Unraveling the Knot of Race

Meg Savin

The average white household has 11 times the net wealth of a Latino household and 14 times that of an African American household, according to statistics in 2001. In order to establish residential integration in the U.S., 70 percent of our population would have to move. Seventy percent of whites believe that African Americans are treated equally in their neighborhoods, whereas the majority of blacks feel that this is not the case.These were just a few of the numbers that Dr. Allan G. Johnson tossed out to begin his lecture, “Unraveling the Knot of Race,” in Love Auditorium on Tuesday evening. Johnson, author of The Gender Knot and Privilege and Power and Difference (The new edition was just released), among other books, addressed the Colgate community. He spoke openly about race, privilege and the sentiment of guilt often tied to these issues.Director of the ALANA Cultural Center Jamie Nolan introduced Johnson as having the knack “to present difficult issues.”Johnson spoke for a little over an hour, engaging the audience with his candid anecdotes and seemingly boundless energy, as he waltzed from one end of the lecture hall to the other. He occasionally incorporated humor to lighten the heavy issues at hand, but what came across as most evident was his intense passion for the injustices that exist in our society. Since receiving a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Michigan in 1972, Johnson has spoken at universities throughout the country. His lecture focused on race but more specifically on “white privilege.” “This extremely loaded term,” he said, “brings about defensiveness and denial. These are the blocks that keep us from talkinghonestly.” Johnson stressed that diversity is not the problem.”Difference isn’t the problem,” he said. “In fact, we seem to like it. Historically, when different races meet for the first time, they don’t jump back from one another. The solution is not appreciating or tolerating difference because it is the privilege surrounding these differences that is the problem.”Johnson believes that this “white privilege,” or unearned advantage, is the culprit. He was careful to explain that “white privilege” is not a characteristic; it is out of man’s control. “We are born with access to it or not,” Johnson said. “It is connected to a socially constructed category called ‘white.'”He explained that this ‘white’ category was created, and therefore, it can change. Johnson admitted the ridiculousness of the statement, saying that our method of defining ‘white’ is nonsensical. Examples he cited included those who have been excluded from the category of ‘white’ in U.S. history, such as the Irish, Greeks, Italians and Jews. According to Johnson, the category is constantly being redefined depending on who is in power. He provided the example of the California Supreme Court ruling 100 years back, declaring Mexicans to be ‘white’ but excluding Asians from the label. “This was because Mexicans at this time owned a lot of land,” Johnson explained.He believes that the conversation surrounding “white privilege” becomes difficult because “most people who have access to privilege do not know it.” “It gets even trickier,” he said, “as whites who do see the problem often claim that they are not responsible.” Johnson used himself as an example. “White privilege” originated with the emergence of the slave trade. Johnson, as a northerner, it would seem, did not benefit in any way from the profits of the trade. He debunked this myth with the following logic. The profit from the triangular slave trade was pumped into the Industrial Revolution in Britain and then to the U.S. The nation made economic gains during this era. Later, at the conclusion of World War II, some of this money was lent to families, such as Johnson’s parents, through the Federal Housing Administration for low cost mortgages for GIs. To be accurate, Johnson feels that one should mention that this money was lent solely to white GIs, as the government felt in 1954 that racially diverse neighborhoods would not be a good investment. The money that Johnson’s parents received eventually helped him and his wife purchase their home.”If you follow the money backwards, some wall or board in my house can be traced back to the institution of slavery,” he explained. “Is our house based on racism? Are we racists? The answer to this question is yes. Our definition of racism is too narrow. Racism is anything that has the effect of supporting ‘white privilege,’ regardless of individual intentions.”In the final section of his lecture, Johnson focused on the ‘social systems’ that make up our world, as opposed to the individualistic interpretation that is often seen. “This more technical term simply implies that we exist in relation to things greater than us,” he said, “be it a family, a college or a group of friends. In making decisions, we tend to take the path of least resistance so as not to disturb the social system.”According to Johnson, people often believe that they are choosing the path of least resistance when they decide to deny that ‘white privilege’ exists and refuse to discuss it. “Silence,” he said, “is the problem.”Another student asked if all white people are racists, according to Johnson’s definition of racism.”Yes, they are,” he said. “But not just whites. We all perpetuate it. We cannot escape out participation in it.”After two hours of lecturing, debating and discussing, Johnson did leave the Colgate community with some feeling of optimism. “Is there hope?” he asked. “I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t.”