Hold Your Applause for Gillibrand’s Words on Whiteness and White Privilege
Kirsten Gillibrand is basking in the radiant glow and beams of high praise for her insight and articulation of whiteness and white privilege. However, Gillibrand’s comments are incomplete and problematic.
On race and criminal justice, during the recent Democratic presidential debates, Gillibrand said:
"I think as a white woman of privilege, who is a U.S. Senator running for president of the United States, it is also my responsibility to lift up those voices that aren’t being listened to. And I can talk to those white women in the suburbs that voted for Trump and explain to them what white privilege actually is. That when their son is walking down the street with a bag of M&Ms in his pocket, wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot. When their child has a car that breaks down and he knocks on someone’s door for help and the door opens and the help is given, it’s his whiteness that protects him from being shot.”
The applause for Gillibrand has been a viral and virtual standing ovation. But if we look at her recitation again, Gillibrand said, “Listen, I’m white. I know I’m white. My whiteness protects me. It’s my responsibility to lift up voices and tell other white women they’re white.”
But what’s the point of knowing and talking about your whiteness if it’s not to end whiteness?
In the book White by Law, the legal scholar Ian Haney-Lopez says, “The goal of White race-consciousness should be the disassembly of Whiteness.” The reason for white people to know America has whited them is to end whiteness. That’s it. And that work is much more than explaining and lifting up voices, especially for a U.S. Senator. That work requires legislating an end to whiteness and white privilege, especially for a U.S. Senator.
Gillibrand’s statements that say, “I’m white and I know it” are insufficient. It’s as if she’s saying, “I’m happy and I know it,” and everyone else should clap their hands. To some people, her words may stretch by leaps and bounds ahead of most white people or white presidential candidates. But her words are still a shallow first step. All first steps aren’t equal or worthy of praise. Steps in place are first steps too, and they don’t go anywhere.
Did she even condemn whiteness and white privilege? She seemed to announce and pronounce whiteness and white privilege. It didn’t sound like she denounced and renounced whiteness and white privilege. We should notice and hear what Gillibrand didn’t say. Gillibrand offered no statements about ending whiteness and white privilege. And ending whiteness and white privilege are vital because an anti-racist society can’t exist with whiteness and white privilege.
Gillibrand’s insistence that she can run and tell white people about whiteness and white privilege sounds more like she’s an evangelist spreading good news to a cult. That will only confirm the cult’s views of superiority. If she doesn’t tie her efforts to eradicating white privilege, and if she doesn’t communicate the full message about the damnation and abomination of white privilege, her words could backfire or fall on deaf ears. She won’t win committed converts. That’s why the talking points about white privilege need a revision, and history is important.
Contrary to popular belief, the first scholar to analyze white-skin privileges was not Peggy McIntosh. An early scholar who got deep under the skin of white-skin privileges was the late Theodore Allen. Allen described white-skin privileges as “bait” and “a shot of heroin.”
Bait and heroin. Heroin and bait. Those words in the fine print differ from the white-insurance policy that Gillibrand is selling and peddling. It’s necessary to describe bait as bait and to call heroin, heroin. Gillibrand skipped and missed the alarms and harms of white privilege to white people. She didn’t speak about the rusty hook or the toxins in the bait.
As bait, white-skin privileges lured white people away from the real threat of consolidated wealth and exploitation at the hands of white elites. The white elites intended for whiteness and white privileges to placate white people and to gain allegiance from white people. With that understanding, whiteness and white privileges are something to give up, and not something to retain and use like a bonus reward card.
White privilege is white people’s problem to fix, and it’s also the problem that got white people in a fix. That view of white privilege creates an urgency for white people to reject and end white privileges. In the book Racing to Justice, the scholar john a. powell says Toni Morrison calls for an examination of the way slavery and racism have “marked and scarred white people.” On white privilege powell writes, “[W]hite privilege comes with baggage: fear, anxiety, and dissociation.”
Notice that powell talks about the baggage of white privilege and McIntosh described white privilege as an invisible knapsack. It’s a different way of looking at white privilege. Gillibrand spoke about the knapsack; she didn’t weigh or point to the baggage of white privilege.
White America must see white privileges for what they are — bait, baggage, and heroin. White privilege is a phony form of superiority sanctioned by the state that harms people who aren’t white; it tricks white people into white solidarity, and it ultimately works against their interests.
White people shouldn’t think anyone wants their whiteness or their white privileges. And white people shouldn’t think their white privileges alone will protect them. White privileges kill white people. The white privilege to have white pain on a pedestal and the bad belief that white people are above problems and pain are part of what led to the opioid epidemic. And the white privilege of gun ownership is part of what increases white male suicides. Gillibrand didn’t list those works of white privilege.
If the only message to white people is that Black people and people of color have it the worst — that lonely message won’t work because it hasn’t worked. Isn’t that the point of whiteness? A fuller message must go out to white people. White privilege is problematic for white people too. And part of the problem is that white people think white privilege is their prize and not their problem.