White Like Me
"That's white of you, Derbyshire." I am just old enough to have had those words addressed to me in earnest, without, so far as I could discern, any facetious intent. The addresser was an Englishman I knew in my Hong Kong days 30 years ago. A middle-aged expatriate, he lived in the same seedy Kowloon rooming house from which I was just embarking on my lifelong vocation of impecunious idling. This Englishman had held some decent position in the Hong Kong civil service, but had been cashiered for taking advantage of Chinese boys. (Not an unusual case in the Hong Kong civil service. There was even an item of expat jargon identifying people of that kind: "rice queens.")
Having destroyed his career, and apparently not desiring to return to the mother country (a very common non-desire among white men in the Far East), this fellow had decided to drink himself to death, and was pretty far along with the project. I don't know whether his civil service pension had survived the cashiering, but he seemed to live mainly by sponging, at which he was skillful and persistent. After successfully sponging HK$20 from me one day, he said the thing I have just said he said: "That's white of you, Derbyshire." (Or it might have been: "You're a white man, Derbyshire," I can't recall the precise formula. At any rate, my whiteness was an essential component of his gratitude.)
Yes, it was pathetic, but he was a pathetic character, which is one reason I yielded to his sponging. Another reason was, that as an innocent young man just learning the ropes about life in distant places, I was susceptible to appeals based on racial solidarity — the beleaguered solidarity, I mean, of tiny numbers of Europeans scattered among native hordes, the solidarity you find echoed in Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt, Somerset Maugham and Paul Scott. Being myself, so far as acquaintance with the natives was concerned, still at that early point where they seemed strange and forbidding, rather than just fellow human beings who happened to speak a different language, I was receptive to the the idea that we white men must stick together.
I think that was the last time anyone made anything of my whiteness. Beyond that one brief frisson of racial solidarity 30 years ago, I can't say that being white has ever meant much to me. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to learn from the Washington Post that "whiteness studies" is now a respectable academic discipline, taught in at least 30 American universities, including Princeton, UCLA, and the University of Massachusetts. The proponents of this new field of scholarly inquiry put out a great deal of blather about the "need to understand" this and that, but it is perfectly obvious from a scrutiny of the subject matter that the main purpose of "whiteness studies" is to make white students hate their ancestors, and preferably also themselves.
For example: One item that we have been told about is the "privilege walk." Students stand shoulder to shoulder in a line across the room. Then each student either takes a step back, or a step forward, or stays put, in response to sentences read out by the instructor. Here are the sentences. I have appended my own responses in brackets after each sentence: plus one for a step forward, minus one for a step backward, zero for staying put. I have also added any comments that occurred to me.
1. If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back. (0. Those white Americans whose ancestors came over as indentured servants would be entitled to step back, I should think.)
2. If your primary ethnic identity is American, take one step forward. (0. This one doesn't make sense. "America," unlike, say, "Israel," or "Japan," or "Finland," is not the name of an ethno-state. There is a good case to be made that the founding fathers thought it should be; and I know some people in our own time who wish it were; but as things have worked out, it just isn't.)
3. If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back. (-1. Are they kidding? As a columnist who regularly speaks his mind on matters of "race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation," I can submit 100,000 reader e-mails in evidence.)
4. If there were people of color who worked in your household as servants, gardeners, etc., take one step forward. (0.)
5. If you were ever ashamed or embarrassed of your clothes, house, car, etc. take one step back. (-1. Again, are they kidding? What proportion of the population, of any color, would not step back here? I estimate 5 percent of men, some much smaller proportion of women.)
6. If your parents were professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward. (0.)
7. If you were raised in an area where there was prostitution, drug activity, etc., take one step back. (0. There was a time, reader — truly there was, and not so long ago — when poor people took pride in being honest, chaste, and respectable. They looked down with scorn on those who took poverty as an excuse for antisocial behavior. I am not making this up!)
8. If you ever tried to change your appearance, mannerisms, or behavior to avoid being judged or ridiculed, take one step back. (-1. See my note to sentence 5.)
9. If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward. (+1. My own children, currently in U.S. public schools, are not so privileged. Their history lessons thus far have featured mainly Sacajawea, Pocahontas, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I am sure those were all worthy people; but I suspect that my kids are acquiring the impression that there were no white folk at all in the United States until John F. Kennedy descended from the sky in a golden chariot.)
