White folks and affirmative action: The 101 real-deal lesson

The most dangerous White supremacists wear suits and smiles, not hoods. They kill with respectable debate and marching orders, not weapons. – Ju-Hyun Park

I am a Black woman from Chicago living in Maine who writes and talks about race pretty regularly. Then, to ensure that I really never stop talking about racism, my day job is heading up an anti-racism organization. That means that my small-talk game in social settings leads to some pretty interesting moments. If you want to kill the vibe at the local watering hole or social gathering, try talking about a job like mine in the era of Trump. I am what some might consider a buzzkill. Hey, it’s a living and someone has to do it.

Seriously though, what happens far too often is that some white person, upon hearing what I do for a living, wants to engage me on race and generally starts feeding me the “I don’t see race line”…“We are all the same”…or some other line of deflection that reveals that the speaker has never thought deeply or critically about race. Someone who rarely or never understands that to be white in America (and, frankly, most of the world) is to exist in a bubble of privilege.

As I said in my TEDx talk last fall, America is a nation built on stolen land that was built with the bodies of stolen and enslaved people. In choosing that course of action, we set in place a country where possession of white skin has meant inclusion into the family of humanity and anything less than white skin has meant a struggle to be viewed as fully human.

What’s interesting is that since the Obama presidency, there has been a shift in perception that white folks are becoming a minority and that anti-white bias/discrimination is an issue. Funny how the first non-white president out of the previous 43 white male presidents brought about this shift in mindset. I guess when you don’t see yourselves occupying the highest seat in the land, it causes one to feel some kind of way.

Well, fast-forward past the Obama years to the Trump months and we have Trump to the rescue, making America great again by putting those Blacks and other non-white, non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual, non-Christians back in their place. Under the thumb of the straight white man.

Given how fast things move in Trumpland (in the span of a Scaramucci perhaps, or maybe a Scaramouche?), I have tried to avoid writing about Trump directly because by the time I pen my thoughts and post, we will be on to the next calamity or stunt. However as news broke that the Trump regime planned to investigate anti-white bias in affirmative action admissions policies, I had to say something.

For decades now, there has been this fixed false belief that Black people and other minorities and immigrants were getting all the goodies once reserved for white people and thus displacing white folks from their “proper” place of entitlement. When you are used to having all the candy in the treat bowl, sharing does feel uncomfortable but that is how we achieve racial equity.

The real deal is that white folks and specifically white women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Let’s go back several decades and talk about how the great middle class in America was created. After World War II, soldiers came home and took advantage of the GI Bill, the reward for serving your country and coming home alive.

The GI bill allowed soldiers to come home and to have access to housing loans and education, as my friend and colleague Debby Irving writes about in her pivotal book Waking Up White. Debby talks about how her parent’s first home was subsidized by the government and her father was able to attend law school for free. Debby’s family was not alone. Millions of white folks had access to the American Dream and the GI Bill was the great equalizer. At the same time that white GI’s were starting to climb the ladder of the American Dream, Black GI’s were blocked thanks to the racial inequity embedded in the higher education, finance and housing systems. In the end, only 4 percent of Black GI’s were able to access the bill’s offer of free education.

Why does this matter in 2017? Well today’s white folks are the direct beneficiaries of those GI’s in the 1940s and 1950s. That means if your folks were able to get an education, buy a home and start building wealth, chances are high that you were raised with real access to the tools for upward mobility. Our homes are our largest biggest wealth builders and where you live matters even more given how we fund schools and other resources. All schools are not created equal.

Back on the other side, the FHA created a set of policies that would come to be known as redlining that essentially pushed Blacks into less favorable homes and neighborhoods. These policies had a trickle-down effect and Black folks were often relegated to communities with declining home values thus little chance to build equity and create wealth while their white counterparts were creating wealth in their homes. Moving to a better neighborhood wasn’t exactly an option since the better areas were associated with whiteness and Black folks were essentially blocked from accessing those areas thanks to the federal government. And when Black people have moved into such neighborhoods, white people have often moved out (no matter how professional or wonderful those Black people) and those neighborhoods were seen as less desirable and home values went down.

