Pam Spaulding

White privilege, McCain/Palin -- and the Kenyan witchhunter

Filed By Pam Spaulding | September 17, 2008 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Media, Politics, Politics
Tags: John McCain, Race, Sarah Palin, white privilege

Tim Wise's bio lets you know he's in a unique position to lay this out on the line. He is the director of the Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE) in Nashville, Tennessee.

He lectures across the country about the need to combat institutional racism, gender bias, and the growing gap between rich and poor in the U.S. Wise has been called a "leftist extremist" by David Duke, "deceptively Aryan-looking" by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and "the Uncle Tom of the white race," by right-wing author, Dinesh D'Souza.

Well, Wise discusses the third rail of race in a way many progressives usually avoid because it's pretty damn uncomfortable. Here's Wise's assessment of white privilege and its lingering, nagging impact on race relations in this country and this election. Snippets from "This is Your Nation on White Privilege" are below the fold, as well as a prime example of what Wise is talking about when it comes to Sarah Palin and her praise of a witchhunter - she believes his laying on of hands helped her win the gubernatorial election in Alaska.

For those who still can't grasp the concept of white privilege, or who are constantly looking for some easy-to-understand examples of it, perhaps this list will help.

* White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because "every family has challenges," even as black and Latino families with similar "challenges" are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay.

* White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action.

* White privilege is when you can claim that being mayor of a town smaller than most medium-sized colleges, and then Governor of a state with about the same number of people as the lower fifth of the island of Manhattan, makes you ready to potentially be president, and people don't all piss on themselves with laughter, while being a black U.S. Senator, two-term state Senator, and constitutional law scholar, means you're "untested."

* White privilege is being able to claim your experience as a POW has anything at all to do with your fitness for president, while being black and experiencing racism is, as Sarah Palin has referred to it a "light" burden.

* And finally, white privilege is the only thing that could possibly allow someone to become president when he has voted with George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, even as unemployment is skyrocketing, people are losing their homes, inflation is rising, and the U.S. is increasingly isolated from world opinion, just because white voters aren't sure about that whole "change" thing. Ya know, it's just too vague and ill-defined, unlike, say, four more years of the same, which is very concrete and certain.

White privilege is, in short, the problem.


Wise's essay collection, Speaking Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male, is out now.


And that dovetails with this beyond bizarre aspect of the Sarah "Armegeddon" Palin story -- it illustrates what she can get away with because of white privilege:

Palin linked electoral success to prayer of Kenyan witchhunter.

The pastor whose prayer Sarah Palin says helped her to become governor of Alaska founded his ministry with a witchhunt against a Kenyan woman who he accused of causing car accidents through demonic spells.

At a speech at the Wasilla Assembly of God on June 8 this year, Mrs Palin described how Thomas Muthee had laid his hands on her when he visited the church as a guest preacher in late 2005, prior to her successful gubernatorial bid.

..."As I was mayor and Pastor Muthee was here and he was praying over me, and you know how he speaks and he's so bold. And he was praying "Lord make a way, Lord make a way."

"And I'm thinking, this guy's really bold, he doesn't even know what I'm going to do, he doesn't know what my plans are. And he's praying not "oh Lord if it be your will may she become governor," no, he just prayed for it. He said "Lord make a way and let her do this next step. And that's exactly what happened."

I want you to just imagine how much (and what kind of) coverage this would receive if the above statements were uttered by Barack Obama -- note Muthee is from Kenya, so it would only add gas to the fire stoked by the right on that front. And bonus points accelerants for this aspect of Muthee's ministry:

The pastor speaks of his offensive against a demonic presence in the town in a trailer for the evangelical video "Transformations", made by Sentinel Group, a Christian research and information agency.

...According to accounts of the witchhunt circulated on evangelical websites such as Prayer Links Ministries, after Pastor Muthee declared Mama Jane a witch, the townspeople became suspicious and began to turn on her, demanding that she be stoned. Public outrage eventually led the police to raid her home, where they fired gunshots, killing a pet python which they believed to be a demon.

This guy makes Rev. Wright look like Billy Graham. How would this have been played by the professional right wing "Christian" organizations and the far-right crowd if we were talking about a Muthee association with Obama instead of Sarah Palin? I think we all know the answer.

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I love Tim Wise. He speaks the most uncomfortable truths with clarity and plenty of research.

Melanie Davis | September 17, 2008 9:37 PM

So she was benefited by a spell (c'mon, laying of hands is nothing different than a spell) put upon her by a man who is responsible for the persecution (and possibly, the murders) of select Kenyans he's convinced practice witchcraft? And nobody's picked this up?

Damn that liberal media!

We're in a Twilight Zone episode, right? Quick, look, is there something on the wing?

I was just in an argument about this yesterday. I kept saying "Race is playing a factor in this campaign" and getting "You're stupid if you think race is the only factor in this race."

But yes - I even referred to Palin's church and how it's not being touched while Wright was lambasted so heavily. But it was okay, because white people found Wright's words "intolerable." :(

Thanks to Pam for raising this issue. I'm not familiar with Tim Wise's other work, but obviously he thinks about these issues on a regular basis. I think it is tricky, though, to try to analyze issues as nuanced as white privilege in the very un-nuanced context of a presidential race and, for me, the examples Tim supplies reflect that.

