Melissa Harris-Lacewell on White Privilege & the Nobel Prize

It’s Saturday night, time for sleep, but I just discovered — through a Twitter feed — a column written for The Nation’s blog by my neighbor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton. Apparently she had been taken to task for indulging in some Nobel prize humor.
Her response included a reference to Tim Wise, author of White Like Me, which the anti-bias group I belong to, Not In Out Town, had used as the basis for its White Privilege workshops at the Princeton Public Library last spring. (A continuing discussion starts at the library on Monday, November 2, 7:30 to 9, and the library has several copies of the book). I perked up.
She compared what she called with the “Affirmative Action Dilemma” (the fear that others may think African Americans do not deserve the privileges they receive) with the dilemma that some believe white people have, the White Privilege dilemma, so well explained by Price. I recommend the full text of her blog but here is an excerpt, in italics.
White privilege is the bundle of unearned advantages accessible to white people in America. White privilege is not equivalent to racial prejudice. All whites share certain element of racial privilege regardless of their political or racial views. This does not mean that life is perfect for all white people. I was raised by a single, white mother, so I certainly know that white American face real barriers and struggles based on class, opportunity, gender, education, sexuality, and other cross-cutting identities. But white privilege exists and has powerful consequences. This does not mean that race is more important than socioeconomic class. It does mean that in the United States there is a preferential option for whiteness, and this preference means racial privilege produces a certain wage of whiteness.
Simply put, not everything that white people have was earned by merit. Some was, some was not. Some of the wealth, access, prizes, goodies, and political power currently held by white people are ill gotten gains from centuries of accumulated white privilege. Knowing this makes me a lot more relaxed about having to prove that I “deserve” every success, acknowledgement, or position I have. …

I encourage my friends and readers to calm down a little about having to prove Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. The point is that he has it now….
Rather than give into the racial anxiety to prove the President’s worthiness let’s celebrate that President Obama responded to the prize with humility and grace.
“I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges won’t all be met during my presidency, or even my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it’s recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone.”
I watched that Rose Garden speech on Friday, and I agree.
I also am intrigued by the fact that Harris-Lacewell sat next to Wise on a plane last month. How did I know? She had Tweeted that they talked their way across the continent. If her reference to Wise’s book was the result of such propinquity, this would indeed be a case where a personal encounter trumped a social media or virtual encounter.

2 thoughts on “Melissa Harris-Lacewell on White Privilege & the Nobel Prize

  1. My thoughts about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize are that the Nobel prizes have become very political and that Obama received it so why not celebrate with him. Mayme

  2. Thanks, Barbara, for posting MH-L's remarks. As always, she is very insightful! I admire her enormously. We're lucky to have her right here in Princeton. Marietta

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