Wednesday, September 17, 2008

REPOST: Reflections on White Anti-Intellectualism

I received this commentary from a high school classmate (Thanks, M!). I didn't write it, but I'm damn sure somebody did. And before anybody gets started, the author is white. Maybe that will get some folks to pay attention who wouldn't otherwise. - KS

Reflections on White Anti-Intellectualism
(Or, What'cha Want With all That Book Learnin'?)

By Tim Wise
September 14, 2008

To hear an awful lot of white folks tell it, the problem with black people is that they just don't want to work hard enough in school. They act up and refuse to study or get good grades, because they don't want to be put down for "acting white." In other words, the African American community is beset by a culture of anti-intellectualism, contrasted, one supposes with our own white culture of studiousness and academic achievement.

When making this argument, and knowing that it might sound a bit disparaging, even racist, we white folks love to refer to the high-profile black folks who agree with us. So we point to Bill Cosby, for instance, who said this same thing a few years ago and hasn't stopped saying it yet. The fact that a dozen or so studies have found that there actually is no unique peer pressure or ostracism that black kids experience for doing well in school (over and above that which all kids who are viewed as brainy often face) fails to move them. The fact that longitudinal data actually shows that black students are the most likely to believe in the importance of getting a good education, the least likely to cheat and the least likely to skip class appears to matter not.

But what I have always found interesting about the anti-intellectualism charge coming from whites and pointed at persons in the black community, is how readily it emanates from a group of people (white adults) who seem to actually revel in anti-intellectualism, as evidenced by our voting behavior and political sensibilities, made especially clear during the current political campaign.

What else but a deep contempt for education (or book learnin' as we sometimes jokingly refer to it in the South) could explain why Barack Obama's Harvard Law School education can be mocked as elitist and out of touch, while John McCain's bottom-feeder academic record and Sarah Palin's four colleges in six years and degree from the University of Idaho, makes them ready to lead, and more like "normal people?" (And please, don't tell me how it isn't his education that poses the problem, but rather his comments about rural folks clinging to God and guns when times are tight, since a week after he made that comment, Dick Cheney implied that West Virginians were all a bunch of inbreds, and rural whites didn't seem to care, since at least he isn't an uppity black guy).

What else but a deep contempt for education could render Obama's time as a law professor, teaching constitutional law at one of the nation's finest law schools, all but irrelevant in the eyes of millions? To hear a lot of people tell it, his time in the classroom doesn't count, and doesn't indicate anything about his fitness to be president (even though, ya know, being an expert on the Constitution is intuitively a good thing for the president to be, or one would think), but having been a prisoner of war, or a hunter and hockey mom, and "just like the neighbor next door," makes you fit for the nation's highest offices.

What else but a deep contempt for education could explain the free pass given to George W. Bush for bragging at a Yale commencement a few years ago that he had been a C student, but that was OK, because even with a mediocre academic record you could go on to be president? If a black person told students that, they'd be viewed as downgrading achievement, but not Bush.

Is it the accent? Is that all it takes to make people think you're one of them? A bubba drawl and the spinning of downhome homilies? Or the fact that you like to shoot guns? If this is the love for learning, and the intelligence that white folks seem to think blacks inadequately value, can I suggest that perhaps such intelligence isn't all it's cracked up to be?

What else but a deep-seated anti-intellectual streak could explain why so many white voters in 2000 and 2004 regularly mentioned how they preferred Bush because he was the "kind of guy you feel you could have a beer with" (as if that had anything to do with being the leader of the so-called free world), and how they disdained the intellectual certitude of Gore and Kerry, whose command of policy details made them feel like they were being talked down to?

What else but a commitment to the long-term abdication of critical thinking could explain why millions of whites take so quickly to Rush Limbaugh: a guy whose motto for years was that he would "tell you what to think" and whose fans call themselves "ditto" heads (as in, "same as above," which is nearly the perfect metaphor for people who follow someone else like sheep).

In fact, the white love of anti-intellectualism in politics goes back quite a ways further than that. So when Ronald Reagan decided to skip out on a policy briefing during an important overseas trip, all so he could watch The Sound of Music on television, or when he regularly failed to know the names of foreign leaders, most white folks still loved him and considered him a great leader.

Perhaps it was because he had a ranch, liked to wear cowboy hats, and had that folksy aw-shucks grin?

As a white person, and as one with plenty of anti-racist and critical-thinking white friends, I realize that not all whites fall into this anti-intellectual trap. Perhaps most don't. But it appears that enough do to make a difference in elections. And surely, the embrace of anti-intellectualism is at least as severe in the white community as it is in the black community, where we constantly hear talk of it, coming from the very white folks who then turn around and tell us that the Earth was created only 5000 years ago, and that despite having no scientific training, they are sure that global warming is a myth, but that Obama really is a Muslim, or maybe the anti-Christ (as once-upon-a-time celebrity, Victoria Jackson claims on her website).

