There’s been a lot of talk recently about White Privilege and race relations in America. Those who wish to challenge the narrative of White Privilege have been using quotes from celebrities like Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington to question the validity of race having an impact on privilege. Two commonly used statements are below, followed by a criticism of those statements.
In a 2014 CNN interview with Morgan Freeman about race, Don Lemon asks: “Do you think that race plays a part in wealth distribution?” Morgan Freeman answered, “Today? No, I don’t. You and I. We’re proof. Why would race have anything to do with it? Put your mind to what you want to do and go for that.” He goes on to say that complaining about racism is just an excuse for not achieving success. (Source: YouTube, CNN, 3 Jun 2014) A clip from the interview is below.
Denzel Washington was interviewed and asked about institutionalized racism. He responded with a story about an 11-year-old gangster. He said, “Blame the system? Where was his father? … It starts in the home” and then he went on to share his own life story about how his childhood friends all ended up in prison because (as he explains it) they didn’t have a father in the home. A clip from the interview is below.
Celebrities Are The Exception
There are many popular, smart, successful, admired Black leaders who seem to be saying that racism no longer exists as a barrier to success. How should a person respond to such claims?
When someone has been successful in life, through a combination of hard work and some luck, they tend to believe that anyone with enough faith and determination can have a similar successful outcome. This mindset is the basis for the American Dream.
The indoctrination to this belief begins early in life. An example is found in the song “Follow Your Heart” from the animated Disney movie “Thumbelina” which promises “You don’t need a chart to guide you. Close your eyes and look inside your heart. You are sure to do impossible things if you follow your heart.” It’s a wonderful sentiment. For ourselves and for others, certainly following our intuition and pursuing our passion are generally positive things. Yet, it’s not guaranteed that everyone who pursues their hopes and dreams will attain them.
Of course we want people to try their best and believe there are no limits to what they can do. This attitude, with a roll of the dice, will collectively result in some people actually achieving their dreams who might not have if they thought it wasn’t possible. So, the thinking is… “We sort of need to lie about people’s chances for success in order for a few lucky ones to believe they can make it and thus actually succeed.” This could be why Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington so passionately profess that there are no barriers to success for young Black people. It’s the kind of message a person would deliver at commencement for the graduating seniors.
If we acknowledge that racism exists, and agree that barriers today make it harder for Black people, then that could set people up for failure. A person might conclude, “Why even try?” and give up. They would believe there is a glass ceiling, and accept a lesser level of achievement. Being able to “blame the system” could end up being an excuse that lets people quit too soon. So, basically, Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington are trying to do a favor for young Black people by glossing over the challenges they will face in life.
But it’s also true that when a person who hears that the road is hard and full of obstacles, they might try harder to succeed, and as a result, they might actually succeed because they believed they had to work harder than anyone else. There are immigrants who came to America, believed they would need to work really hard to make a living, and ended up becoming millionaires. Rather than retreating from the challenges, they pushed harder.
We can’t know what the outcome will be when we give people selective advice. If we try to alter their future, using specially crafted advice (overly pessimistic or overly optimistic), there can be unintended negative results. So, it’s best to try to be as honest and accurate as possible.
Many years ago when visiting a casino, I noticed a big display on the wall showing a tally of money being won, in real-time, by visitors at the casino. I heard coins dropping in trays of slot machines, and could see that people were indeed winning. Yet, I knew that the statistics prove the house always wins. Yes, some people win, some of the time, but on average, people who gamble are collectively losing money.
If you’ve ever heard the sales pitch of a multi-level marketing ‘opportunity’ or been to an MLM meeting, you know that a big part of the sales pitch is to talk about those who have made it big with the company. You’ll see images of many smiling attractive people standing in front of their expensive cars and big homes. You’ll see photos from their care-free life of world travel. It’s all true, at least for a small number of people.
I recall one MLM company presentation and brochure that included the actual income averages of all their independent representatives. I was astonished. I’d never seen a company be so transparent. What the averages showed was that thousands of people were only earning a few hundred dollars per month. Given the time invested, they were earning less than minimum wage.
Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington are like people who won money at the casino or made it big with an MLM. They are the exceptions. We all need those role models of successful people who we can identify with. But the truth about life is that while we all have inherent gifts and talents, there are obstacles along the way that could hinder our success.
Here’s the Reality
Here’s what we know to be true:
- THERE ARE NO INHERENT LIMITS. There are no significant limitations broadly inherent to entire groups of people based on their gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, or similar factors. There are many examples of successful Black business people, athletes, celebrities, musicians, doctors, lawyers, and leaders including a President of the United States. There’s nothing that Black people can’t achieve. The same can be said for any people of color, women, immigrants, or people who identify as LGBT. That, of course, doesn’t mean that anyone regardless of talent and innate abilities can win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating. We all have a unique and complex mix of gifts, talents, and abilities that allow us to excel in some areas while we find other aspects of life challenging.
- THERE ARE MANY EXTERNAL BARRIERS. Although there are no inherent limits to entire groups of people, there can be external biases, limits, and challenges that hinder the progress of some people. Some groups of people are more susceptible to encountering bias and bigotry based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, age, or other aspects of their identity. People who are less likely to encounter bias and bigotry would be white, heterosexual, Christian, meat eating, males with citizenship. People more likely to encounter bias and bigotry would be anyone else not in that dominant social group such as women, people of color, people who are not heterosexual, vegetarians, people of non-Christian religions, people of LGBT identity or affiliations, etc. In other words, the dominant group tends to be in a stronger position. Partly this could be the result of how Democracy benefits the majority of people because the majority of people vote for those who represent their views.
It’s probably best for ourselves and for others to acknowledge that bias exists in society, and it’s something we should try to correct for. It’s something we should warn people about. We should work toward creating a society where there are as few external barriers as possible, and as much equal access as possible to quality education, mentoring, jobs, and self-governance as well as the infrastructure and supports necessary to build strong families and promote civic participation. There are many other overlooked areas where we need to ensure equal access such as public transit, healthcare, technology, Internet access, quality housing, as well as safe and vibrant walkable neighborhoods.
Below is a compilation video being used to criticize the premise of White Privilege and racism in America.
Below is a more recent example of a non-White person questioning the validity of the White Privilege narrative. While his message is passionate and certainly true for him, it may not represent the collective experience of all immigrants. So, it’s motivational, but lacks the overall scope of advice that would inform people of the barriers they might face.
The commentary below is a helpful contribution to this overall discussion. In the video below, civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson is sharing his story to remind folks that impressive credentials don’t shield Black people from police violence. (NowThis, 11 Jun 2020, YouTube 14 Jun 2020) To learn more, watch the film “Just Mercy” about Stevenson’s life. [View]