Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The evil of white privilege

Some recent news has revealed that some police have been planting drugs as evidence in prosecuting young black men and, as we have seen on numerous occasions, have been all too willing to use deadly force (or excessive force) preferentially on blacks and latinos.  Yes, of course, this sort of racist behavior is not typical of all (or even most) police officers.  And yes, of course, being a cop is dangerous and involves having to make split-second decisions.  But the widespread existence of tolerance for this behavior when it occurs is simply shameful.

I grew up in a lily-white Chicago suburb, with virtually no blacks or latinos and only a few Jews.  Hence, I had almost no experience with racial/cultural diversity.  My first real contact with a diverse sample of Americans came when I was inducted into the Army.  This turned out to be an unexpected benefit of my military service!  In that experience, I actually got to know and become friends with a quite diverse group of people.  The stereotypes I had heard as a boy were shattered by the reality of the experiences I had, and the main lesson I learned was that race is a meaningless notion.  Knowing that someone is within a particular ethnic group is to provide no meaningful information about that person.  You can only make meaningful judgments about someone after you get to know them personally and see by their actions just who they truly are.  Most evolutionary biologists recognize that race has little or no substantive scientific value - apart from superficial physical characteristics and cultural differences, you simply can't assume you know anything useful about a person when you recognize their racial background.  Default assumptions are often faulty.

As a white heterosexual male, I've experienced virtually nothing of the subtle and continuous discrimination that racial and gender stereotypes enable.  No opportunities closed to me.  No unjustified assumptions about my intentions and abilities.  No barriers to the chance to pursue my dreams.  It's only recently that I've begun to understand and appreciate the impact of the pernicious and pervasive treatment that many people experience on a daily basis as a result of white heterosexual male privilege (or "white privilege" for short).  Imagine, if you can, my white heterosexual male friends, the effect of being stereotyped on a daily basis, by police, by employers, by strangers, and many others while simply going about the business of living.  Imagine being seen by many as likely to be a drug dealer, a gang-banger, a vicious criminal, an ignorant laborer, an incompetent, a thief, a lazy welfare cheat - all by people who actually know nothing of who you are and what you truly represent as a human being.  All they see are stereotypes.

When someone speaks up to defend themselves from this sort of treatment, they're often labeled a racist (an ironic twist) and a dangerous trouble-maker!  The victims of this contempt and even hatred from certain segments of American society have to explain to their children why they're being subjected to ill treatment, having done nothing to deserve it.  They have to train their children in how to deal with police who should be protecting their rights, not violating them.  They have to take special care in how they dress, how they talk, and how they carry themselves in public to avoid the unwarranted default assumptions tied to racial and gender stereotypes that can lead to violence being visited upon them.

This is mostly invisible to most white, heterosexual males.  It's apparently not happening to us, so it's convenient and comforting to assume that white privilege doesn't really exist; to conclude that it's just some "politically correct" notion being foisted upon us.  We don't feel "privileged" because our privileged status is so pervasive, it's simply a constant background note.  Only if we could spend time in someone else's place might we come to understand and appreciate what white privilege does for us on a daily basis.  If we can picture what white privilege does for us by recognizing the impact of its absence, then we might be more willing to denounce the practice wherever and whenever it occurs.  The police tend to line up in a "blue wall of silence" when they see it happening - no doubt by a misplaced loyalty to their biased colleagues and by the threat of being ostracized by those colleagues who engage in discriminatory practices.  The majority of good cops should welcome the effort to cleanse bad cops from their midst.  As the old saying goes ... evil is perpetuated when good persons stand by and say or do nothing to prevent evil.

If we become close to someone with a different racial/gender background, we can learn from them just what their actual experiences have been.  It's not quite the same as experiencing it for oneself, but when hearing about what your friends actually have to deal with, anyone can begin to recognize white privilege for what it is - simple prejudice without any real justification.  Stereotypes and default assumptions about someone are not a justifiable basis for genuine human interaction.  For my white heterosexual male friends:  get to know your diverse acquaintances.  Among them you'll find people you want to have as friends, and some you don't want as friends - in the identical way your white heterosexual male acquaintances include people you like as well as those you don't like.  Pre-judgment on the superficial basis of race or gender is simply not consistent with reality.  Put such notions aside, if you can, and reach out to find friends among all your acquaintances.  You can learn much from their experiences, if you're willing to listen and try to understand.

A footnote:  if someone makes the default assumption that I fit some stereotype of a white heterosexual male (i.e, a "redneck"), without actually taking the time to know me as a person, that would also be a form of prejudicial discrimination.  Hence, there are some people who are not white heterosexual males, who actually are racists.  Sadly, such prejudices can be found within any group of humans.

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