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On My Mixed Experience with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

I have this peculiar, twofold, scrambled-egg relationship with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the oft-quoted, seminal article written by Peggy McIntosh in the late 1980s.

That is to say, I have been a student in college classes where McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed, classes in which I was perceived and treated as a white male oppressor. Conversely, I have assigned or cited McIntosh’s article in classes where most of my students perceived and treated me as nonwhite, classes in which I identified myself as mixed race and a person of color—Mexican, Italian, White, Native American.

“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege” (McIntosh).

You should know that I exist phenotypically somewhere in a range between olive and brown. So much about my look depends on the season, how much sun I have been exposed to, the length of my hair, lighting, and place—whether I’m in Los Angeles, Indiana, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Oklahoma, or Seattle–whether I’m talking academic, street, or just standing around.

You should also know that I grew up hopeful, angry, and comparatively poor in the middle class racist culture of my Los Angeles east valley suburban town. Growing up in the 1980s I was exposed to a typical All-American medley of racist, sexist, and homophobic shit that circulated in the schools, in the streets, and on the playgrounds…

Spic, beaner, wetback, greaser, fag, monkey, chief, nigger, cholo, pussy, jap, chink, redneck, blackie, ornamental, wop…Is your dad in the mafia? Did your granddad swim across the Rio Grande? Do you eat Spaghettios for dinner every night?

I learned to throw a potent left-right combo in response to blatant racist remarks directed at me and at friends, but by high school I had become a lone sponge on the sidelines that listened, observed, took mental notes, walked away from fights, disengaged socially, and raged internally afterwards for days, weeks, and years.

Some of you might assume then that my initial encounters in college with “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” must have been revelatory and life changing. The answer is yes with the proviso that my education about race, white supremacy, and white privilege actually started in high school while watching Charlie Rose interview activists, politicians, and scholars very late at night.

I first became acquainted with Peggy McIntosh in the early 1990s. I was an English major at CSULA who believed that the world could be changed for the better through ideas, art, and literature. Admittedly, I was more than a little naïve and idealistic…even volunteered for the “We the People” campaign believing that Jerry Brown was going to beat Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr.

“I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make” (McIntosh).

At CSULA I took more than a few general education and English classes in which McIntosh’s article was cited and discussed. White privilege, patriarchy, multiculturalism, postmodernism, literary theory, Eurocentrism, and dead white males were hot topics of discussion back then, and most humanities professors were more than happy to express their opinions about them.

These lectures and discussions helped me make better sense of my own experiences with race, white privilege, and white supremacy growing up. But, I was usually a quiet participant, especially in classes where I was perceived and encouraged to come out as white by overzealous, self-proclaimed white progressive professors and students:

“Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way” (McIntosh).

In the context of most of these discussions, and in the larger political context of CSULA in the 1990s, to be Mexican, Italian, White and a person of color at the same time was wrongheaded. Put differently, CSULA was not a nurturing social environment for Mexican Italians, Mexican Whites, political nonconformists, and brown cosmopolites.

“Professor X is white man with a Hispanic last name. We tried to tell the hiring committee that there are white people from Mexico. They said that hiring a Hispanic medievalist who works in Old English was too good of an opportunity to pass up. We should have hired someone else. He doesn’t really fit in here.”

“Richard Rodriguez is a whitewashed coconut. It’s even more of a shame that as a homosexual he chooses not to help that community either.”

Within this particular academic environment, I felt too intimidated and insecure to speak out in public about my mixed background and experiences. It was far easier to conform to the wishes of the professor: listen, observe, nod in agreement, take mental notes, and do whatever was required to pass the class with a good grade.

To be fair, I’m talking about CSULA in the 1990s—and my name on the official roster did signify in the era of Clinton multiculturalism descendant of European-American male oppressors, and still does. The academic culture wars were national and omnipresent. Multiculturalism had become synonymous with cultural group identity politics. Talk of the mixed experience was nascent and indistinct.

