I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked.

Claudia Rankine teaches Constructions of Whiteness at Yale. She writes about trying to talk to white men about privilege while traveling first class.

This scene, my god:

I was waiting in another line for access to another plane in another city as another group of white men approached. When they realized they would have to get behind a dozen or so people already in line, they simply formed their own line next to us. I said to the white man standing in front of me, “Now, that is the height of white male privilege.” He laughed and remained smiling all the way to his seat. He wished me a good flight. We had shared something. I don’t know if it was the same thing for each of us — the same recognition of racialized privilege — but I could live with that polite form of unintelligibility.

I found the suited men who refused to fall in line exhilarating and amusing (as well as obnoxious). Watching them was like watching a spontaneous play about white male privilege in one act. I appreciated the drama. One or two of them chuckled at their own audacity. The gate agent did an interesting sort of check-in by merging the newly formed line with the actual line. The people in my line, almost all white and male themselves, were in turn quizzical and accepting.

Finally, she does challenge a seatmate on something he says. Unlike so many, he doesn’t get defensive but accepts the feedback and they have a good conversation. I hope I would do the same.

Eventually, he told me he had been working on diversity inside his company. “We still have a long way to go,” he said. Then he repeated himself — “We still have a long way to go” — adding, “I don’t see color.” This is a statement for well-meaning white people whose privilege and blind desire catapult them into a time when little black children and little white children are judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The phrase “I don’t see color” pulled an emergency brake in my brain. Would you be bringing up diversity if you didn’t see color? I wondered. Will you tell your wife you had a nice talk with a woman or a black woman? Help.

All I could think to say was, “Ain’t I a black woman?” I asked the question slowly, as if testing the air quality. Did he get the riff on Sojourner Truth? Or did he think the ungrammatical construction was a sign of blackness? Or did he think I was mocking white people’s understanding of black intelligence? “Aren’t you a white man?” I then asked. “Can’t you see that? Because if you can’t see race, you can’t see racism.” I repeated that sentence, which I read not long before in Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.”

“I get it,” he said. His tone was solemn. “What other inane things have I said?”

“Only that,” I responded.

I had refused to let the reality he was insisting on be my reality. And I was pleased that I hadn’t lubricated the moment, pleased I could say no to the silencing mechanisms of manners, pleased he didn’t need to open up a vein of complaint. I was pleased he was not passively bullying. I was pleased he could carry the disturbance of my reality. And just like that, we broke open our conversation — random, ordinary, exhausting and full of a shared longing to exist in less segregated spaces.