I am not about to give a full history lesson here but if any of this is news to you, a great place to learn more is watching PBS’s Race: The Power of an Illusion.

The same white folks who ballyhoo about non-white people getting great stuff for free or getting more benefits (both of which are very, very rarely the case) are often the same folks who refuse to see all what whiteness has bequeathed to white folks. To go even further, they often refuse to see whiteness at all. To be white for many white folks is to be “normal.” Thus, everything that white folks do is the norm or the “proper” way and everyone else is “other” or “wrong.”

So, when a country starts to racially and ethnically shift, it feels like a seismic shift of epic proportions to white people, even if it really isn’t. The thing is that even with the very real racial and ethnic shifts happening in America, that won’t necessarily change the power dynamics. And, ultimately, it is those dynamics that must shift for true equity and equal opportunity. After all, majority-minority locales (places where whites are the minority, that is) where almost all the power and wealth still resides with white people are not an aberration; it’s typically the rule.

There is a certain irony that the Trump cabinet is overwhelmingly filled with rich, white people and yet it feels the need to take on this almost entirely mythical anti-white bias. Truth is that this is nothing more than a wink and a nod at Trump’s base of disaffected white folks who have been left behind in a changing world. The problem is that it will do little at all to help his base (because they have been left behind by factors other than racial shifts) but it has the potential to create a world of hurt for Black, Brown and other non-white people who are participating in an unfair race that is tilted towards white success.

The only way we will move past this is to start having honest discussions on whiteness, but I suspect that conversation will not be held by the current regime.
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Taking off my mask…nope I am not like you at all: Updated for a Trump World

This original post ran in June 2011 on the blog; it’s the type of deeply personal piece I hesitate to share anymore in this space. Yet, as I heard about Trump’s proposed budget plan, I was reminded of my own childhood. Working-class in a good year and downright poor in a bad year. The availability of arts programming in the schools and community are what made the difference in my life and opened up a world where I could dare to dream and do more. For many years, I was ashamed of my upbringing but I also know that my parents did the best that they could and I now understand that for my father, as one of 16 kids born in rural Arkansas, he was fighting a losing a battle. However, my parents managed to raise two kids with a little help who have both gone on to give back far more than we took (to use the language of the GOP). Poverty has a face and as someone who was able to move out of poverty, I have never forgotten where I came from. And now that I have a voice, I will use it to help anyone that I can. In this case, my thoughts are with our truly vulnerable who will truly suffer under the Trump regime.
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I have a secret to share with you. Of course, the fact that I am putting it on this very public blog means it will no longer be a secret, but that is okay. I go through most of my days feeling like a fraud, a fake, an impostor. Oh, on the surface I look like your average college-educated middle-class person (do they really even exist anymore? Or is that the lie we tell ourselves because we can’t stand the idea that we are no longer in the middle but we didn’t rise to the top?). I have a job where to a large degree I have total autonomy, I live in a reasonable-sized home, have access to a car that is not a jalopy. That’s the sort of shit we see and assume that means folks are fine. Really, that is quite silly. In this economy there are people driving nice cars, hoping and praying the repo man doesn’t show up and who are crossing fingers and toes they can get their home loans modified. Yet, when we see these folks, we have no idea and again assume they are like us.

In the past week or so, there have been several instances both in my day-to-day offline life as well as my online life where it was assumed I was just like everyone else. In one instance, I actually had someone try to explain to me the lives of the poor; I nearly laughed but instead wore my mask of the middle class all the time feeling my guts churning and temper rising.

See, I may not emphasize it a great deal on this blog though I have shared this in the past, but I grew up poor. If it was a good year we were working class but really we were poor. Oh, my parents being young turned it into a fun game, but looking back, there is no mistaking the fact that we were poor. I am talking getting vittles at the food pantry poor; shit, I have only fairly recently started eating English muffins. Why? Because there was a period of time when I was a kid we ate a lot of them because that is what the pantry gave us. There was also the time the pantry gave us chocolate syrup and my folks scraped up enough cash to buy some ice cream so we could have a treat, only to discover that the chocolate syrup had expired (chocolate syrup gone bad has a smell you never forget). I can assure you in the 25 years since that incident I still remember it clear as day.