Furthermore, most English professors had bifurcated themselves into two opposing camps: the dinosaurs or traditional humanist liberal types; and the new professors or progressive cultural pluralist types. Too many in both camps were second raters who wasted time, taxpayer money, and alienated students by hurling labels and insults at each other in front of captive student audiences…

…whitewashed, balkanist, humanist, deconstructionist, imperialist, feminist, sexist, nihilist, dead white male, cultural separatist, American exceptionalist, hypocrite, romanticist, postmodernist, elitist, anti-foundationalist, Eurocentric, anti-individualist, racist, ghettoizer, discursive colonialist, relativist…

Different Modes of Racial Perception and Performance: West Lafayette, Indiana

I want to be absolutely clear here that I firmly believe that we need to continue to educate the public about race, racism, and white privilege. I also believe that citizens need to know that color blindness is a pernicious myth rather than an ideal, and that race–though an utterly bogus and unhealthy concept– will continue to be relevant into the unforeseeable future given the democratic-free-market right of social groups, businesses, and corporations to utilize concepts of race and ethnicity when they conclude that it is in their collective best interest to do so.

It should come as no surprise then that I have assigned or cited “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in various college classes that I have taught over the years, and particularly in classes that I taught as a doctoral student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

At Purdue, I was perceived and treated as nonwhite by most of my white students, many of whom can be fairly described as future neoconservatives on training wheels, future supporters of Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz, students who resented being asked to talk about race and white privilege.

“Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the US think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity” (McIntosh).

I thought that it was a good idea for my students—like it or not–to read, discuss, and respond in writing to a few articles each semester that pertained to race, white privilege, and white supremacy–given Purdue’s history of institutional racism. Typical responses…

“We already have diversity here in Indiana. How is this discussion going to make me a better writer or critical thinker? Why do so many liberals hate white men? This is reverse discrimination. How am I responsible for what happened before I was born?”

Within this longstanding white/black social environment, I quickly came to see most of the students before me as white, black or international. Racially and ethnically ambiguous students, who might have identified as mixed in their private lives, were lost in a sea of white faces juxtaposed against an archipelago of black bodies–especially if these students were taciturn and had white names.

For instance, I recall one of my seemingly white male students who came up to me at the Viena Coffee House wanting to talk. He wanted to tell me that he not only liked my literature class, but that he was also part Mexican like me, and thought it was so cool that I had talked about my mixed race background in front of the class.

This incident gave me pause in 2000 and still does today in that I was thoughtlessly certain that this student was just another Indiana white boy until he reached out to me in private to tell me otherwise. He was actually an Indiana Mexican white boy with a white name, a reality that hit very close to home for me.

I continued to exchange emails with this student for a few years after I left Purdue to finish writing my dissertation in absentia back in Los Angeles. I learned that besides being mixed and partly-assimilated like me, he was from a poor family and had to drop out of Purdue and work full time. In his last email, he stated that he was working the graveyard shift in a bottling factory, trying to save up enough money to return to college.

That I first perceived him as a typical Indiana white boy had much to do with the white/black social environment at Purdue, as well as with my efforts at the time to see and identify myself and others in racial and ethnic terms. Put differently, while at Purdue I tended to see students before me more as representatives of racial and ethnic groups rather than as individuals with unique personal stories.

However, it was also the case that my relationship with this student unfolded in the way that it did because I had become resolved at that point in my life to identity myself as mixed and mixed race and to talk openly to my students and to others about my mixed experiences with race, class, multiculturalism, and white privilege.

In closing, I want to repeat the point that the task of educating students and citizens at large about race, racism, and white privilege is crucial for the development of American democracy–so much so that I believe that we need to reconsider the ways in which these topics have been typically taught. Accordingly, in a subsequent piece I want to mull over the following question: How can we teach students about race and white privilege without ascribing established racial and/or ethnic identities to them?

Complicating Race or Reproducing Whiteness? Heidi Durrow and The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

[This is an excerpt from a paper (currently being revised) that I presented last month at the 2014 MELUS Conference in Oklahoma City.]

[…] Heidi Durrow is also the latest member of the mixed-experience generation to achieve widespread recognition following the publication of her deeply autobiographical first novel. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky was published in 2010 after winning the 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for a first novel that addresses social justice issues. It became a national bestseller in 2011, and is now available in French, Dutch, Danish, and Portuguese. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a book that was repeatedly rejected by the traditional publishing industry.

