Key #4: Whiteness and the White Privilege of ‘Neighborliness’
If you know—
as a black American must know,
discovers at his mother’s breast,
and then in the eyes of his father
—that the world which calls itself “white”
and which has the further, unspeakable cowardice
of calling itself “free”
—if you will dare imagine that I,
speaking now as a black witness to the white condition,
see you in a way that you cannot afford
to see me,
if you can see that the invention
of the black condition creates the trap
of the white identity
you will see that what a black man knows
about a white man stems, inexorably,
from the white man’s description of who
and what, he takes to to be the other—
in this case, the black cat: me.
~ James Baldwin, 1979.
One of the main reasons why the killing of Trayvon attracted national attention is the nature of his relationship to the neighborhood where he was murdered: he belonged there, he was Zimmerman’s neighbor, and yet he was suspected of being a criminal outsider. While unarmed black men get profiled and shot and killed pretty much everyday in poor ‘high-crime’ neighborhoods all across America, the difference here was that Trayvon was killed in a predominantly middle-class neighborhood where he actually belonged.
What does Trayvon’s killing say about the privileged assumptions people make about who they consider to be a ‘neighbor’? What led Zimmerman and the predominately white jury to never consider the possibility that a young black kid like Trayvon, especially in a diverse gated community, might actually be a neighbor? As an anonymous commentator posted online: “I hope for a world where Zimmerman offers Trayvon a ride home to get out of the rain.” What stopped Zimmerman from considering such ‘neighborliness’ when seeing Trayvon walking home in the rain from the store?
There are any number of incidents where black/brown residents of middle-class predominately white neighborhoods experience the shock of being suspected to be strangers by their own neighbors or by police who stop them “randomly” to ask if they are somehow lost. Here are just a few that attracted news attention:
- In 2009 it was a neighbor who called the police upon seeing Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., attempting to enter his own home with the assistance of a black cab driver.
- In 2012 a white 76-year-old Milwaukee man, John Henry Spooner, accused and then killed his unarmed black 13-year-old neighbor Darius Simmons on suspicion that Simmons had stolen Spooner’s guns. When police arrived, they searched Simmons’ home to make sure he hadn’t actually stolen the guns, which raises the question of why a 13-year-old black kid is still a suspect even after being shot dead while unarmed and on the sidewalk outside his own home.
- In 2013 it was a neighbor who called the police on 60-year-old Roy Middleton in Sarasota, Florida, who was searching his mother’s car for a loose cigarette. When he turned around too rapidly in surprise at being challenged (in his own driveway), the police shot him with a fusillade of bullets.
These everyday experiences show that there is a privilege of whiteness associated with who gets to be assumed to be a ‘neighbor’ especially in a middle-class neighborhood. White anti-racist author and scholar Tim Wise explains the concepts of whiteness and white privilege in his book “White Like Me” (and also his upcoming movie). Wise describes the reality of race for white people as follows:
We are all experiencing race, because from the beginning of our lives we have been living in a racialized society, where the color of our skin means something socially, even while it remains largely a matter of biological and genetic irrelevance. Race may be a scientific fiction […] but it is a social fact that none of us can escape no matter how much or how little we may speak of it. [By] “whites” or “white folks,” I am referring to those persons, typically of European descent, who are able, by virtue of skin color or perhaps national origin and culture, to be perceived as “white,” as members of the dominant group.
The dominance of “white” as a racial category extends beyond just numerical majority. Rather, as Wise explains:
Whiteness is more about how you’re likely to be viewed and treated in a white supremacist society than it is about who you are, in any meaningful sense. This is why even some very light-skinned folks of color have been able to access white privilege over the years by passing as white or being misperceived as white, much to their benefit. […] To be white is to be born into an environment where one’s legitimacy is far less likely to be questioned than would be the legitimacy of a person of color, be it in terms of where one lives, where one works, or where one goes to school. […] To be white is to be free of the daily burden of constantly having to disprove negative stereotypes.
The privilege of whiteness does not operate alone but works in conjunction with numerous other systems of privilege and inequality. Wise describes the intersections thus:
We live not only in a racialized society, but also in a class system, a patriarchal system, and one of straight supremacy/heterosexism, able-bodied supremacy, and Christian hegemony. These other forms of privilege, and the oppression experienced by those who can’t manage to access them, mediate, but never fully eradicate, something like white privilege. So I realize that, socially rich whites are more powerful than poor ones, white men are more powerful than white women, able-bodied whites are more powerful than those with disabilities, and straight whites are more powerful than gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered whites.
Still, one of the ways whiteness works is to constantly reaffirm the assumed normalcy of “white” people by positioning “non-white” groups as somehow inferior or suspicious or strange. Whiteness seeks to become invisible, transparent, so that no negative stereotypes can be attached to “white” communities with any meaningful consequences to white people in everyday life. Rather, negative stereotypes of non-white communities serve to deflect attention away from white communities. When white people commit crimes, rarely will their race be reported as a part of media stories, and never will a pattern of white crime be linked to a serious accusation about white culture more broadly. Instead, white crime gets treated as instances of individual moral failure, as aberrations, rather than as something reflective of a possible deeper pathology in white communities.
For example, when Rolling Stone magazine had a selfie picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on their cover, commentator Joe Scarborough remarked on MSNBC that the magazine had effectively taken someone who was “our enemy” and made him look like “our next door neighbor.” Thus, even though the article referenced Tsarnaev’s “copious marijuana use,” there wasn’t much of an outcry to depict him as a drug criminal (unlike when Trayvon’s “trace amounts of marijuana” became grounds to depict him as a thug). This indicates a reality for most white people, reinforced by TV shows like Weeds: the use of recreational drugs by white people is simply taken as a given, shrugged off as harmless or even celebrated, while any hint of drug use by black/brown people is characterized as a moral failure of black/brown cultures more broadly.
Thus, white privilege means that black/brown residents of gated communities are more likely to NOT be assumed as “our neighbors” in police traffic stops and in neighborhood watch calls. There is instead an implicit assumption that a white stranger in those communities will simply be seen as naturally belonging there.