Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m a white guy. I don’t really think of myself in terms of my race, which I regard — as a scientist — as a malignant social construct with no basis in genetic reality. That said, I’d be the world’s biggest dumbass, or perhaps Pat Buchanan, if I thought my race, fictive or otherwise, didn’t matter, and matter a lot.
I mention Buchanan because he recently made a statement that puzzled me. In regards to the Sotomayor nomination, he said, “What is happening now to white men right now is exactly what was done to black folks for years.” The statement is absurd on its face. After all, I haven’t found myself forced to use entrances or bathroom facilities assigned to white folks, no one has burned crosses on my yard, there are no towns with signs that say “Cracker, don’t let the sun set on you here,” and I’m sure as hell not a sharecropper or a slave. But Buchanan’s sentiment is shared by a lot of white people whose presence I have to endure more frequently than I’d like, and so I had to spend some time unraveling it.

What Buchanan really means — and I think he and his fellow travelers are quite sincere about it — is that any situation in which white men are not privileged is a situation in which they are oppressed. The subtext, of course, is that white men are supposed to be in their natural position at the top of the racial hierarchy, so displacing them from that position is an injustice. His logic is quite valid if you accept the premises.

Most white people don’t believe that, of course. Buchanan’s ilk are a minority, albeit not as small as decent folk would like. The majority of white people are not consciously racist at all. They are definitely unconsciously racist, but there’s little point in saying that to them because the accusation strikes them as unfair, and to a certain extent, they’re right. You can’t purge yourself of traits unless you’re conscious of them. How one helps people become conscious of their biases is a mystery to me, but I can explain, as a former sufferer of unconscious racial bias, what those well-meaning but misguided folks are thinking.

America, as we all know, is not such a hot deal if you’re poor, and while it’s not terrible for those of us struggling to remain in the middle class, we are struggling, and a lot of us came from poor families or endured some poverty when we left home, so the specter of scarcity — especially in times like these — is never far from our minds. So when the average middle to lower class white guy hears minority members complaining about white privilege, it strikes him as bullshit because he doesn’t feel privileged in any way despite his whiteness. He’s working hard and struggling to keep his head above water, and as far as he can tell, no one is cutting him any deals because he’s pink.

I know this because I used to think this way. I thought this way a lot when I was poor. I even listened to Rush Limbaugh and voted for Pat fucking Buchanan when he ran for the Republican nomination against Bob Dole.

I’m not poor now. Depending on the year and the number and quality of the contracts I get, I make about $80k. I have some onerous medical bills and I’m working to pay off some back taxes stemming from an honest but stupid mistake with my quarterly taxes during a period of self-employment, but I’d have a hard time keeping a straight face if I tried to tell you I was struggling. In fact, I feel pretty fortunate: all my needs are met, and I can not only afford a modicum of luxury, but also help out some of my less fortunate relatives and friends with chunks of change that would have seemed mind-blowing to me when I was trying to get by on welfare all those years ago.

Not having to struggle has a wonderfully liberating effect on the mind. Because I’m not angry and fearful all the time, I don’t have to find anyone to blame. I can be honest with myself about things that were impossible to be honest about when I was struggling.

The most important thing I can be honest about is this: I didn’t get here by my own merits. That’s not to say my merits were or are irrelevant. I work hard and I’m exceptionally good at what I do, which is software engineering. I’m not a college graduate; I’m pretty much an autodidact. Regular self-made man, eh? Well, sort of. My college education was paid for by my middle-class parents; I just dropped out, partly because of my recreational drug use. I married young, had a kid, and worked shitty jobs for the first few years. Programming was a hobby for me, one I took seriously, but just a hobby. It was, however, one I was able to indulge from a young age — in the late 70’s, no less — because my father was a manager in one of the largest corporations in America, and he brought early computers home and took me to the office to tinker with the mainframe.

I should also mention that while I attended public schools, we lived at the edge of the richest part of town, and so the public schools I attended were mostly full of rich kids whose parents didn’t care for private schools. I made lots of friends there.

So in 1996, while I was selling furniture, one of those friends, a descendant of one of the founding families of the state whom I’d basically gotten to know because of my friendship with another of his friends, the daughter of the assistant secretary of state, scored me a job with his employer, a minor NBC television personality who was the scion of one of the wealthier Jewish families in town. Did I mention that most of my friends growing up were Jews — largely because, as an agnostic, I didn’t get along with the Christian kids — and being in a relatively affluent area, they were mostly the sons of doctors, lawyers, and successful businessmen of one sort or another? Talk about connections! One job led to another, generating what seemed like insane sums of money to me at the time, but more importantly, allowing me to add nice stuff to my resume. Eventually, the lack of a college degree didn’t matter.

To be sure, I worked my ass off. When I say I was an autodidact, I mean that I spent a lot of time with graduate level textbooks in fields like artificial intelligence, compiler engineering, higher mathematics, algorithm theory, and so on. I earned my success.

But here’s the catch: I never would have had the opportunity to earn that success if I wasn’t a middle class white kid with lots of affluent friends, parents who indulged my intellectual endeavors, superb public schools, and more than a little good luck in the way of timing. Without all that, I’d more than likely still be trying to convince some recent divorcee to buy overpriced wicker furniture at Pier 1.

That’s what race and class privilege is about. Oh sure, there’s more than that — no one shouts racial epithets at me while I’m walking down the street, cops don’t pull me over just to see what I’m doing, and when I walk into a job interview, the outcome isn’t decided before I have a chance to say a word. But that’s not a matter of privilege, per se: when that stuff happens to women and minorities, that’s actual oppression. The average white guy doesn’t face oppression; he enjoys privilege, and because that privilege is so pervasive, he doesn’t see it. And he thinks of privilege in terms that have little to do with what his privilege actually is.

The privilege of the average white guy is the benefit of the doubt and a double handful of honest chances to demonstrate merit. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to him because it’s really not. It’s only a big deal when it’s denied to you because you’re poor, or a woman, or a racial minority.

If someone can figure out how to communicate that fact to the average white guy, the world would change.

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