For those who are unfamiliar, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky recounts the racialization, alienation, coming of age, and coming to multiracial consciousness of Durrow’s fictional intermediary, Rachel Morse. Rachel is the sole survivor of a heartbreaking tragedy: her Danish mother Nella jumps from a rooftop in Chicago with all her biracial children. After recovering, Rachel is sent to live with her paternal grandmother who lives in a predominantly black neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Her alcoholic father, an airman stationed overseas, has disappeared from her life. The year is 1982. Rachel is seen as a light-skinned black girl by her new family and by the surrounding community. From the 5th grade onward, she identifies herself as black, but is still ridiculed for talking white; she is both resented and desired for her good hair and blue eyes. In short, Durrow’s novel recounts from multiple perspectives how Rachel comes to understand the tragedy that claimed her mother and siblings, and in the process reclaim her Danish cultural memory, becoming Afro-Viking like Durrow.

Some commentators are troubled by Rachel’s evolution from light-skinned black girl to Afro-Viking and by the great deal of uncritical attention that Durrow has received from the mainstream media. They say that Durrow’s work implements and promotes the politics of the American Multiracial Movement. In other words, they see her as a multiracial activist who also happens to write fiction. Or, as Summer McDonald puts it in her article “Canon Fodder: ‘The Girl Who Fell From the Sky’ and the Problem of Mixed-Race Identity,” Durrow’s novel “is a fictional rendering of her real life politics.” In particular, McDonald and other commentators such as Rainier Spencer, Jared Sexton, and Steven F. Riley disagree with a central message conveyed by multiracial advocates and apparently by Durrow—namely, that asserting a mixed-race identity is a socially just and progressive act. In McDonald’s words, “mixed- or multi-racial identity in a United States context is hardly about racial harmony or progress, but instead reinforces racial hierarchies by relying upon the equality efforts spearheaded by blacks while reinforcing anxiety about (being affiliated with) blackness.” Put differently, mixed-race identity, and Durrow’s in particular, “…reiterates white supremacy by attempting to etch a space for itself somewhere under whiteness—which it knows it can never access—and definitely above blackness.” Riley, who was a frequent contributor to Mixed Chicks Chat, agrees with McDonald; he adds that Durrow’s work reflects “her desire to be identified as ‘not black’” (“Canon” Responses).

Excuse the pun and my use of a template from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s book They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, but I have mixed feelings about Durrow’s work, which includes her novel, her festivals, her blog, podcasts, as well as her interviews in print and on YouTube. On the one hand, I think it is fair and useful for commentators to ask how Durrow’s work relates to white privilege and to the history of white supremacy. On the other hand, I think that Durrow’s novel (and other work) defies the limits of black/white America and ruptures the tradition of black/white passing narratives.

That said, many of the criticisms that commentators levy against multiracial advocates and mixed-race identity are spot on. Simply asserting a mixed-race identity in light of the popular formula “I’m not black, I’m not white; I’m both or mixed” is far from progressive or revolutionary. I concur with David Theo Goldberg’s point in “Made in the USA: Racial Mixing ‘N Matching” that “…the challenge to the project of racial purity in the celebration of mixed-race identities is at best ambiguous, (re)fixing the premises of the racializing project in place as it challenges that project’s very terms of articulation” (Racial Subjects 61). Put differently, popular versions of mixed-race identity generally work to reproduce race, rather than challenge and complicate it, insofar as most people who assert and/or celebrate mixed-race identities assume that races are real and that ethnic and racial group identities, histories, and cultures are stable and durable.

I also agree with the point that the mainstream media extends “the racializing project” when it presents interracial families, mixed-race children, and generation mixed as evidence of racial progress, multicultural harmony, and/or of an impending post-racial America. As Jared Sexton (Amalgamation Schemes) and others have shown, the recent celebration of multiracials in the mainstream media assumes and privileges heterosexual unions between members of different races or ethnicities. The mixed children of these unions then are assumed to embody, balance, and/or bridge the cultures of their presumed mono-racial or mono-ethnic parents. This presumption about the transformative capacity of mixed-race children privileges heteronormativity, and also promotes the myth, which is not at all new to our era or country, that interracial marriage and procreation are progressive acts that help societies evolve beyond race and racism.

