Skip to content

[X]Press Newspaper: An Example of White Privilege and Ignorance: An Analysis

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Since Christine gave you guys the background over this sad state of affairs at the newspaper we work for I’m going to be breaking down Maher’s article (It’s not online, only in the paper) word by word to show the utter stupidity, and recklessness, of his (not to mention completely unaware of his own white privilege) argument. The article was called “A note on diversity from next semester’s newspaper editor.” and it appeared in issue 16 of volume 82 of our paper (May 17, 2007).

Maher opens up by saying:

Discussions of diversity always make me squeamish,

Diversity making a white hetero-sexual male squeamish, hmmm…Well, nothing new there really.

chiefly because the discussion is usually based on presumptions that fundamentally reinforce the bigotry such conversation are meant to combat.

This is a classical argument that many whites (and some people of color) make about talks on diversity. We should only judge people by their character and not by the content of their skin. Therefore we should just ignore diversity and view the world in a color-blind way.

Ok, I buy that (sort of), we should judge people based on the content of their character just as Martin Luther King, Jr. told us to do. But talks of diversity have nothing to do with the content of people’s character based on their skin color. What talks and discussions of diversity have to do with are looking at age old biases that are ingrained into our minds and souls. Discussions and talks on diversity are there to challenge our assumptions based on people’s race. In a society that is saturated in white privilege and heterosexual privilege we never encounter real genuine discussions on issues such as race and diversity in the newsroom because we are blind to it. It is ingrained in us to see white as the norm, heterosexuality as the norm, etc. So when there are a bunch of white people in the newsroom and in the paper we don’t question it or see anything wrong with it because that is what we’ve been taught to see as normal growing up (subconsciously and consciously). This is why we need to bring up questions of diversity in the workplace, newsroom, etc. because no one is there to bring them up.

And yet whenever someone tries to bring up questions of diversity there is always some white person, always, stating how this makes her or him “uncomfortable,” or, in Maher’s case, “squeamish. Yet that is why we need to bring up issues of diversity, because people are uncomfortable with it. We need to challenge our assumptions and bring us out of our comfort zone, if we don’t than we remain ignorant to the realities of America and to the realities of our own assumptions and privileges.

Maher than goes on to say about the photo content:

The auditing process seems to be no more sophisitcated than looking at people in the photos and concluding, “That’s a black guy; that’s a Chinese girl,” and so on.

I agree with Maher on this point. It’s an inexact science to look at photos and guess what someone’s race is. This is the reality of race, race doesn’t exist (see “What Is Race?“), it is not biological, it’s sociological. Race, especially the white “race” was constructed through privilege and through sociological presumptions that constantly changed over time. The Irish (an ethnicity) at first were considered Black (a race) and over a period of a few generations were excepted as white (a race based on privilege made up of different ethnic groups). Some light skinned Blacks could pass off as white (especially if they were half-white) to some extent, their ethnicity was African, or Black as it were, but in society’s eyes they could be seen (sort of) as white. Now, when looking at a photo everyone looking at that photo will see, “hmmm, a Asian girl reading a book,” or “Ah, a Black guy walking across the quad.” There is no exact science to it, this is how we’ve been taught by society to look at others, through race. This is why the [X]Press editors decided to do a photo analysis of issues one through fifteen, to see how the paper (through photographs) was portraying SF State’s population. This is how society will percieve the make-up of SF State’s student population (to some extent). Exact? Scientific? No, of course not, but neither is race, yet this is the reality that the auditors had to work with and what they found was quite disturbing.

The demographics of SF State are 36% white, 34% Asian, 16% Latino, 7% Black, 1% Native American, and 6% “All other responses.”

What the auditors found was that Whites were portrayed 47% of the time, a difference of 11%. Black’s 20% of the time (which is positive). But, Latinos were only portrayed 11% of the time, and the second largest racial demographic, Asians, were only portrayed 13% of the time, a negative 21% difference.

To this Maher states:

setting aside even the absurd conclusion that skin color and bone structure are teh defining elements of one’s cultural identity (remember, at the moment we were targeting the importance of representing cultures, not races), I’m astonished we’re accepting this particular definition of diversity with so little scrutiny.

