America Seen Through the Lens of White Privilege

As the summer of 2015 approached, I do not recall ever questioning my assumption that most Americans—at least those whom a reasonable person might consider to have received a modicum of exposure to the history of our country—were not only familiar with the first lines of the Preamble to the foundational document of our nation, The Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

… I also assumed they understood the principles described therein. But since June 16 of that year when I began to subject myself to a barrage of heated opinions in my selected media echo chambers, I began to question that aforementioned assumption on a daily basis in my ivory tower of modest affluence, isolated from the challenges of a pandemic and poverty by a boundary of beautiful and bucolic Pennsylvania countryside.

The first thing I must acknowledge is that my wrong-headed assumption has been derived from a lifetime immersion in middle-class White America, a life stew spiced by the never-ending residue of a father whose behaviors behind closed doors were those of an evil tyrant, the influence of a mother who espoused but failed to fully implement the principles of Christian socialism derived from the Sermon on the Mount, and the experiences that have accrued to my having served as an educator for more than four decades. These ingredients have been simmering in the drowning consommé of White Privilege, a broth that sustains the deluded caste of middle-class, progressive, White Americans, a group which is comprised of tens of millions of people who have never asked themselves this question: What does it mean to be White? 

Over the past twenty years or so, this question has been posed to groups of educators engaged in Courageous Conversations About Race, a program in which I had been a participant more than a decade ago, and although I have been White all of my life, it took me six months of near daily contemplation to discover the answer to the question:

What it means to be White in America is never having to answer the question of what it means to be White.

Several months ago, when I first decided to update and re-post posts from my now defunct Education and Freedom blog, I joined the two images featured above with the purpose of their making a visual statement in support of the then title of a new post: Reason vs. Ratings. In so doing, I was comparing two American Presidents: one, a man of reason, and the other, a man of ratings. As I was polishing the initial draft, it struck me that the images I had juxtaposed, inadvertently and perfectly illuminated and confirmed the poisonous impact of White Privilege on my own behavior.

It is White Privilege that causes an otherwise progressive, white, middle-class, American male (me) who many years before had self-categorized himself as a racially-tolerant individual with the creds of having attended the 1963 March on Washington and having committed years of his professional life to the education of disadvantaged children of color; nonetheless, I did not perceive — despite numerous viewings of the dueling images over several weeks — the outrageous irony of joining the images of two famously racist men to make an intended point of contrast that is of far less consequence than its testimony to the contrast between the man I thought I was, and the man who has been awakened to the fact that after a lifetime of thinking otherwise, I remain, on occasion, blinded by White Privilege.

I had intended to use the noble glow of the words that a Founder of America’s Democratic Dream had contributed to the Preamble to the Declaration in order to illuminate the dangers of the destroyer of that same dream: the White Supremacist who is still in search of a monarchy; instead, what I had done was to cast a brilliant beam upon my own racist obliviousness. White Privilege blinded me to the ramifications of what I knew: the 3rd President was a prominent slave owner, which means that despite his being demonstrably far more brilliant and eloquent than the 45th President, were he alive today, Thomas Jefferson — a man of reason — could never claim to be less of a racist than Donald Trump.