How Is A Nation’s Greatness Measured?
By Chris Hewitt
My dad was on life support last month in Florida (he’s getting much better now), and I wanted to read to him while he was in bed. I was in the middle of reading the April issue of National Geographic at the time, which they called the Race Issue, featuring articles like Skin Deep: The Science of Race; Dawn of the White Minority; Us and Them: Why We Divide; and Driving While Black. So I decided to start reading the article that I had stopped on—The Rising Anxiety of White America—an article about a small town in Pennsylvania that went from being 95% white in 2000 to 44% white in 2016.
“The dizzying shift is an extreme manifestation of the nation’s changing demographics,” the article states. “The US Census Bureau has projected that non-Hispanic whites will make up less than 50 percent of the population by 2044, a change that almost certainly will recast American race relations and the role and status of white Americans, who have long been a comfortable majority.” As I continued to read to my dad, although I was enjoying the information, I realized it may not have been the most soothing reading material. He’s a white man who was raised in a very racist America. He and my mom did their best to shield my siblings and me from outright hate and racism, but the underlying sentiments found their way through to the next generation.
I didn’t realize I was a racist in a racist society until I got to college, where I studied a semester of intercultural communication. I learned about our “mental tapes,” those little voices in our heads that tell us certain things about other people. Once we realize that these tapes are created by our parents, caregivers, and peers, it’s possible to change or eliminate them. I also learned about white privilege—inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice. I was fascinated by Peggy McIntosh’s essay titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh listed 46 of her own everyday advantages, such as “I can go shopping most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed”; “I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race”; and “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”
I recently experienced another white privilege training as part of a 6-month fellowship. Some of the people in the class didn’t understand the concept. One person confided in me that she was upset about the training because she is struggling to pay the bills and raise her children, and therefore doesn’t feel privileged. Another classmate said that she’d like to get a raise soon at work but feels bad about that because of white privilege. No: white privilege isn’t about money or wealth. We all have opportunities to get more money and become more successful; in fact, if you have a flushing toilet you are wealthier than billions of people on the planet. McIntosh used the metaphor of white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
The best modern description that I’ve seen can be viewed on YouTube. Just search “$100 to the Winner of the Race.” A high school coach offers $100 to the person who wins a race on a field, but first he asks students to take two steps forward if certain statements apply to them. If both of your parents are still married; if you grew up with a father figure in the home; if you have access to private education; if you never had to worry about your cell phone being shut off; if you never had to help mom or dad with the bills; if you never wondered where your next meal was coming from. Once the students step forward, it becomes clear that certain people in our society have head starts—and certain people do not have a level playing field.
I’ve heard it said that people should pick themselves up from their own boot straps, but what if the boots have no laces. Or what if someone doesn’t even have boots?
“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”