I also remember when we lost our apartment and moved into a homeless shelter for six months. It was transitional shelter run by Catholic Charities and two nuns who I imagine are long gone. I remember group meals with a host of characters and “shopping” for clothes from the donations that came in. Yeah, I am a card-carrying member of the Grew Up Poor Club and those lessons don’t ever leave you. I know another fellow blogger and Maine resident who had a similar upbringing and believe me, no matter how far away you are from that grinding poverty, it colors your life. Hell, I only recently stopped hoarding food though I will always buy toilet paper in bulk as I never ever want to have to wipe my ass with newspaper or scraps again.

That said, I must admit the level of classicism and assumptions that I see in my day-to-day life sometimes make me want to scream. I recently read this piece and it’s funny because while on paper I am squarely middle class. Never mind I am going bankrupt and my personal net worth is like negative two hundred thousand dollars plus but, because I present as a middle-class person, that is what I am treated like. The fact is in my personal financial life I am very much like the Cracked piece in part because when you do grow up and break free from the poverty it travels with you and you never quite leave it behind.

In my case I did finally make it to college, but I graduated with a shitload of debt and not nearly as much social capital as I really needed to advance my career. Turns out moving to Maine despite the low-paying gigs did a lot more for me professionally than I would have expected. It’s a lot easier to connect with folks when you live in a state with a small population. I truly doubt I would have landed my first Executive Director position at 31 had I stayed in Chicago since I didn’t have social capital. Yet in Maine, to some degree I got a do-over, and its been helpful yet most of us don’t get a do-over in this highly rigged game called life.

Here let me do a quick bit more updating than I did at the start. Like I said, the piece above appeared in 2011 and what appears above has pretty much only been updated for punctuation and grammar. But in the time it was written and the years before and shortly after, I worked with kids from poor (mostly white) families and I worked with old people (mostly white and with few or no family assistance or personal resources). As Trump plans to cut things like Meals On Wheels (which feeds the poor and housebound elderly) and as his cronies talk about how school meal programs don’t help kids (I know different from providing snacks in an afterschool program where kids sometimes missed many…or most meals at home due to poverty)…what he and his people say are lies. These kinds of programs aren’t dragging the country down. Maybe corporate subsidies and wars and the Defense Department play a role…not to mention huge tax breaks for the rich…but programs that feel the needy aren’t our problem. And if you think they are, YOU’RE the problem.
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Trump is Our Frankenstein’s Monster, or Peak Whiteness Personified

We live in a world where race, gender and socioeconomic status often determines our path. For Donald J. Trump, being born white, male and of means has led him on a course that brings him dangerously close to gaining the highest U.S. political office and becoming what many consider the “leader of the free world.”

The funny thing (in a not at all funny way actually) is that if Trump were a Black or Brown man, born into financially humble roots, we would we going “Donald who?” Frankly, even if he were Black and Brown and coming from wealthy and connected roots, I doubt he’d get the level of attention (and the blanket passes on his words and behavior and history) that he’s seen.

Trump is the embodiment of a certain level of privilege where the rules of proper society simply do not apply. A level of privilege where not only can you break the rules of a civilized society but people will excuse your bad behavior and enable you for life.

Sitting here as a working-class Black woman who has always had to work harder and smarter by a factor of two or three for half of what is bestowed upon my white peers, I struggle to grasp the train wreck and phenomenon known as Trump.

A man so despicable that in the course of less than two years, he has turned America on its head as we all grapple with this brave new world where right isn’t right and increasingly wrong is accepted with a shrug.

As I write this piece, we are all digesting the revelation that Trump as a powerful, privileged, white man has sexually assaulted women with no guilt or shame or reservations. The leaked piece from the Washington Post has Trump in his own words telling us that he grabs them by the pu**y. He moves on them like a bitch.  This interview happened back in 2005 and given that Trump is 70 years old, he was hardly a child when he made these statements, which are not really out of line with other comments that we have heard Trump make. This is a man who has stated he would date his own daughter were they not blood related. A man who uses every legal loophole available to avoid paying his taxes like the rest of us working stiffs. A man whose campaign has emboldened racists across America to come out of the closet.