10. If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back. (0.)
11. If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward. (+1. When I was a kid, poor people of an unsocial temperament either drank a lot or read a lot. Hardly ever both — it's difficult to read when you're pickled. My family were mostly readers.)
12. If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back. (0. Oh, for goodness sake! After 40 years and several trillion dollars of spending on welfare, are there really any American college students who can step back here?)
13. If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward. (0. Unless Christmas pantomime counts — everybody in England went to those.)
14. If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back. (-1. If I got one step back for every time my Dad was laid off, I'd be in the next county. He was wellnigh unemployable. "A difficult man," was what everyone said. "He couldn't take orders," was my mother's explanation.)
15. If you attended private school or summer camp, take one step forward. (0.)
16. If your family ever had to move because they could not afford the rent, take one step back. (-1.)
17. If you were told that you were beautiful, smart and capable by your parents, take one step forward. (0. These blinkered idiots don't know jack about any culture outside late-20th-century middle-class America. My parents, or any other English parents, would no more have thought to say such things to me than they would have thought of embracing me and murmuring: "I love you, Johnnie." If they had done either, I would have called the police.)
18. If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back. (-1. Where I grew up, it was taken as a given that people of our background could not become judges, diplomats, surgeons, professors, senior civil servants, and a whole range of other things. Did some of us manage to do so anyway? Yes: but that's not the question. Discouraged? You bet.)
19. If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward. (0. I don't recall being positively dis-couraged on this. When the school sent home a letter saying that I could get a university place and should submit an application, my mother said: "That's nice." I can't remember Dad saying anything, though I feel sure he was pleased.)
20. If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back. (0. This wonderful modern regime of easy divorce and welfare-supported bastardy had not yet taken hold in my childhood. For which I thank God daily.)
21. If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward. (0.)
22. If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back. (-1. Yet again, I can't believe they are serious. My "gender" [by which I assume they mean my sex]? Degrading? Have these cretins ever watched any TV sitcom? Those shows, I mean, where the men are all dithering doofuses, being herded and corraled by sharp-witted women? My race, too: starting with Roots 25 years ago, there has been a whole flourishing genre of TV dramas featuring cruel, evil white people doing beastly things to colored folk. For crying out loud: If a TV drama has a white person and a black person in it, which one is more likely to be the villain? Can I step back two here?)
23. If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward. (0.)
24. If you were ever denied employment because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back. (-1. Yep. In my Hong Kong days again, I went to interview for a job I'd seen advertised in the newspaper. It was a Chinese firm. The lady took one look at me and told me rather sniffily that they did not employ expats. End of job interview.)
25. If you were paid less, treated unfairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back. (0.)
26. If you were ever accused of cheating or lying because of your race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back. (-1 … If having been English counts. It is an article of faith with the wilder sort of Irish Republican that all English people are liars and thieves, and I have had an earful of that. In any case, isn't this whole "whiteness studies" business premissed on the axiom that being white, male and heterosexual is ipso facto evidence of having cheated your way into high society?)
27. If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward. (0. Though on a technicality. My mother saved a small amount from her pension, and bequeathed it to us. At the time of her death, though, the accumulated sum only amounted to just enough to cover funeral expenses, so I am not going to count it.)
28. If you had to rely primarily on public transportation, take one step back. (-1. Another dumb one. The entire population of New York City could step back on this.)
29. If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back. (0. This one's a fix. A crime is committed. Witnesses report that the perp is black. The cops go looking for a black person. Another crime is committed. Witnesses report that the perp is white. The cops go looking for a white person. So sometimes the cops are looking for a black person, sometimes for a white person. How often, in each case? That depends on the levels of criminality in the two communities. Which are what, exactly? That you may not ask! What are you, some kind of racist?)
30. If you were ever afraid of violence because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back. (-1. Late one night in 1973, I was riding through the streets of Mount Vernon, New York, on a borrowed bicycle. A gang of black youths saw me, howled what the newspapers call "racial epithets," and started to chase me. Thank God it was a 10-speed bike. My leg muscles hurt for a week.)
31. If you were generally able to avoid places that were dangerous, take one step forward. (0.)
32. If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back. (0. Occasionally, among Chinese people. Not really sure if this counts.)
33. If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back. (0. I can only record a couple of narrow escapes on this one — see sentence 30. I have never been the victim of any kind of violence. I have been in fights, but they were mostly, as most fights are, unco-ordinated and inconclusive scuffles, stopped by bystanders after a few seconds.)
