S2 E7: Chenjerai’s Challenge

May 5, 2017

“How attached are you to the idea of being white?” Chenjerai Kumanyika puts that question to host John Biewen, as they revisit an unfinished conversation from a previous episode. Part 7 of our series, Seeing White.


Download a transcript of the episode.

Composite image: Chenjerai Kumanyika, left; photo by Danusia Trevino. And John Biewen, photo by Ewa Pohl.

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13 comments on “S2 E7: Chenjerai’s Challenge

  1. Incredible series. Please keep this deep social exploration going.

  2. Justin Jan 8, 2018

    I am fascinated by the concepts of whiteness and blackness – it’s something that remains specifically undefined, but certainly is evident in the perspectives of whites and African Americans. There is controversy today regarding delving into the subject of identity politics and different kinds of privilege. I have two questions:
    1. Do you think whiteness and blackness cross political lines – for instance, do Black conservatives and Black liberals share a similar since of blackness?
    2. What do you think of the “Black Privilege” idea proposed by Charlemagne the god – http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/21/politics/charlamagne-tha-god-black-privilege/index.html?

    • to your second question, Charlamagne says straight up that what he means by privilege is that it is an honor to be black, while still acknowledging that systemic racism means black people still have to work harder than white people to achieve similar levels of success. He isn’t suggesting that there are systems in place in this country that make it easier for black people to succeed.

  3. Pat Adams Mar 10, 2018

    So far in my study of whiteness this is what comes to me.
    1. Whiteness and Blackness do not exist. They were created by powerful people so that they could steal from the less powerful.
    2. The discussion of racism in America is a distraction, a Red Herring. Racism was invented so that powerful people could steal from the less powerful. Powerful people use racism to create complexity, to distract from the simple truth that our history is one of continuous theft.
    3. Powerful people did not steal from Native Americans because they were Indians. They made Native Americans Indians so that they could steal from them. Powerful people did not steal from Africans because of racism. They created racism so that they could steal from Africans.
    4. This is not about exploitation or racism or discrimination. It is theft, greed. My friend in Mexico commented, “In Mexico the rich steal from the poor and when they get caught it is a big scandal. In the US you are smarter. First rich people pass a law making it legal to steal from the poor. