Do we really want to talk to the white working class, or just at them?
There’ll be a lot fewer cranberries and culture clashes at this year’s virtual/zoom/quarantined Thanksgiving dinners — the loss of something that’s become tradition over a wide swath of households on this most American of holidays. Among the clashes, that especially volatile variant — the first encounters between newly radicalized college freshmen and their as yet unradicalized relatives. There will, then, be far fewer discussions about the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and George Floyd’s nationally witnessed killing by a Minneapolis police officer, than there would have been in a normal year.
We can, nonetheless, easily imagine various tracks for such conversations, including the one where a white student shares her views on the situation of black America, only to find her aunt gagging on her stuffing when she hears her last twenty years of waiting tables described as a life of “white privilege,” and her construction worker uncle doing a mashed potato spit-take upon being cited as an exemplar of “white fragility.”
Fractious as these interactions might have been, it’s probably unfortunate that so few will actually occur, since most discussion of the overall topic has been so largely one-sided up to this point. Not to suggest that opposing opinions aren’t voiced on the question, but, apart from shouting matches between pro and con demonstrators, relatively few of these conversations seem to have crossed the divide.
Now, while I don’t know all that much about what the other side is saying, I am fairly familiar with what is said on my side, by which I mean the “side” that thinks that Black Lives Matter demonstrations have usefully pressed the facts of black American history into the American mainstream, along with the impact of that history upon current black Americans, and the overall disadvantages facing much of black America today. And one thing I couldn’t help but note over these past few years is that in this milieu in which negative characterizations of racial/ethnic groups are generally considered out of bounds, I have occasionally noted exception made for one group — the group the media defines as the white working class, the people widely thought to have given us Donald Trump.
But back to our hypothetical Thanksgiving table talk. For starters, we have the question of just what we mean by “privilege.” In the context of the demonstrations following upon the various police killings of black Americans, it has first of all meant not having to fear particularly violent treatment at the hands of law enforcement officers because of your race, regardless of whether or not you were actually involved in any particular crime. But really, is that a privilege? Or a right?
The privilege concept extends further, as well. What does the idea of white privilege encompass? Having what we might consider a “good” job, with a liveable wage and health insurance? Living in a “decent” house in a neighborhood where one can walk the streets fearing neither muggers nor police? Being able to send your kids to an adequately funded school? Again — privileges? Or rights in a nation home to the greatest collection of wealth ever amassed?
And if only as a matter of persuasion: Are we more likely to convince someone that someone else’s rights are being violated — or that they themself are living a life of privilege, even if they think they’re just sort of scraping by? And to the extent that we’re not just in it for the talk, but legitimately want to force real social/government action and change, we have to take that question seriously.
But it’s “white fragility” that would perhaps be the newer, hotter topic at the Thanksgiving gatherings that won’t be. It’s also the title to the book that the concept’s originator has written about the reluctance of white people to discuss racism and white privilege, which has been on the New York Times best seller list for over two years. Again — White fragility? Is that really your best opening? Might this not be construed as a sort of taunt? The sort of phrase spoken along with an “Oh, you poor baby,” and the cluck of a tongue? Same question: Do we want to persuade, or just talk?
No doubt the nation’d be the better for it if more of these exchanges were to have happened. Anyhow, I hope my imagined college freshman ultimately made headway in her encounter with the relatives, because there’ll no doubt be further stumbling blocks at the next meeting. But it is the road.