34. If your parents did not grow up in the United States, take one step back. (-1. But what does immigration have to do with whiteness? The idea here seems to be that immigrants of any origin are honorary blacks, rather as the Nazis considered Japanese to be honorary whites. Hey, I'll take what I can get.)
35. If your parents told you you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward. (0. See my response to sentence 17.)
As you can see, my own responses caused me to end up ten steps back — and that is after giving the benefit of any doubts to the questionnaire. May I have an affirmative action slot, please?
You might object that, as an older guy, I am not really part of the target population here. To the contrary, I would say that it's not me that is out of date, but the self-flagellating dipsnicks who thought up this "privilege walk." Just look at the assumptions underlying some of these sentences. Number 4, for instance. How many 18-year-old Americans grew up enjoying the attentions of "servants, gardeners, etc."? (And why, in any case, should we assume that such menials could not possibly have been white? New York City's first black mayor, David Dinkins, was fond of boasting that his mother had been in domestic service. Big deal: my mother's first job was in domestic service. Millions of white Americans must share this claim. I am told that domestic-service agencies in Manhattan have large numbers of Russians and East Europeans on their lists. There is nothing wrong with domestic service, anyway. Why is it less dignified to cook a millionaire's breakfast in a kitchen, than to cook his books in a business office? As a matter of fact, I have long nursed the sneaking desire to try work as a butler. I think I'd be rather good at it. You rang, Sir?)
Similarly with number 22. Good old Stepin Fetchit! He can be relied on for an example of the "degrading" roles black Americans were forced to play in the movies. Let it be noted, however, that the last movie of that kind was made half a century ago, and no TV channel would have dared to run it at any time since about 1970. And that even half a century ago, by far the dominant style of portrayal of black Americans in movies was the Noble Negro: Lilies of theField came out in 1963, and was by no means the first of its kind. And number 22 actually deals with TV. When were black Americans portrayed in a degrading manner on TV? Not in my time; not in the time of any entering college freshmen.
Likewise with number 6. The United States, God bless her, now includes millions of middle-class black citizens holding down good jobs — yes, even as "doctors, lawyers, etc." Some of the most interesting recent sociological studies concern the plush suburbs where these citizens live — John Ogbu's recent Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb, for example. Don't the kids of these well-heeled middle-class black people go to college?
The assumptions underlying the other sentences are equally anachronistic, or just plain silly. Number 14: white people never get laid off. This will be interesting news to several million victims of the recent recession. (As a matter of fact, since recessions hurt the private sector much more than the public, whereas black people are much better represented in public than in private employment, it seems probable to me that those laid off in a recession are disproportionally white.) Number 23: patronage rackets are a white thing. Really? Let me introduce you to the New York City school system. Number 12: there are people in America so poor they go to bed hungry. No there aren't. No there aren't. There are, of course, people who go to bed hungry because they have a $200-a-day drug habit, but that is not the same thing.
One must always try to be charitable, in a proper Christian spirit. The … persons who thought up this "whiteness studies" fandango are at least trying to deal with a real issue: the still-awful condition of the disproportionately-huge black-American underclass. Most of the rest of us just prefer not to think about this too much. True, the "whiteness studies" crowd are dealing with this issue in an exceptionally crass and lame-brained way; but that is because the kinds of people who rise to positions of authority in the non-science departments of American universities are exceptionally crass and lame-brained people. Let's see, what can we do to improve the condition of the black poor? I know — we'll work on raising the self-esteem of black kids! … [30 years later] … Hmmm. That didn't work too well. Those kids have terrific self-esteem now, but they are still stuck in the ghetto, or in jail, unable to read or do arithmetic. What else can we try? Got it! — Since raising the self-esteem of black kids wasn't much use, let's try lowering the self-esteem of white kids! Maybe that will help …
It won't help, of course. Far, far more people will scoff at these courses than will attend them. But what will help? My impression is that nobody has a clue, and that most Americans have given up bothering about the issue. The black underclass? Throw them (or, more precisely, those politicians and middle-class black intellectuals who claim to speak for them) a bone now and then — affirmative action, a ban on "racial profiling," a couple of trillion more taxpayer dollars shoveled into the bank accounts of public-sector union bosses, "whiteness studies." Okay: that, together with a few more super-size jails, should keep 'em quiet for another 20 years. Let's get on with our lives.