From my perspective (I'm a white man), it is clear to me that I benefit from white privilege (along with a number of other privileges). However, I think Tim’s examples fall short of accurately portraying white privilege, at least as I see it.

For instance, Palin’s experience has been widely questioned. The only people that I haven’t seen question her preparedness are die hard Republicans(and even some of them have done so). It is perfectly appropriate to question her experience; it is perfectly appropriate to question Obama’s experience. By any objective measure, their respective levels of experience are more or less equivalent (similar number of years in elective office, similar experiences with pieces of Presidential leadership, etc). And, they seem to have roughly equally less experience than the typical presidential/vice-presidential candidate.

Also, I disagree that the families of white girls who get pregnant at 17 don’t get pathologized. To the degree that Palin’s daughter has been protected, it is because the Republicans closed ranks around her so quickly and effectively (in a way they did not shield the Bush twins in George’s first term).

For me, a clearer example of white privilege (and Tim may have written about this elsewhere) may be the way in which McCain, Biden, and Bill Clinton, for instance, can be less guarded than Barack or Michelle Obama about showing anger on the campaign trail. However, the narrative of the angry African-American may also be so specific (and therefore may or may not constrain Richardson or an Asian-American politician) that this may not even be so much an example of white privilege as much as another demonstration of the burdens that U.S. society places on African-Americans.

Overall, though, I agree with other projectors that we should continue to examine the phenomenon of white privilege. I’d just note that conflating or inflating its effect (and not intentionally, but as a consequence of responding to immediate events) is similarly as bad as ignoring or minimizing it.

You start by talking about white privilege and how Tim's writing fails to recognize that...but then you demonstrate that by talking about sexism?

Palin's experience is questioned becuse of sexism. Teen mothers are pathologized - but it's simply impossible to consider how white teen mothers and teen mothers of color to be pathologized equivalently. I mean, it has only been a few decades since women of color were being tricked into consenting to Mississippi appendectomies, and there's all the stereotypes now of single black mothers.

It's really hard to analyze the effect white privilege is having on this campaign by confusing the effects of male privilege. Imagine if Palin and her family were black and consider how she'd be attacked under those circumstances. It's not that Palin's being attacked at all, but that she's getting off relatively easily.

Sorry, I'm confused by your post. The examples I mentioned were two of the ones Tim introduced.

Possibly, your point is that I am being sexist by writing that it is appropriate to question Palin's experience. If so, we simply disagree on that. However, Tim's point seemed to be that because Palin is white her experience is not being questioned. I simply asserted that, as a matter of fact, it is being questioned.

Further, I didn't assert that there are not differences in terms of how African-American teens, as a group, and white teens, as a group, are portrayed vis-a-vis teen pregnancy. I simply asserted that once a white teen becomes pregnant, she and her family, as individuals, often times face social stigma (whereas Tim seemed to be using the reaction to Bristol's pregnancy to demonstrate that white teens do not face this scrutiny).

Finally, in terms of your last assertion that an African-American female Republican vice-presidential candidate would be attacked more harshly for issues of experience or a daughter's pregnancy, I am honestly not sure that would be the case. First, I think we simply disagree about the level of scrutiny Palin is undergoing (I don't think she is getting of easily). Second, I think that, if these were the facts, the Republicans would not only be asserting their new found oppossition to institutionalized sexism but also to institutionalized racism. (Of course, I do think the narrative would be different if either nominee were a Democrat, but that is a longer discussion.)

I just think this is why the very fake reality of a presidential race (where people have to say all kinds of things they do not believe) is a difficult context in which to make such "cause and effect" arguments about privilege.

You were saying that white privilege isn't playing a role because Palin is being treated poorly on these topics. I'm saying you're not talking about white privilege when you say that - white privilege means she's not being completely skewered over these matters.

I didn't say that because Palin's a woman that she suffers sexist oppression instead of experiencing white privilege. I'm saying that you're ignoring the intersection of racism and sexism.

Lisa, thanks for clarifying. I haven't stated, and didn't mean to imply, that white privilege hasn't played a role in the election. I believe it has played a role (as in the possible example in my first post). I simply believe it doesn't play the "cause and effect" role that Tim seems to be describing.

In terms of your last paragraph, I think you mean the intersection of sexism and white privilege. And I don't think I've ignored the intersection between these dynamics, we just disagree on whether questioning Palin's experience is sexist or not.

Nonetheless, thanks for the back and forth.

I've had a dozen folks e-mail me Wise's clip that Pam quoted. I've also seen another example that's been circulating; it talks about white privilege but isn't quite as well written.

Both are simple examples of how privilege is used in this race alone, I believe, and not indicative of how white privilege is used to benefit the average white American daily.

There's a space between "Race is the only factor" and "Race is a factor." It's definitely a factor here.

And we can make all the "Can you imagine if..."s we want, part of white privilege is the ability to completely ignore it. The last time Barack Obama was misinterpreted to have mentioned racism in a speech (he said something along the lines of how McCain said he didn't look like the other presidents on money, which was a reference to an actual McCain campaign commercial), the public found Obama to be the racist one in the situation two to one.