Graham tweeted a photo of Finney for scrutiny and asked if the "average viewer" would "be able to guess that" Finney is African American and whether House Speaker John Boehner is "a shade more tan [than she]?"

Graham's choice of words is telling. "Tan." This not-so subtle reference to the "tanning of America," the major demographic shift that will unseat white people as the nation's racial majority, is being highlighted as cause for alarm and call to action. 

To be clear, Graham's "tan" appeal is nothing more than an accusation that Finney is "passing,"  or representing herself as a member of a different racial group than the one to which she belongs in order to succeed. Historically, "passing" has been used in a negative way to describe nonwhite people who present themselves as white in order to lessen the impact of racism. Graham's accusation is a twist on that legacy because he suggests that Finney is misrepresenting herself as a person of color in order to move forward in her career. Worse, Graham asks others to weigh in about Finney's racial identity without her permission and without suggesting any alternative identities she could occupy. Is he, for instance, actually calling Finney a white or multiracial person trying to pass as black? Not exactly, and the ambiguity is intentional.

Here's a translation of Graham's assertions: "Don't be duped. Finney is a deceptive passer. I know an African-American person when I see one, and I'm not seeing one when I see Finney. Therefore, dear viewers, you shouldn't trust anything about her or anyone else who looks racially ambiguous. Trust me instead." Though distasteful, Graham's questions are predictable, as I wrote in my book, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, which deals with how people reconcile who they are with whom society tells them to be as racial definitions and demographics change.

Unless Graham's remarks are challenged, we are all affected because his racist claims are allowed to pass as racial common sense. Racist claim No. 1: If we can't trust Finney's outward appearance, then we can't trust her actions and opinions, either. Racist claim No. 2: Trust me. I'm not a passer. I am who I say I am and my appearance confirms it. Remember, (a white male) appearance is a trustworthy measure of character. No other evidence is required. Racist claim No. 3: White people, especially white men, are now members of a disadvantaged racial group because of "tan" demographic shifts and because of programs like affirmative action. Racist claim No. 4: White people, especially white men, need to appoint themselves as watchdogs for and protectors of the real racial minority group (i.e., white people) at all costs. 

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.