Invisible Privilege, Unspoken Racism
From street transactions to the NYSED disability campaign
I spent most of my summer on the Italian coast, in the little town where I was born, as I do almost every year. The difference, this time, was that I had not been back to my home country for a whole year. This gave me some sort of a distance from the customs and habits I have grown up with and perhaps also enabled me to see things I had never noticed before. In particular, as an insider-outsider, I was struck by the number of African immigrants: they have always been there, at least since I can remember, but not to the measure and the degree of this past summer. Not that their presence was particularly conspicuous, as they usually appear only as ambulant vendors on the beach, but the increase in number was indeed striking for those like me who had not been there for a while.
One afternoon of a very hot mid-August, I am sitting on a bench at the train station, when it suddenly starts raining. As it often happens in those cases, African immigrants, who most of the time are confined to the shadows, become extremely visible and useful, since they have access to something that nobody else on such a hot summer day would have ever thought of carrying along: umbrellas. A young woman sitting next to me gets up and starts talking to an African street vendor who is clearly much older than her. She asks him the price of an umbrella and argues that five Euros is too much because she has seen other vendors selling it for four. She is very well-dressed and, as I look at her expensive Rolex watch, I wonder why she is making all this fuss for just one Euro. Yet, this scene, which I have probably seen millions of times before in my life, suddenly becomes unfamiliar and uncanny: why is she addressing him with the “tu,” i.e. the colloquial form that the Italian language reserves for people you are well acquainted with? Not only is she doing it: most people, now that I recall, do it. When not simply ignoring the immigrant presence, they address them with the colloquial tu — which, besides your acquaintances, Italian grammar allows you to use only with kids or with people of a clearly inferior status. This is just one among the many ways of underscoring that that old African street vendor was perceived as belonging to an inferior type, to the eternal infancy of those who are considered less than human.
As I puzzle over how it can possibly be that I had never noticed this before, I start the following mental experiments: under what conditions can a young woman address an older man with such a colloquial form that one would never use outside of family and friends? It is not only the fact of his skin color: if he had been dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a professional overnight bag, she would not have done it. The black street vendor’s placement on such an inferior plane is due to both his race and his class status: the two mutually sustain and reinforce each other and cannot be separated. But as I wonder whether the same would have happened if it had been two women doing the transaction, I suddenly realize that there are almost no African immigrant women in the streets: they are generally not around, neither in the shadow, nor in the sunlight. They are in their homes, most of the time very far away, in their countries of origin — as I had learned a few days before by talking to one of them. So here is the hierarchy transmitted by the scene I had been witness to: the rich white young woman, the old black man, and the invisible black woman.
I will not tell you anything new if I emphasize how different forms of oppression intersect with one another not just in my home country, but everywhere. To give you an example, consider an advertisement from the New York State Education Department “disability campaign” currently on display in the New York City subway. It tells you that if you have a disability, and you want to work, you can take advantage of the benevolent NYSED disability campaign (how happy this can make you is underlined by the fact that all the people represented are smiling). But, besides words, what is at the same time being communicated, at what I would call the “imaginal” level? What are the images telling us? And perhaps even most importantly: what are they hiding?
The images on display are very clear: beginning from the top right, they tell us that disability concerns Latino construction workers, African American youths, Latino middle class women who need help from other women, African American mechanics, and, finally, white but old middle-class women who are dealing with modern computers. This is what is visible in these images. Let us now ask what remains invisible. What is absent and yet perhaps still powerfully present? Who is the conspicuous absence in these images, the one who supposedly does not need to be addressed by a disability campaign, the one who precisely because of his conspicuous absence is implicitly represented as immune from disability? The white, middle-class male. This is his invisible privilege, and our unspoken racism: he is the exception to the disability that can happen to other people.
One could continue the analysis of the imaginal side of the campaign and highlight other features, for instance the fact that all images reproduce rather stereotyped binary gender roles: the men are all doing the hard work (mechanical and construction), while lightly dressed women are all sitting in front of tables and being helped (either by another woman or by a computer). Or else, one may wonder why the three men are represented frontally, with their gaze looking directly at you, while the women’s gaze is always directed somewhere else: to the source of the help they are in need of. But all of these presences, and what could be said about them, are less relevant that the conspicuous absence of any white men. Whether in reality white men have to face disability like everybody else, and whether they actually enjoy disability benefits, is something that statistics will tell us (see a forthcoming piece by Zachary Sunderman). But enjoying disability benefits without being represented as liable to disability could well be just another privilege of theirs.