White Pundits, Black History: oh, the pain of my privilege.

From "Borderless News and Views," where Monica A. Gamble asks, "how do we cement the idea that Black history is American history?"
From “Borderless News and Views,” where Monica A. Gamble asks, “how do we cement the idea that Black history is American history?”

Chris Menning wants to blow your mind. All you have to do is tune into his site, Modernprimate.com, and watch his talking-head video “examining the concepts of equality, privilege, and economic class in terms that even the most ignorant should be able to understand.”

“You’re welcome, fellow white people,” he declares before he’s even made any of his points.

Menning is annoyed because, just like they do every February, there are white people complaining that Black History Month is a needless, biased institution. Menning explains why we do not, in fact, need to institute White History Month: the pervasive white privilege that is often invisible to those who benefit most from it.

He makes several good points, including scrapping the concept of “reverse racism” (i.e., blacks’ racism against whites). That’s not reverse racism: “It’s just racism.” Plus, Menning demonstrates the true and troubling racial disparities in America’s poverty rates, and the originally intended meaning of “all men are created equal”: that was actually “white men of English descent who owned a certain amount of property.”

He also directs us to Peggy McIntosh’s thought-provoking “White Privilege Checklist” and Debra Leigh’s worthwhile “28 Common Racist Behaviors.”

But Menning’s own story, and, apparently, his qualification to expound on the topic of racial injustice, begins when he went shopping, somehow set off a shoplifting alarm, and was allowed to walk out of the store without the clerk so much as checking his bags because (as Menning surmises in the video) he is white.

“Being a white guy has its perks,” he says, waving a half-eaten chocolate bar.

Menning points out that he’s made an awesome video.

“Now what I’m about to say is going to be a no-brainer for a lot of you, and it will mind-blowing for some others,” he says.

(Is there a third option? Like, irked by his slightly narcissistic expressions and non-diversifying insights?)

I guess you could boil my beef down to the fact that in the guise of addressing racial inequality, a white man is talking expressly to white people about white people’s internal troubles.

Yes, it is important to shine a light on white privilege. But too often, the obsession with examining our privilege becomes a way of turning the spotlight back on ourselves and shifting the conversation away from the voices of people of color, as if combating your own “privilege” is a drama on par with the struggle of those who suffer under racism.

Menning has lots more to say about what he’s learned from his own privileges:

“I’ve never been turned down for a job that I’ve interviewed for.  Every single time that I’m called in for an interview, do you know what happens? When I walk in there, I meet a white guy, much like myself…I answer some questions about why I want to work there, and I almost always walk out of there with a job.”

A 100% job-nabbing rate in this shitty economy is quite a feat – though Menning does admit that maybe it’s not all due to his skin tone: “The fact that I’m six feet tall helps, or the bass-y undertones in my voice,” he adds.

Or maybe the subtext of this career revelation is that, as a person, Menning is just as mind-blowing as his videos.  (“You’re welcome.”)

But let’s get off the ad hominem wagon.

Bear with me while I set my own quick scene.

This week, I was heading towards a city transit entrance when I noticed a middle-aged man loitering by the doors. He was hollering at a pair of young women half a block away, about how they were so pretty they had to stay and talk to him. They linked arms as they hurried away. I saw the taut, rueful expression on their faces and I swerved towards another entrance, walking an extra two blocks in the freezing weather because I wasn’t in the mood to be bothered, as long experience has taught me I probably would’ve been.

Now imagine that a silent male bystander witnessed this scene and then went home to expound online, pointing out to his intended audience of fellow men how well he recognizes his male privilege – blowing his viewers’ minds on the problem of sexism with his profound experience of…using whatever door he wants without fearing harassment.

Compelling stuff.

Menning says a lot of white people don’t recognize their own privilege simply because they’ve never been in a position to really observe and think about it.

“Every now and then when I stop to look around, I realize that I’m not constantly surrounded by other white men,” Menning says.

Fascinating – when did you first notice this phenomenon?

When this video popped up in my Facebook feed via Upworthy, billed as “The Definitive Response to Jerks Asking, “But What About White History Month?”, it was hard to put my finger on what bothered me about it. Shouldn’t we just applaud anyone who disdains racism and candidly discusses white privilege?

Part of the problem is that despite his apparent goal of a nuanced, modern discussion, Menning holds up an easy stereotype of prejudice. In his video, he’s the lanky, lucid New York hipster versus the bellowing, finger-jabbing, middle-aged Rush Limbaugh type.

I wish racist attitudes were really that easy to indicate and externalize.

