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Racial Groveling

by Mark C. C-C





I am a racist. I'm not proud of that fact - but growing up in a deeply racist and sexist culture, you can't avoid absorbing racist and sexist messages and attitudes into your worldview. And the blogger who inspired this is, like me, a member of the privileged elite. The difference between us is that I at least try to notice the effects of my privilege. I don't support social justice programs like affirmative action, welfare, and job training because I think that poor black people need help because they're less smart than me: I think that people like me have unfair advantages that we rarely appreciate, and that everyone deserves the same advantages that I've been lucky enough to receive. But however idealistic I am, however commited I am to social justice, the fact remains: I am, to my shame, a racist.

1. I am a racist - because I never noticed all of the unearned privileges that are given to me until someone pointed them out.
2. I am a racist - because even after learning about the unearned privileges that I recieve, I still don't notice them.
3. I am a racist, because I have grown up in a culture that, at every turn, teaches me that to be white is to be better, and smarter, and I have absorbed that lesson.
4. I am a racist, because I instinctively react to members of minorities with fear.
5. I am a racist, because I live in a sunset town.
6. I am a racist, because I believe that I deserve the success I have, even though I know people who are more smart, capable, and talented than I am never had the chances that I did to be successful, because of the color of their skin.
7. I am a racist - because I am a white man who has directly benefited from the unfair preferences that have been directed towards me all of my life.
8. I am a racist - because every day, I benefit from the denial of basic privileges to other people.
9. I am a racist, because I do not notice the things that are denied to people who are different from me.
10. I am a racist, because I do not notice the advantages that I have over others.
11. I am a racist, because even when I do manage to notice what is denied to people of different races and backgrounds, I don't speak up.

The point of this isn't just to do a sort of "walk of shame". The point is that I am an incredibly lucky person, who has benefited from all sorts of things - from where I was born, to the color of my skin, to the background of my parents, to my gender. I have recieved, and continue to receive benefits because of those, and many other factors that have nothing to do with my own merit. And except for very rare occasions, that goes unremarked, unnoticed.

People like me think of ourselves as the default - as "normal" people. We consider the incredible advantages that we receive to be normal, unremarkable. We don't notice just how much we benefit from that assumption of our own normality - the benefits we receive fade into invisibility. We don't even notice that they exist. And then when someone who doesn't get those benefits has trouble, we naturally blame them for not being as successful as we are.

The underlying theme of people like the jerk who inspired this post is: "I made it by myself, without any help. So they should be able to make it by themselves, without any help either."
But that's bullshit, because none of us "made it by ourselves". We're the beneficiaries of the system we live in.

I grew up in a wealthy town in NJ. We didn't consider ourselves wealthy - but by comparison to lots of other people, we really were. I went to a very good school system. We complained about it a lot: the textbooks were too old; the equipment in the science labs were too beaten up; the classes were too easy, and so on.

When I was in college, I got to teach a summer program for top students from schools in Newark, Camden, and Jersey City. And I discovered that my students went to schools where they didn't have to worry about their books being too old - because they didn't have any books. I mean that literally: in their english classes, they didn't have books, because their schools had never been able to buy new books since it opened - and the books had long since fallen apart. They didn't complain about the lousy lab equipment - because their schools had never had science labs at all. How could people coming from schools like that possibly hope to compete with students from a school like mine? I didn't admitted to college over people from their schools because I was smarter. I got admitted into college over people from their schools because I was richer and whiter.

And when my students went to the campus bookstore to buy basic supplies like paper and pencils, the people who worked there followed them around the store - because what would a bunch of poor black kids be doing in a bookstore if they weren't there to rob it?

I write this math blog for fun. How did I get the background to do it? I come from a highly educated family. They taught me to read before I even started preschool. I'd learned about statistics from my father when I was in third grade. I learned about algebra in sixth grade, even though my school didn't teach it until 8th or 9th. I learned calculus in my freshman year in high school - even though my school didn't teach it until a senior year AP class. I was learning this stuff long before the school taught it to me; and my parents made sure that they bought a house in a very expensive school district where there would be things like AP classes. My parents paid for me to go to college - which gave me the time to take courses not just because I needed them to graduate, but because they covered things that I wanted to learn, just for fun.

How could a person from a family that just managed to scrape by, who lived in a school system that couldn't afford textbooks for the basic classes, much less the AP classes, how could they compete with me? It's damned close to impossible. Not because they're any less smart, or any less talented. But because I've had an absolutely uncountable number of advantages. Every day of my life, I've been given benefits which helped make it possible for me to become who and what I am. I'm here partially because I've worked damned hard to get here. But that work, by itself, wouldn't have gotten me to where I am, without luck and privilege.

People like me need to remember that. We didn't earn what we have all by ourselves. We may have earned part of it - but only part. An awful lot of what we have is built on privilege: on the advantages that we've been given because of race, gender, wealth, and family.

The author is a PhD Computer Scientist, who works for Google as a Software Engineer. His article appeared in Good Math/Bad Math on April 7, 2010.

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