White Privilege Ain’t Just for Republicans
Joe Biden never met a foot he didn’t end up sticking in his mouth. If you missed it (and how could you have?), Biden appeared on The Breakfast Club morning show and made the comment to the host Charlamagne tha God, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
Note: This blog is not an attempt at shaming Biden, or anyone for that matter. I have made many of the same mistakes that Biden made in the video, as many of you who may be considered white have, also. However, it is an attempt to help educate and remind us what whiteness really is, and how it influences how people act and communicate in ways that are detrimental, regardless of political orientation.
In the video, it becomes apparent why the Biden campaign has kept their candidate in the background for most of this Covid-ravaged spring. Biden is legendary for his gaffes, but like many politicians of his generation in either party, he is also legendary for a pattern of paternalistic attitudes (go back and watch those Anita Hill inquisitions, and Biden’s half-apology), his spotty record on segregation, his relationships with segregationist Senate buddies, and a strong streak of defensiveness.
When you watch the full interview, you can see all of these quantities ooze out of the candidate. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for a moment that Biden on a bad day has a fraction of the hatred, anger, fear, and overt racism that Donald Trump demonstrates on his best day. But what you do clearly see are the continuing influences of white male privilege.
What was “privileged” about Biden’s comments on The Breakfast Club?
Aggressive, annoyed, defensive tone – Note Biden’s immediate “power up” stance the minute the host addresses him. “I know you have.”
Pandering language – Biden peppers his responses with inauthentic colloquialisms: “I’m following the rules, man.” It’s always cringey when old white folks take on their idea of a stereotypically “black” way of talking, which Biden does throughout the video with his “aint’s” and his “c’mon man’s”. It’s one thing to relate, it’s another thing to superficially seek to relate through appropriating stereotypical language and accent. Biden has seemed to speak this way more frequently in the last few years, perhaps as a way to seem "with it" to a younger generation. Still...
“Barack” – I get how using the former president’s first name may be seen as a sign of intimate friendship, but would white presidents be referred to this way? The paternalism here hearkens back to Biden’s description of President Obama in 2007: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Wow.
Ramblings and interruptions – This is not exclusive to Biden by any means and many politicians have a hard time knowing when to shut up, but he barely stopped to let the host of the show interject any of his questions. He was a guest on a show, not holding his own political speech.
“You ain’t black" – The unfortunate comment, which appeared to be made in jest but damaging nonetheless, was thrown in at the end. However, it is a demonstration of the epitome of privilege for a white male to instruct a black host or black audience what is considered “black” or not. These unrehearsed comments are often the most instructive of where are hearts and minds are coming from, and the comment wasn’t insignificant.
To Biden’s credit, he references institutional racism and its role in the Covid-19 impact on the African American community and the need for fundamental economic transformation, although he speaks of it as if it’s something he’s just discovered and needs to educate the host about. And unfortunately, his privileged-fueled gaffe comment has overshadowed many other authentic credentials and examples of where Biden has fought on the right side of equality.
In many ways this isn’t surprising for someone of Biden’s pre-Baby Boomer “Silent Generation” era when white males unequivocally ran the culture. As much as we would have hoped someone in the national political arena all these years would have learned better by now, assumptions of privilege and power are hard to shake (I can't help but think whomever gets chosen as his running mate, which includes several women of color as potential candidates, will have a lot of messes to clean up after Biden speaks). Indeed, these issues of assumed privilege and power inherent to whiteness and maleness have plagued us through Generation X (my cohort) and even Millennial generations. I write about my own journey considering myself “one of the good guys” as it relates to racial equality, only to realize after a deeper dive on the history and influence of whiteness that my good intensions often did as much harm as good. Thankfully, it looks like we may finally make some significant progress with Generation Z.
The reaction of most of us considered “white” when confronted with evidence of white privilege is often defensiveness. The best-selling book White Fragility documents this quite well. I get a lot of immediate negative reactions when people see a post about my book Giving Up Whiteness in their social media feed, most of them denying the existence of any such thing as white privilege. It’s often dismissed as “political correctness” or “hating your own race” to call it out. But as my Good Lord Jesus taught, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” When we all operate under the same equal privileges, we can stop calling out the white ones.