Take a little thought experiment. Imagine all the rampage school shooters in Littleton, Colorado; Pearl, Mississippi; Paducah, Kentucky; Springfield, Oregon; and Jonesboro, Arkansas; now imagine they were black girls from poor families who lived instead in Chicago, New Haven, Newark, Philadelphia, or Providence. Can you picture the national debate, the headlines, the hand-wringing? There is no doubt we’d be having a national debate about inner-city poor black girls. The entire focus would be on race, class, and gender. The media would doubtless invent a new term for their behavior, as with wilding two decades ago. We’d hear about the culture of poverty, about how living in the city breeds crime and violence. We’d hear some pundits proclaim some putative natural tendency among blacks toward violence. Someone would likely even blame feminism for causing girls to become violent in a vain imitation of boys. Yet the obvious fact that virtually all the rampage school shooters were middle-class white boys barely broke a ripple in the torrent of public discussion. This uniformity cut across all other differences among the shooters: some came from intact families, others from single-parent homes; some boys had acted violently in the past, and others were quiet and unassuming; some boys also expressed rage at their parents (two killed their parents the same morning), and others seemed to live in happy families.
To be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously ubiquitious and invisible. You’re everywhere you look, you’re the standard against which everyone else is measured. You’re like water, like air. People will tell you they went to see a “woman doctor” or they will say they went to see “the doctor.” People will tell you they have a “gay colleague” or they’ll tell you about a colleague. A white person will be happy to tell you about a “Black friend,” but when that same person simply mentions a “friend,” everyone will assume the person is white. Any college course that doesn’t have the word “woman” or “gay” or “minority” in its title is a course about men, heterosexuals, and white people. But we call those courses “literature,” “history” or “political science.”This invisibility is political.
When I got to college, the fake ID thing wasn't that important, since pretty much everyone could get away with drinking in New Orleans. But the drugs, well, that was a different story altogether, because drugs are every bit as illegal in New Orleans as anywhere else--at least, if you're black and poor, and have the misfortune of doing your drugs somewhere other than the dorms at Tulane University. But if you are lucky enough to be living at Tulane, which is a pretty white place, especially contrasted with the city where it's located, which is 65 percent black, then you are absolutely set.
A student of color in one of my classes, for example, once told me that she noticed my cutting her off during class, something she didn't think I did with white students. I could have weighed in with my professional authority and said it wasn't true, that she was imagining it, that I treated all my students that way, that she was being too sensitive, that I travel all over the country speaking about issues of inequality and injustice, so certainly I was above such things. But what I said to her was that I was truly sorry she'd had that experience. I wasn't aware of doing that, I told her, and the fact that I didn't consciously mean to was beside the point.To respond in this way, I had to de-center myself from my privilege and make her experience and not mine the point of the conversation. I ended by telling her I would do everything I could to oay attention to this problem in the future to make sure it didn't happen again.
Oh, bullshit. This isn't one of those stories, Avice. One moment of cack-handedness, Captain Cook offends the bloody locals, one slip of the tongue or misuse of sacred cutlery, and bang, he's on the grill. Do you ever think about how self-aggrandising that stuff is? Oh, all those stories pretending to be mea culpas about cultural insensitivity, oops, we said the wrong thing, but they're really all about how ridiculous natives overreact. Avice, we must have made thousands of fuckups like that over the years. Think about it. Just like our visitors did when they first met our lot, on Terre. And for the most part we didn't lose our shit, did we?
The ability to try to understand existence, the ability to try to recognize the wonder and responsibility of one's own existence, the ability to know even fractionally the almost annihilating beauty, ambiguity, darkness, and horror which swarm every instant of every consciousness, the ability to try to accept it, or the ability to try to defend one's self, or the ability to dare to try to assist others; all such as these, of which most human beings are cheated of their potentials, are, in most of those who even begin to discern or wish for them, the gifts or thefts of economic privilege, and are available to members of these leanest classes only by the rare and irrelevant miracle of born and surviving 'talent.
The first time he had taken the massa to one of these "high-falutin' to-dos," as Bell called them, Kunta had been all but overwhelmed by conflicting emotions: awe, indignation, envy, contempt, fascination, revulsion—but most of all a deep loneliness and melancholy from which it took him almost a week to recover. He couldn't believe that such incredible wealth actually existed, that people really lived that way. It took him a long time, and a great many more parties, to realize that they didn't live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream the white folks were having, a lie they were telling themselves: that goodness can come from badness, that it's possible to be civilized with one another without treating as human beings those whose blood, sweat, and mother's milk made possible the life of privilege they led.