Trump however is not an aberration or merely “a troubled man” as many would have us to believe. Trump is a product of unchecked peak whiteness and maleness meeting at the intersection of wealth and celebrity. For every poor or working-class person who understands the limits of our labels, men like Trump have never been given any limits. It’s why after the election of our first Black president, Trump traded on his whiteness and was a part of the birther movement which, if we are being honest, should have been called the New Klan movement because that is essentially what it was.

As a over-privileged, ego-driven white man with no political credentials or public policy experience, it seems pretty clear he felt slighted by the sight of a highly qualified Black man serving as president. So much so that eight years later he would feel a need to inflict his delusions upon us all and to charge into a presidential race with the most ignorant, crass, uncouth, inflammatory, prejudicial, bigoted campaign of modern times to “correct” things.

Trump serves as the Frankenstein’s Monster of peak of whiteness, maleness, cisgendered identity and heterosexuality. He’s also trading on the Christianity thing, lately, which is ironic given that he could barely be considered “nominally Christian.” He trades on being in every single identity that is most empowered in the United States.

More than that, he has taken each of those privileged credentials (gender, race, sexual identity and religion) and pushed them past the boundaries of good taste, common sense and logic. He has amped them up with rage, bluster, insults and money and become a creature and a perverted force of nature more than a man. Hence my characterization of him as Frankenstein’s Monster of American privilege.

But who created this monster? That creature from Mary Shelley’s novel was made by Dr. Frankenstein. Ultimately, when he rampaged and killed, it was under his own inertia and with his own will behind it (and it’s somewhat unfair to compare Trump to the monster, because the monster was actually persecuted and shunned, something Trump has never been…no matter how much he’s deserved it; yup, there’s that privilege again at work)…but nonetheless, he was not natural. He was made.

In this case, with regard to Trump, a not-insignificant portion of white America is, collectively, the mad scientist that gave this creature life and then created the circumstances for it to rampage unchecked.

In anti-racism spaces, we understand that racism not only affects people of color but white people as well. Trump is what happens when whiteness is allowed to thrive (thanks to white supremacy, systemic racism and institutional bias) and grow unchecked and unchallenged. When we don’t check the assumptions that we hold and why we hold them, especially when we have privilege, we open ourselves up to taking detours into dark spaces that are not fit for anyone.

For the past eight  years, many white people who see themselves as fundamentally good people were uncomfortable living in a country with a non-white president and looked for any excuse to avoid saying that. In Trump, they found their savior, a man whose only redeeming quality was arrogant, white manhood who, while thoroughly nonsensical and utterly ill-prepared, was enough to win their admiration. A man so horrible at his “successful” businesses (losing hundreds of millions and filing bankruptcy multiple times) that if he weren’t a white man, he would have been laughed off the national stage before he even started. Instead he wiped the floor with his milquetoast competition.

I have previously written about the place of whiteness in the rise of Trump but with each revelation about Trump’s past, it becomes even clearer that the only reason that Donald J. Trump exists is because of whiteness. Trump’s peak male whiteness gave him access to the open highway of success that simply doesn’t exist for others. But already having access to that highway, he isn’t even expected to do the work of getting down it; much of America is actually driving him down that road at high speed taking him anywhere he wants to go and getting anything he wants along the way.  They are eager to give him more than he already has and far more than he deserves simply because he appeals to all who long for the days when whiteness was the only credential needed for access to success.

The chorus against him grows louder in light of the sexual assault revelations but it is too little, too late. The chickens have come home to roost and regardless of who wins the 2016 presidential election, we are all facing the collective reckoning about unchecked white privilege and its role in our society. We have created our ultimate monster, and it is about to turn against us to destroy its creator, just like in Shelley’s novel. For make no mistake: If Trump becomes president, his very ascension is a blow to our collective decency and dignity as a nation and a people.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.