Robert Jensen on White Privilege : Teachable Moments Require Willing Learners

Harvard Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. is photographed by a neighbor as he is arrested at his home in Cambridge, July 16. Photo by B. Carter / Demotix Images / AP.

Teachable moments require willing learners

A system as perverse and pervasive as white racism — in all its forms, conscious and unconscious, brutal and subtle, personal and institutional — will not end simply because we appoint black professors or elect a black president.

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / July 28, 2009

Honoring President Obama’s request that the controversy involving a black Harvard University professor and a white Cambridge police officer become “a teachable moment,” here’s my contribution to an old lesson that we white people tend to be slow to learn.

In lectures about the United States’ system of white supremacy and the privileges that white people have in that system, I have sometimes told a story about being stopped by police in Austin, TX.

I was driving home in a dilapidated old Volkswagen Beetle on a busy street, late at night after a long day at work. I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, feeling rather cranky and looking rather raggedy. Eager to get home, I saw the yellow light and gunned it. Next I saw the flashing red lights of a police car.

I turned off onto a dark side street and dug in my wallet for my license. Just as the officer got to my car, I was opening the glove compartment to get the vehicle registration when out popped a small knife I keep for emergencies. I looked at the knife, looked at the white officer, and wondered what he would say.

“Sir, would you mind if I held that knife while we talked?” he asked politely. I handed him the knife and my documents, and he walked back to his car. When he returned he handed me those documents, along with a ticket, and my knife, without comment. “Please drive safely,” he said. And safely I drove home.

When I told that story to illustrate white privilege, I asked people of color in the room what they imagined might have happened to them in such a situation. The black and Latino men, especially, laughed. “Do you mean before or after I’m on the ground with a gun at my head?” one of them said.

My point was not that every cop is out to harass or brutalize every person of color, but that people of color could never be sure a routine traffic stop would play out routinely. I could be reasonably sure that, barring unusual circumstances, such a stop would be uneventful. Even when the knife popped out, I didn’t feel at risk.

I was feeling proud of myself for making this point to the mainly white audience, when I saw a hand go up. I called on the young black man, assuming he would endorse my analysis.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” he said. “You think your privilege started when the cop came up to the car and saw you were white. Has it ever occurred to you that when you turned onto a dark side street you were taking your privilege for granted?”

My first response was to explain: I had been on a busy street and turned to avoid blocking traffic. I was trying to be considerate of other drivers, I said.

“I know why you did it. My point is that I would never turn onto an unlit street with a cop behind me,” the young man said. “I would have pulled over and blocked traffic. I’m not going to take myself out of public view with a cop.”

My next response was to feel appropriately foolish for my unwarranted self-righteousness, and then to be grateful to the man for using that teachable moment.

He wasn’t suggesting that I be ashamed of myself, only that I recognize the burden he carries in the world that I don’t. The story was one more example of the privilege that comes with being a member of the dominant group in an unjust hierarchical system. It’s the same lesson men should learn about the sexual violence women face. Heterosexuals should learn it about the condemnation that lesbians and gays endure. The wealthy should learn it about the insecurity that poor and working people cope with. U.S. citizens should learn it about the fear of arbitrary authority that haunts immigrants no matter what their status.

I still tell that story when I lecture, now emphasizing that the man’s comments had reminded me no one with privilege ever fully “gets it.” It doesn’t mean we whites — or men, or heterosexuals, or the well off, or citizens — are consigned to perpetual stupidity, but rather that we should never think we have it all figured out.

In this allegedly “post-racial” era, these teachable moments are an important reminder that white supremacy is woven deeply into the fabric of this country. A system as perverse and pervasive as white racism — in all its forms, conscious and unconscious, brutal and subtle, personal and institutional — will not end simply because we appoint black professors or elect a black president.

In this moment, we white folks should ask ourselves, after so many teachable moments, why we still have so much to learn.

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). Jensen can be reached at His articles on The Rag Blog are here and his writing can also be found here.]

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7 Responses to Robert Jensen on White Privilege : Teachable Moments Require Willing Learners

  1. Mike Hanks says:

    Beyond racism, the legal point is that it’s not against the law to get sassy with a cop – may not be advisable but, as long as it’s not physical, it ain’t against the law!

  2. Dave Myers says:

    Please see ,

    Recommended Reading Lists

    Discussion Forum

    Peace .

  3. Anonymous says:

    Visit Chapter 38 and 42 of the Texas Penal Code before taking Mr. Hanks advice.


    Bobbo the clown, again whines over the evil oppression of the (white) man, helping us get to that place where we can feel our guilt – guilt regarding the bad behavior of a few with power. Welcome to the world Bobbo, it’s not fair but thanks for getting us in touch with our feelings.

    Sounds like your students are overly paranoid and distrustful of the ‘man’ man (a typical belief of most college students). But hey, we need to keep beating the drum of ‘victimhood’ to perpetuate the guilt – even when there’s no skin on the drum.

    Racism cuts two ways. Obama is from a black and white, was raised white but is called black. You have to give respect to get it. And if the goal is a color blind, unified society, when do we go from African American or Latino American to just plain American? When do we reach the goal?

    Don’t ya just love it when a six figure a year, educated white boy feels the pain of the black and poor man? Yeah Bro’ you da man.

    The village idiot says: Feel guilty my white brothers – very, very guilty.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Poor blacks symbolize to whites that things could be much worse. This is an essential social control mechanism.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Jensen is the real racist. He keeps stirring the pot of discontent, contrary to his implied agenda. Perhaps if people like him gave it a rest, we all could spend more time celebrating what we have in common and less anguishing over our differences. People will always have differences, but like a scab, sitting around picking at them only hinders the healing.

    Mr. Jensen, a lilly white liberal with a big income, doesn’t directly relate to the poor or minorities. He lives a completely different existence and lifestyle, ensconced in academia, lecturing the masses from his theoretical white tower. Bottom line; Jensen has an agenda; to sell books, and keep in the liberal limelight with his PC ravings.

  6. richard jehn says:

    The commentary to this piece by Jensen is reaching the lowest of low. I am ashamed of you all – you offer nothing to the discussion other than status quo. You seek no better way, no improvement to our existence; you seek only more of the same inferior lives for all of us.

    If Robert Jensen says nothing else in the article, he reminds us of the inherent value of humility. If none of you can get that, then I, for one, would prefer you read elsewhere, or at least stay silent when you are reading here.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Jehns statement: “I, for one, would prefer you read elsewhere, or at least stay silent when you are reading here.” is troubling. Does he fear diversity of thought? Is this a call to censorship (if you disagree with our agenda, shut up – we only want group-speak, echo-chamber comment here)? When you solicit comments, you may get opinions you disagree with. That should be your goal. What demonstrates credibility is countering with relevant facts or acknowledging the shortcomings of your own point of view. Off-subject, personal attacks like “lowest of low, I am ashamed of you all”, etc., illustrate a vacuum of relevant counterpoint. When you walk in a circle, you stay in the same place, never discovering new ground.

    In a stellar demonstration of irony, Jhen proclaims the important message of the article is ‘humility’, yet he talks down to, takes a ‘holier than thou’ attitude to preach to those commenters whom he disagrees with.

    Last but not least, the statement: “more of the same inferior lives for all of us” illustrates Jhen’s negative attitude about life in general. If Mr. Jehn believes he has an ‘inferior life’ perhaps he should look innward and reflect on the personal issues that drive his negative view of his existence.

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