In short, when it comes to "acting white," if the term means paying no attention to policy details, but rather voting for the person who you'd most like to hang out with at a sports bar, then perhaps we need not only black and brown folks to forswear such lunacy, but for those of us who are white to turn on whiteness too. To not do so would be to confirm that whiteness is inversely related to mental acumen. I for one, would like to think we were capable of better. But as for evidence to support my hope? Well, I'm still waiting for that.

REPOST: This is Your Nation on White Priviledge

I received this commentary from a high school classmate (Thanks, M!). I didn't write it, but I'm damn sure somebody did. And before anybody gets started, the author is white. Maybe that will get some folks to pay attention who wouldn't otherwise. - KS

This is Your Nation on White Privilege

By Tim Wise

For those who still can't grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list will help.

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because "every family has challenges," even as black and Latino families with similar "challenges" are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.

White privilege is when you can call yourself a "fuckin' redneck," like Bristol Palin's boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you'll "kick their fuckin' ass," and talk about how you like to "shoot shit" for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug.

White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action.

White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready to potentially be president, and people don't all piss on themselves with laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and constitutional law scholar, means you're "untested."

White privilege is being able to say that you support the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance because "if it was good enough for the founding fathers, it's good enough for me," and not be immediately disqualified from holding office--since, after all, the pledge was written in the late 1800s and the "under God" part wasn't added until the 1950s--while believing that reading accused criminals and terrorists their rights (because, ya know, the Constitution, which you used to teach at a prestigious law school requires it), is a dangerous and silly idea only supported by mushy liberals.

White privilege is being able to be a gun enthusiast and not make people immediately scared of you.

White privilege is being able to have a husband who was a member of an extremist political party that wants your state to secede from the Union, and whose motto is "Alaska first," and no one questions your patriotism or that of your family, while if you're black and your spouse merely fails to come to a 9/11 memorial so she can be home with her kids on the first day of school, people immediately think she's being disrespectful.

White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work they do--like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor--and people think you're being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a class she took in college and the fact that she lives close to Russia, you're somehow being mean, or even sexist.

White privilege is being able to convince white women who don't even agree with you on any substantive issue to vote for you and your running mate anyway, because suddenly your presence on the ticket has inspired confidence in these same white women, and made them give your party a "second look."

White privilege is being able to fire people who didn't support your political campaigns and not be accused of abusing your power or being a typical politician who engages in favoritism, while being black and merely knowing some folks from the old-line political machines in Chicago means you must be corrupt.

White privilege is when you can take nearly twenty-four hours to get to a hospital after beginning to leak amniotic fluid, and still be viewed as a great mom whose commitment to her children is unquestionable, and whose "next door neighbor" qualities make her ready to be VP, while if you're a black candidate for president and you let your children be interviewed for a few seconds on TV, you're irresponsibly exploiting them.

White privilege is being able to give a 36 minute speech in which you talk about lipstick and make fun of your opponent, while laying out no substantive policy positions on any issue at all, and still manage to be considered a legitimate candidate, while a black person who gives an hour speech the week before, in which he lays out specific policy proposals on several issues, is still criticized for being too vague about what he would do if elected.

White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government, and who bring in speakers who say the conflict in the Middle East is God's punishment on Jews for rejecting Jesus, and everyone can still think you're just a good church-going Christian, but if you're black and friends with a black pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense) that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you're an extremist who probably hates America.

White privilege is not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is when asked by a reporter, and then people get angry at the reporter for asking you such a "trick question," while being black and merely refusing to give one-word answers to the queries of Bill O'Reilly means you're dodging the question, or trying to seem overly intellectual and nuanced.

White privilege is being able to go to a prestigious prep school, then to Yale and then Harvard Business school, and yet, still be seen as just an average guy (George W. Bush) while being black, going to a prestigious prep school, then Occidental College, then Columbia, and then to Harvard Law, makes you "uppity," and a snob who probably looks down on regular folks.

White privilege is being able to graduate near the bottom of your college class (McCain), or graduate with a C average from Yale (W.) and that's OK, and you're cut out to be president, but if you're black and you graduate near the top of your class from Harvard Law, you can't be trusted to make good decisions in office.

White privilege is being able to dump your first wife after she's disfigured in a car crash so you can take up with a multi-millionaire beauty queen (who you go on to call the c-word in public) and still be thought of as a man of strong family values, while if you're black and married for nearly twenty years to the same woman, your family is viewed as un-American and your gestures of affection for each other are called "terrorist fist bumps."

White privilege is being able to sing a song about bombing Iran and still be viewed as a sober and rational statesman, with the maturity to be president, while being black and suggesting that the U.S. should speak with other nations, even when we have disagreements with them, makes you "dangerously naive and immature."

White privilege is being able to claim your experience as a POW has anything at all to do with your fitness for president, while being black and experiencing racism and an absent father is apparently among the "lesser adversities" faced by other politicians, as Sarah Palin explained in her convention speech.

And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could possibly allow someone to become president when he has voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, even as unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their homes, inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly isolated from world opinion, just because white voters aren't sure about that whole "change" thing. Ya know, it's just too vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the same, which is very concrete and certain.

White privilege is, in short, the problem.