Listening to Menning, I hear that a world dominated by one race is a pretty poisonous proposition – at the same time that he perpetuates an image of an all-white professional and social world.

“He probably sees me as someone he’d like to hang out with in some capacity,” Menning says of all those white male interviewers.

Yes, statistics tell us that you won’t find non-white, non-male managers in every building. But given my experience as journalist, in which I’ve interviewed many non-white (and female) executives, directors and researchers in fields from medicine to filmmaking, I’m surprised that Menning’s work experience has been so racially limited – especially since we’re both in major mid-Atlantic cities.

Menning recognizes his shortcomings. “My attitudes toward other people are largely affected by how much interaction I’ve had with them,” he says. “I can see my own ignorance. It’s not actually that hard.”

The trouble is, I don’t think you should rest on your laurels (or pontificate) for simply realizing that your attitude towards people of other races is affected by how little time you spend with them, patting yourself on the back for admitting what you don’t know and easily landing all those plum jobs in the meantime.

I know times are tough. But, “fellow white people,” you don’t have to work in a place where you sense that accolades come easily because of your white skin.

When a colleague’s boss once advised me to remove my married name, “Mabaso,” from my resume because hiring managers would assume I was black and throw my application in the trash, my first response was why would I want to work for someone who would trash a person’s resume just because of his or her race?

To borrow Menning’s phrase, “It’s not that hard” to get out of your own head and live an inclusive life in the 21st century.

I choose diversity in my professional life by writing for publications which hire and feature all voices – not just white male ones – where I can pitch stories that feature these voices.

And if you really haven’t got friends or family members of a different race (the 2010 US Census found that 10 percent of hetero married couples – a stat that grew 28% in the last decade – are interracial or interethnic, and 18 percent of non-married hetero partners and 21 percent of gay unmarried partners are interracial/interethnic) I honestly wonder what century you’re in.

My sister-in-law and I. The world has gone global. Get over it.
My sister-in-law and I. The world has gone global. Get over it.

Of course the world needs more racial harmony.  But it’s not the anomaly that Menning implies it is. And recognizing your privilege, or simply noticing, as Menning puts it, that “there are people of every race, gender and class all around me,” should not be a goal in itself. It should be the first step in the active work of not just noticing others, but understanding them.

Does that mean Menning’s points about white privilege aren’t worthwhile, that he isn’t a cool smart guy, or that I’m always aware of my own white privilege?


He comes from his own perspective.  This is my take. No-one can make a comprehensive or “definitive” survey of racial problems in one web post – especially if he or she is white.

“So white people, this Black History Month, instead of wondering why black people get their own history month, let’s just take a little time to reflect on how good it is to be white,” Menning finishes, while text flashes on the bottom of the screen: “Clarification: How good we have it. NOT how good we are.”

Or, instead of generating another white-initiated, white-centered discussion about thoughts and attitudes instead of action (“Black History Month for White People”), ignore the dolts who whine about Black History Month, be they Limbaugh or the hot girl down the hall, and just appreciate some black history, preferably more than one month out of the year.

What do you think?



Add yours →

  1. For the record, retail stores don’t look in your bag because it’s illegal to unless it’s voluntary. Most of the time they’re advised not even to ask. Store clerks didn’t search this guy’s bag because of that — not because of his race.

    Also, agreed. Learning about different cultures is fascinating. Everyone should pick up a history book or learn something during Black History Month. But it does bother me that he suggests white people shouldn’t celebrate but look at it from their own perspective. That’s just affirming that you’re “too good” for other races/cultures…

    • Yes. I think looking at it from your own perspective is a good first step, but you’ve got to back it up with practical efforts at understanding diverse people. It can’t be all internal work.

  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking post to start off the week. (Reading it, that song about everyone’s being a little bit racist from Avenue Q started going thru my head, and now I can’t get it out.)

  3. Lisa Nelson-Haynes March 5, 2013 — 11:59 am

    Overall, I agree with your position, except regarding the inclusiveness in the workplace. Just as we all have to make an effort to be inclusive in our personal lives, the same rings true in the workplace and in too many instances this is simply not a priority. Your recent piece in Flying Kite regarding Fringe Arts is an ideal example. As much as I enjoy and applaud the great work they do, they have absolutely no minorities on their full-time, salaried staff. You also mentioned interviewing folks in the film, another notoriously segregated industry. Take a minute to scratch the surface of some of our so-called local treasures and you’ll see a pervasive lack of inclusiveness. It’s very disheartening.

  4. I am all most a year late but hope to this is a conversation that continues. a I was also very happy that the replies were not negative or at least the ones i read, that gives me hope for us all!

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