It’s an encouraging thing that Maher knows that race and culture are two different things. But, at the same time, in America, race and culture are so intertwined it’s impossible to set aside the two in most people’s minds. Culture is what race was based upon in the first place. The Irish were culturally different from most Americans and were treated differently because of this. They had weird accents, strange and dangerous Catholic customs, wore cloths that were way out of date for their time, and had rituals that would make most White Anglo-Saxton Protestant U.S. citizens cringe in horror. Yet what happened to the Irish was a shift in their culture. They rejected their culture (for more see How the Irish Became White and my blog post “The Construction of Whiteness“) and accepted a more “white” cultural way of living of the classical WASP variety. Because of their light skin (which has to do with their geographic location in the globe) and because of their changing attitudes they became accepted as white, so much so that John F. Kennedy was elected president just a little over 100 years after the great migration of the Irish to America from their homeland. Their light skin had to do with their geographic location. Their geographic location obviously effected their culture in some way, their culture also had to do with their originally being classified as “Black” by the ruling elite and their culture also had to do with their later becoming white and being accepted by the ruling elite. Their race, i.e. being light skinned, was concrete in America, that is why the ruling class pitted the “white” Irish against the “Black” Africans. While the Irish were being oppressed by the same people who were oppressing Black Americans there was no other ethnic group more racist against Blacks than the Irish.

So, therefore, while race is a sociological construction based on a number of factors (being cultural, legal, and social), race is also, in a sense, concrete. It’s concrete in the way we interact with people, the way we perceive people, the way income is distributed in society, the way economic and ecological decisions can effect races differently. Just look at my home town San Francisco. There was (it was recently shut down) a PG & E power plant spewing toxic shit all over the Black Bay View Hunters-Point, but the white Pacific Heights had a fabulous view of the Golden Gate Bridge and wonderful fresh and clean sea breezes. Here we can see how race is concrete from an ecological standpoint, and an economic.

So, yes, it is absurd to view bone structure (whatever that means) and skin color as concrete examples of culture but it is also absurd to ignore the factors that race plays in America and how culture and race are obviously intertwined.

I’ve always struggled to maintain belief in the idea that what defines us as people are our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions.

Of course our thoughts, feelings, and actions define us as persons. I don’t think the editors who wanted this content analysis think any differently. Yet Maher is also ignoring the harsh reality of America and the Western world. People’s skin color defines who they are in other peoples minds. And the way other people define you, however unjustly this is, also defines, to a lesser or greater extent depending on the person, how you view your self. We only need to look at the bottom of this page to see what DuBois said about defining yourself through the lens of others.

“Always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Yet Maher doesn’t see this, and justifably so. He doesn’t see this because he is white. His white skin is his shield. As the co-editor of the paper Ian Thomas told Maher in a rage on Thursday. “I don’t mean to insult you buy you are a white heterosexual male!” In society’s eyes that is not an insult but a “complement” and for Maher to not see it as otherwise shows us his complete obliviousness to his white privilege, his male privilege, and his heterosexual privilege.

What makes a community meaningfully diverse is a wealth of individual beliefs, perspectives and behavior, not a bunch of different-looking faces.

Again, I agree with what Maher is saying, as anyone would, but I disagree, again, in the context of why he is saying it.

Maher sees diversity as differences in beliefs, perspectives, and behaviors, and not as cultural and racial. Yet one gets different opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and behaviors when one has a culturally and racially diverse social group. Of course, I also accept his argument that if I had friends who were of every different race and gender and all thought the same (such as if I was Bill O’Reilly and my friends were Michelle Malkin, Thomas Sowell, Condaleeza Rice, Ann Coulter, and Alberto Gonzales) I wouldn’t be doing a service to my personal growth. Yet, one has to ask, people such as Rice and Malkin, how much of their “culture” have they given up to be accepted by whites. Will you more likely see a white person with an ultra-conservative person of color as a friend who doesn’t question their white privilege and white supremacy or will you more likely see as white person with a person of color as a friend who challenges their own racist views and white privilege. Chances are the former rather than the latter is more likely. And if this is the case does that mean because that white person who has a person of color as a friend make her or him less racist, nope, not by a long shot. Ah, such are the complexities of our 21st century America. Why can’t it be like the good ol’ days when you could be for Martin Luther King, Jr. and clamor for equal rights and yet still think that Blacks were “kinda lazy?” Well, for one, those days are still here with us right now, only we don’t have laws that help whites keep Blacks and other people of color “in their place.” But, I digress.