It is also the case that powerful political and corporate entities can easily co-opt and redeploy multiracials in ways that both sustain conventional racial taxonomies and divert public attention away from blackness, white privilege, and the work of anti-racist scholars and activists. In other words, multiracials can be (and have been) used by powerful entities, often in conjunction with the mainstream media, to reinforce and propagate the popular sentiment that America is moving beyond the race problem and by extension beyond the need to educate the public about blackness and the history of white supremacy.

The above-mentioned criticisms of multiracials certainly cast doubt on the goals that Durrow sets for her work, and specifically on her oft-repeated statement that her work aims to complicate race and dismantle racism. Put differently, her belief in the transformative potential of individuals like her asserting mixed-race identities and telling their complex mixed-roots stories might seem unfounded, confused, or even disingenuous after taking into consideration past uses and abuses of mixed race. At best, then, these stories might help to educate the public about racism, blackness, white supremacy, and other social justice issues. At worst, rather than helping to heal racial divisions within the individual and American society as Durrow hopes, these stories reinscribe and exacerbate them; rather than complicating race and dismantling racism, these stories work in the service of power to divert public attention away from blackness and white privilege. At any rate, these are the main conclusions that McDonald, Riley, and others have reached about Durrow’s work.

On the other hand, I wonder whether it is fair and accurate to cast Durrow as a spokesperson for American multiracial identity politics, and to claim that her Afro-Viking identity is a facsimile of mainstream media and advocacy versions of mixed-race identity. Do the creative goals of her work mirror the political goals of Susan Graham and other multiracial advocates? Does her conception of Afro-Viking identity match the conception of mixed-race identity that journalist Susan Saulny foregrounds in her Race Remixed series in the New York Times? Is Durrow clinging to the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable? How wedded is she to her Afro-Viking identity?

Let’s delve deeper.

When it comes to asserting her Afro-Viking identity in public, Durrow has been consistently playful and mercurial. She usually qualifies her commentary about her Afro-Viking identity with the assertions that she is also a story, and that she is constantly learning and changing. In other words, she stipulates that her identity changes from day to day. Some days she likes to call herself African American and Danish; other days Afro-Viking, a story, or just Heidi. She sometimes also says that she is not trying to be glib about her identity, and then makes the caveat that to her knowledge there are only twelve other Afro-Vikings in existence. Altogether, these comments imply that Afro-Viking is one facet of a larger personal identity that is compound and shifting.

Her comments about her Afro-Viking identity also imply that, unlike many multiracial activists and journalists, she does not buy into the notion that races and racial identities are real, stable, and durable. Though she uses racial and ethnic categories in asserting her Afro-Viking identity and personal narrative, her use of the categories is creative, witty, and particular to her, and, if we take her word for it, twelve other individuals. Hence, her conception and deployment of mixed-race identity would not provide useful support for a politics of identity on behalf of the purported new multiracial group. Indeed, her Afro-Viking identity with its emphasis on variability, creativity, and individuality defies conventional racial and ethnic group identity politics that obligate individual members to show pride in and conform to the cultural histories, beliefs, and mores of their particular groups. That is to say, when Durrow states that she is a proud Afro-Viking or proud mixed chick she is also being tongue-in-cheek.

[…] To conclude, McDonald’s move to limit Durrow’s work to the black/white framework is a fair one. However, this move diverts attention away from the fact that Durrow seems to want her work to also be about trying to move beyond the black/white framework—to discover/discuss/and tell of common experiences and perceptions amongst mixed individuals of various hues, backgrounds, and ethnic-racial mixes. In other words, Durrow seems to be interested in creating and supporting work that pursues and develops the possibility of a common mixed-experience aesthetic—or to borrow a term from artist/critic Wei Ming Dariotis—a “kin-aesthetic” among people of mixed heritage. Regarding this possibility, Durrow needs to write and say so much more. Hence, the work that she produces (or fails to produce) in the next decade or two should be telling in regard to her artistic vision and its relationship to whiteness and white privilege.



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