White Like Me
One of the most useful passages we’ve read in philosophy is Wittgenstein’s “The World As I Found It”. Crafted as a response to Descartes, it is a brief exercise in identifying consciousness — what I see, what I sense, the parts of my body subject to my control — and ends, not with a brain in a vat, but with consciousness melting into the world itself. The world is my awareness of the world, my experience of it.
You needn’t delve into esoteric philosophy to understand this. Growing up, we enjoyed a sitcom inspired by Thurber cartoons called “My World… and Welcome to It”. Even at age 10, we got the idea.
Another way to understand this is simply your own experience. Your world is your stage, and you are both star and audience. What you know best is what you’ve lived. Anything outside your experience is by nature foreign, exotic, uncertain. You know what you know. What you don’t know might as well not even exist.
And when you’re a white male in America, there’s a lot you don’t know.
We’ve been wrestling with the idea of “privilege” lately — not the insight it expresses, but the expression of the insight. To the people who understand it best — women, racial and religious minorities, economic outcasts — no explanation is needed. The term is self-apparent, as are the people it applies to. The Privileged enjoy advantages not universally shared, and you know who they are. But if you’re not among those living in a deluxe apartment in the sky, your own privilege may not be readily perceptible. You might even feel insulted hearing the term. You’re grubbing for a living like everyone else. Why should you be considered privileged when you can’t even afford a house?
Our standard response, as a White Male in America, is that we can drive a car, walk down a street, work in an office, all without feeling threatened. We can speak our mind without our legitimacy being challenged. We can go through life being judged solely by the content of our character and the quality of our work.
This list is so mundane to our lived experience that it’s possible — easy, really — to not even be aware of it. It can be surprising to learn that these simple, unexamined facts of our life are not universally enjoyed. The discovery can be so unsettling that it’s immediately disputed, so foreign it is to our world. The very possibility can be unimaginable.
And yet our privilege rests on these very presumptions of our existence. We can take them for granted. You, if you’re not a White Male in America, cannot.
Your own world, your own lived experience, is the standard from which everything else deviates. And were we all on equal footing, that would be delightful. Our world is expanded by interacting with the worlds around us, your perspective broadening ours. That’s the insight behind “diversity” — bringing different experiences into the conversation.
But as a White Male in America, we enjoy the privilege of our world being central to the conversation, the only experience that matters. Our world is accepted as unquestioned fact. All other experience requires justification. Pix or it didn’t happen.
The centrality of our world, the norm by which all else is measured, makes it easy for us to overlook significant details, especially when it comes to aggregate summaries. We are familiar with black voters, Latino voters, women voters, suburban voters, rural voters, working-class voters, older voters, younger voters.
We don’t often hear about white voters as such, not without qualification, not as other racial groups are casually collectively identified. Although you may have heard of them this week, following white-preferred Roy Moore’s loss in Alabama. Perhaps you also heard that white voters in Virginia preferred Ed Gillespie by 15 points. You may even have heard that white voters nationwide preferred Donald Trump by 21 points.
You probably haven’t heard that white voters preferred Mitt Romney by 20 points. Or John McCain by 12.
Why haven’t you heard that? Seems it would be useful to know. These are decisive margins, the kind you can easily see leading a “blacks prefer” or “Latinos prefer” analysis. They are also consistent across years, decades, generations. There is a White Vote in America, which nobody knows about, nobody identifies as such — no whites, anyway — and yet is as revealing as any other.
Why is this? The presumptive centrality of our world, our lived experience as a White Male in America, means we don’t have to see ourself as being part of an interest group. We have no need for “identity politics”, and can easily disdain them as frivolous. We can do this because our identity is woven into the Constitution itself.
Everyone else has to make do with an Amendment.
This is all changing, of course. White people aren’t fucking as assiduously as Paul Ryan, and the presumptive centrality of our world isn’t as certain as it was when we were born into a 49-state America. This is not happening quickly enough, and the arc of the moral universe wobbles as much as it bends, but it is inexorable. The day will come when all Americans enjoy the same privilege we do, which should have been the case all along.
Until then, all we can hope is that we leave the world better than we found it.