When we define diversity primarily in terms of what people look like, we give credence to the idea that a person is defined by those appearances. We accept and assume that societal forces are beyond each individual’s control to absorb and react to in his or her own fasion, and in so doing we demean and discourage individuality and help create the stereotypes we intend to dispel.


Indeed diversity is not solely on what a person “looks like” but the problem is that that argument is used to constantly justify why we shouldn’t be critically looking at race as a factor in our everyday lives and is used to keep people ignorant to the fact that race is a reality to millions of Americans in their everyday lives. Race isn’t a reality because those “crazy people of color” are making it a reality by “playing the race card,” it’s a reality because our society deems one race, the white race, the most important and educated race and the other races as unimportant, lazy, automotrans, illegals, etc. It is because of this reality that race plays an important role in people’s lives and why it plays an important role in how people’s lives our shaped.

Maher’s life has been shaped by the fact that he is white. He can say such things as “what defines us…are our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions” and that what diversity is, “is a wealth of individual beliefs” because Maher is a white male. Race and gender have never been issues for him growing up. The only time race has ever been an issue for him is if someone gives him a mirror and tells him that the reason he is privileged is because of the color of his skin. This makes Maher “squeamish.” To that I say welcome to the world of someone who is not white. This squeamish you feel when someone brings up diversity (how ever often that is for you) is a “squeamishness” that non-whites feel (subconsciously or consciously) every day based on the fact that in American society they are relegated to the fringes of everyday life. A perfect way of looking at this is if a young Asian child were to see the [X]Press everyday, she or he wouldn’t see a whole lot of Asian faces, this child would feel as if she our he was not “normal” when in reality Asians make up the second largest racial demographic at SF State. While this one little example may seem trivial it is not trivial when amplified to every single little thing in the everyday life of being America. (For more see “‘i wanna be white’,” “‘No! I”m Not Black, I’m White!’,” “World White News Coverage” “Psychological False Consciousness“).

Maher is oblivious to this. If he is surrounded by a sea of white faces who think differently and have different opinions on many things than he sees diversity. He’s blind to the fact that the people around him are all white. He’s blind to this not because of any moral superiority to someone who would see all of the white faces around him but instead is blind because he fails to look at his own privilege. The reality is, is that these white faces may have different opinions but including people from different races and cultures also adds to the diversity of the situation because people who come from different backgrounds can see certain things that others can’t, they’ve experienced things that others haven’t, and have different outlooks because of their experiences, gender, and race. Can a room filled with white Sean Maher’s see that racism still exists, and exists strongly, in America today? Of course not, as Maher has pointed out to us in his woefully ignorant opinion piece about diversity. Chances are these white people won’t realize racism still exists because of the simple fact that their whiteness has shielded them from issues of race. They don’t need to look at race because of their race, because their race is the dominant and normal race. And when someone tries to bring up race and diversity in a conversation they shut them down because they couldn’t possibly see how race is important.

Their white privilege blinds them to their own ignorantness in even thinking such a thought that race isn’t important!

Yet, if there was a room filled with whites, Asians, Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos, females, and males than they could point out the many factors that shape this country, such as race, class, gender, because they’ve eperienced it themselves.

A good example comes from my own experience. I was having lunch with one of my good friends who’s Pilipina and White and is a lesbian. She mentioned to me that the Dance Department at SF State has a very gendered view of the world and is very hetero-centric. Now this had never dawned on me. I had seen a few of the performances and noticed that there were a few homo-centric pieces in it and thought, “Oh, that’s nice.” My heterosexuality blinded me to the fact that yet, there were a few pieces that did have homosexual themes in them but the vast majority (probably 90%) had heterosexual themes in them with traditional gender roles. I was blinded by my heterosexual privilege. But my friend, who is a lesbian, could see quite clearly how the Dance Department is dominated by tradition gender roles and heterosexual tendencies. She could see this clearly because of her own experiences. Are you to tell me if I had a vast array of white heterosexual friends that one of them could have told me the same? I think not. While someone who was heterosexual could have seen this more than likely someone who wasn’t heterosexual could see it more plainly because of their status in society.

Likewise, people of different races have different views and opinions of this country will call America. Also, think of the aburdity of the situation. You have a group of people who have different opinions, different ways of seeing the world, and different ways of thinking, and they are all white! Are you to tell me that’s not significant!? All of their views cannot acknowledge the simple and straight up fact that there are a bunch of white people dominating a certain physical space!? That’s the problem here. Maher isn’t acknowledging the fact that while whites make up only 36% of the school’s demographics they make up nearly half of all people pictured in our newspaper. Yet he is telling us that diversity does matter? But diversity in opinion and not racial? Even though race is still important in this country and that race effects the way people are perceived and the way people percieve the world. This is not just wholly ignorant but disgusting as well!

Skin color and gender are often important in determining the experiences that shape our believes and the way we behave around others…At the same time, I must make clear that my first priority will always be to promote a diversity defined by ideas and perspectives, above and beyond the aesthetic differences that have for so long afflicted our efforts to join together.


Again, Maher keeps telling us that diversity of opinions matter, not diversity of race. Yet while people may have different opinions leaving out factors of race leave out a vast more array of opinions than ever. Maher, as I have stated above, seems to be completely blind to his privilege. Think of it this way. If one touts that they respect diversity of opinion and what to challenge traditional beliefs and yet one it comes down to it their actions create a situation were whites dominate those “diversities of opinion” than isn’t this showing us how utterly ignorant this person is of race in America and whiteness? If the content in question is only content that caters to a white audience how diverse are we being really? Are the diverse issues of opinions issues of the Bible being taught in schools, styles of dance, religious beliefs, capitalist vs. socialist? And if so who is representing what side? What if all of the faces representing those sides are white. A white atheist vs. a white Muslim; a white capitalist vs. a white socialist; a white land developer vs. a white environmentalist. Is this diversity, I ask you?

The simple answer is obviously no. It’s not diversity if whites are dominating the discussion. Not only does this ignore the racial history in America were whites have dominated every single discussion about every single issues since the founding of the Jamestown settlement exactly 400 years ago, but it also ignores present day racial realties. The reality is, is that today, in the 21st century, whites still dominate the discussion, whites still hold economic advantages (see “Living on the Other Side of the Color Line“) over people of color by staggering amounts, and that whites are completely unaware, as Maher is, of their own privilege in American society and on the fact that when someone brings up diversity someone will be attacked by a person like Maher, but when someone like Maher makes statements such as “diversity of opinion” matter and not “race” that person is perceived in this society as having the upper hand and when someone attacks the wholly ignorant and racist[1] ideas of someone like Maher than that person will be called out as using the “race card,” as if a person like Maher hasn’t been using the race card since birth.

A person who is Latino, who grew up in East Los Angeles and who experienced racism first hand from the LAPD (I, unlike some, do not dismiss the allegations of abuse just because they are Latino and poor) and from the larger society in general will obviously hold different views than a white person who grew up in a white suburb and who never had to deal with race. Both might be liberal and both might decry certain things in this society, yet one has truly experienced how the “other half” lives in America and the other one might, like Maher, be wholly ignorant to why racial diversity matters in the newsroom, the news pages, and in society at large. With diversity of cultures and with diversity in races obviously comes diversity in opinions, views, and outlooks.

If Maher’s vision rings true and the paper has diverse opinions in it and yet those diverse opinions are being spoken only by whites (and by a majority of times male) who will be there to have the opinion. “Hey you stupid mother fuckers! You’re a bunch of white people spouting issues that mostly effect bougie whites! Where are the opinions and articles that matter to the working class, to Latinos, to Asians, to Blacks, to Native Americans!? Were are those!?”

Sadly, that opinion would not be there, and that opinion is the most important of all because it forces whites to view themselves as they truly are, as privileged people whom have outlooks that are obviously different from other people who aren’t of their racial category. And yes, that opinion will make people like Maher “squeamish,” but their few minutes of “squeamishness” will not amount to the feelings of what many people in this country have gone through, and continue to go through, because of their color. And that “squeamishness” might help people like Maher realize their wrongheaded and ignorant views.

Maher ends his piece with this:

The true power of the press lies in its close communication with the people. With an engaged and scrutinous [sic] audience, I am confident we can build a newspaper of true diversity and integrity.

Sadly, with thinking such as his, [X]Press will only continue to contribute to the everyday acceptance of white privilege, white supremacy, and the ignoring of the racial realities of America.

Notes:

1. By racism I don’t mean the classical sense of the word but the contemporary sense of the word. For more detail and discussion see “Racism and White Supremacy.”

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: