Why I wince when I hear the words ‘white privilege’
Asking President Donald Trump how he feels about “white privilege” is sort of like asking a young fish how it feels about water.
As the late author David Foster Wallace tells the fable in an unusually famous commencement address, the young fish doesn’t know what water is. He’s way too close to the subject.
That’s how President Trump sounded when renowned journalist Bob Woodward, son of an Illinois lawyer and judge, asked him this question in a June interview, one of 18 Woodward conducted with Trump for “Rage,” the author’s latest book to probe the Trump presidency.
“Do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave to a certain extent,” Woodward asked, “as it put me and I think lots of white privileged people in a cave and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain, particularly, Black people feel in this country?”
“No,” Trump responded, slightly taken aback by the question. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Too bad. If he did, he might be doing better in the polls. A Marist poll in June found two-thirds of Americans thought Trump has made racial tensions worse since the death of George Floyd under a police officer’s knee touched off a nationwide racial reckoning. Yet since then his reelection strategy appears to be more interested in rewinning voters who already have supported him than in broadening his outreach. You might say that he’s taking advantage of his privileged position.
But still, I wince when I hear the words “white privilege.” I don’t deny its existence. But, as I try to encourage the cross-racial dialogue that we so desperately need in our increasingly diverse country, I find the term often proves to be more trouble than it’s worth.
For one thing, when I say it to mean its original academic meaning — systems that benefit white people over nonwhite people in some societies — I hear from white people who accuse me of accusing them of racism, and go on to tell me about how hard they and their ancestors worked to make it on their own in this country. I get it.
In fact, I mean nothing personal. I am only using it in the way the fabled fish is intended to hear about water. It’s all around us and for the common good we need to understand it and deal with it — or it surely will deal with us in the most damaging ways.
Unfortunately, President Trump, despite his frequent attacks against “political correctness” and “cancel culture,” recently has responded with cancellation, particularly of racial sensitivity training in federal agencies. He’s gunning for any training that addresses such topics as “white privilege” and related “critical race theory,” which he calls “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”