Fleeing whiteness: A memoir about achieving humanity

By Robert Jensen

Published in Texas Observer · June, 2000

review of
Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class, and Gender
Paula Rothenberg

In the year and half since a couple of essays that I wrote on white privilege and racism were published and circulated on the Internet, I have received about 800 letters, calls and e-mails. In one, an African-American man said the essays reminded him “that white people can be human sometimes.”

There are two important lessons about race in this country to draw from this. The volume of response says something about the impoverished nature of the discussion about race in this country. My essays had put forth a simple point: in a white-supremacist society, being white brings certain privileges. That anyone would take the time to respond to such a truism – either to critique or support it – is an indication of how little honest talk comes from the dominant society on the topic. I am grateful for all the conversations I have had with people, especially the non-white people who took the time to write and contribute to my ongoing racial education, but I wish I lived in a world in which such basic truths wouldn’t require comment.

More importantly, the specific response from my correspondent offers a reasonable way to pose the choice faced by white people in the United States. White people can be human sometimes, but only if we openly turn our backs on being white: We can be human, or we can be white.

By that, I don’t mean that being white means that one is always inhuman. Nor am I suggesting that those of us who are white can wake up one day and declare ourselves non-white, pretending to give away our privilege. The struggle is to own up to the privileges that come with being white in a white-supremacist society while at the same time actively trying to resist the various expressions of white supremacy.

The task is daunting, and anyone who has tried it knows that, at the very least, occasional failure is inevitable. That’s likely one reason so many whites, including many liberals, have embraced the neo-conservative rhetoric surrounding race – the nonsense about the United States being a largely color-blind society that has vanquished most manifestations of racism, the accompanying attacks on affirmative action and ethnic studies, and apathy in the face of public policies such as the crusade to imprison young black men through a phony drug war.

For a white person who wants to avoid the comfortable cop-outs and confront racial realities, Paula Rothenberg’s new book, Invisible Privilege, would be a good place to start. She doesn’t flinch from a blunt analysis of the popularity of such neo-conservative rhetoric: “Perhaps there is a strong desire to deny the impact of racism because recognizing it might demand that we talk about white responsibility, white complicity, white privilege.”

Rothenberg steps up to meet those demands in an unusual mixture of memoir and polemic. Because neither the memoir nor the polemic is delivered in conventional fashion, the book gives readers a lot of room to move; Rothenberg doesn’t hide her views, but she avoids being preachy. The result is a book that encourages reflection rather than pushes a party line.

Part of the strength of the book lies in its subtitle – A Memoir about Race, Class and Gender – and the fact that the author makes good on the promise to deal with the intersections of all those facets of identity, social position, and power. Though Rothenberg consistently keeps those three features in the picture, my guess is that different readers will focus on different things. I read the book as mostly about race, which is probably a reflection more of what is most on my mind at the moment than of the book itself. But I take this to be a strength of the book; the memoir lets people grapple with issues most salient while keeping a more holistic framework.

More importantly, it is an honest book in a realm of life in which it is so easy to, if not be explicitly dishonest, let the more difficult truths slide by. Rothenberg never pretends that complex and troubling events and emotions are easily dispatched. It also is that rare bird – a book written by an academic (Rothenberg is a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at The William Patterson University of New Jersey) that is in plain language and accessible to any reader.

Although the book is billed as a memoir, for me its most important contributions are in the chapters that are more about contemporary politics than her life. The chapters about growing up in an upper-middle-class Jewish family and her academic training are intriguing, but I learned most from the final two chapters.

In “Fifteen Minutes” Rothenberg describes her fifteen minutes of fame as the editor of Race, Class and Gender in the United States, the textbook the English faculty at U.T.-Austin decided to adopt in 1990 for a first-year composition class – and then dumped after public outcry about “political correctness.”

Rothenberg not only analyzes the way in which right-wing forces distorted her book and the course but also describes how the news media played into that right-wing strategy. The chapter moves on to offer a sophisticated analysis of a 1993 controversy involving anti-Semitic remarks made by Khalid Abdul Muhammad at a New Jersey college, and the well-intentioned but misdirected response of liberals.

In these accounts, Rothenberg suggests that instead of taking the easy route of saying, “I’m white, therefore I have no standing to talk about race in public,” she acted on an obligation to press these questions in public. Although uncomfortable with being labeled a “racism expert,” Rothenberg shows how people across identity boundaries can “ask each other’s questions” and use privilege constructively. Just as men can sometimes be particularly effective in critiquing sexism, whites can press the question of racism and try to get a hearing for issues in public forums. Such work requires accountability to groups and a social movement, along with a capacity for self-reflection and a sense of humility. Rothenberg shows how it can be done.

In many ways, the final chapter, “Our Town,” is the most compelling. She points out how whites in Montclair, New Jersey, who had sought out an integrated community came to oppose an attempt to eliminate academic tracking. The change would have integrated not only the schools but the classrooms, hence threatening some white folks’ sense of entitlement to a certain kind of education for their children. She weaves in the story of the structural difficulties of fostering a friendship between her daughter and an African-American classmate, again using autobiography to honestly confront the complexity of these issues.

It is in this chapter that she makes the crucial point about white privilege and institutional racism: “Many white people continue to believe that racism and sexism, like ethnic prejudice, are simply hateful attitudes toward people.” They do not understand that racism and sexism are perpetrated every day by nice people who are carrying on business as usual. They do not recognize that what passes as “business as usual‚ already institutionalizes white skin, male, and class privilege. They honestly believe that what separates them from [a black student] and her family are intelligence and hard work.”

In the epilogue, Rothenberg does readers a favor by not trying to serve up a happy ending. She tells the story of the deaths of her parents and how race and class politics were mixed up even in those private and painful moments, in the relationship of her parents to the mostly black and often immigrant nursing aides who cared for them at the end.

Systematic analysis of race, racism, and privilege is important, and there is no shortage of books that do that. (For example, George Lipsitz’ The Possessive Investment in Whiteness is one of the best at outlining the material realities of white privilege.) But anyone who has taught, spoken publicly, or organized on issues of racial justice knows that all the facts, figures, and analysis in the world cannot always move white Americans to engage the question critically.

That is why books such as Rothenberg’s are important. She not only makes clear how race and privilege have played out in her life, but also shows how her life has been enriched by struggling with those issues. Perhaps we all should be able to be motivated by simple pleas for justice, but the fact is that people often ask – whether aloud or to themselves – “What’s in it for me?”

Rothenberg’s book makes it clear that what’s in it for white people is a richer sense of self as well as a life that one can defend ethically and politically. In short, she shows how we can engage in the struggle to stop being white, and thereby begin to claim our humanity.