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un-fair’s ‘white privilege’ ad campaign doesn’t pull any punches

July 12, 2012

Apparently, there’s a new anti-racism ad campaign in Minnesota aimed at white Americans that uses a variety of media, including billboards, to address the issue of ‘white privilege’—a fairly controversial term, but one I think holds some validity. Personally, I agree with the intent of the ad campaign, as many white people don’t seem to realize how privileged or non-discriminated against they are in our society compared to non-whites. Just recently, for example, the Portland Police Bureau admitted that racism may actually be part of the persistent disparity between how often whites and blacks in Portland are stopped and then searched, with blacks and hispanics being twice as likely as whites to be stopped and searched. Quite often, whites (including myself) don’t notice or realize these things since we don’t have to experience them on a daily basis, so I like the idea of making people more aware that racism is still a problem in our society.

That said, I’m not sure how effective the overall presentation of the message will be. It may actually end up alienating many of the people they’re trying to reach out to and educate. When ideas like racism and white privilege are addressed so bluntly, white people seem to have a tendency to automatically get defensive and declare they’re not racist or privileged, resenting either implication, and/or invoke ‘reverse racism’ along with examples of blacks, hispanics, etc. being racist and unfair towards them. The problem, I think, is trying to get the average white person to realize just how pervasive racism still is in our society, as well as the kind of things non-whites have to endure that whites often don’t.

Many of the white people I’ve talked to about racism, for example, often point to affirmative action and complain that non-whites actually have an advantage in society, not realizing that affirmative action, as imperfect as it may be, was put into place because so many people (e.g., employers, colleges, etc.) were discriminating against blacks and other non-whites. It’s simply an effort to make things more equal, attempting to counter the damage done from things like slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of people assume that just because Jim Crow laws were overruled in the late 60s, racism must no longer be a problem, and that any non-white who isn’t successful must simply be lazy since everything’s handed to them on a silver platter these days (as if). But just because we’re no longer legally segregated in the US doesn’t mean the ideas and prejudices that went into racial segregation aren’t still lurking around and a factor in how non-whites are treated in our society. And making people, particularly white Americans, more aware of this racial disparity is the whole point of the new ad campaign.

It’s been a slow struggle to change the historically classist, racist, and sexist socio-economic paradigm this country was founded upon, which from the start was created by, and mainly for, white, male property owners; and there’s certainly been progress: the move in the mid-1800s to expand the right to vote to include all white males instead of just white, male property owners; black males winning the right to vote in 1870; women winning the right to vote in 1920; the repeal of Jim Crow laws in the mid-1960s, ending state-compelled segregation; etc. Nevertheless, the fact remains that blacks and other non-whites are still disproportionately discriminated against in our society, especially within the criminal justice system (as Katheryn Russell-Brown documents in her book, The Color of Crime), with studies suggesting that many Americans (particularly white males) still have unconscious biases against blacks and the poor, e.g., “Discrimination Against Blacks Linked To Dehumanization,” “Unconscious Race and Social Bias Among Medical Students,” etc. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s fair to say that all whites are overtly racist, or that racism is to blame for everything bad that happens to non-whites in the US. But I do think that many of us, regardless of our skin colour, are influenced by racism, consciously as well as unconsciously (just as we are by things like sexism, patriarchy, etc.), and it’s intellectually dishonest to deny that it exists, or that the history of institutional racism in this country makes it disproportionately harder for blacks and other non-whites to succeed. Yes, there are certainly opportunities for blacks and other non-whites to succeed; but we shouldn’t kid ourselves and pretend that they have an equal chance at succeeding in our society, or gloss over the roles things like class and race play in keeping them from succeeding. And I truly hope that this ad campaign, as off-putting as it may initially seem, will help shine a light onto the continued existence of racism, as well as motivate us to actively challenge it wherever it we find it hiding, especially within ourselves.

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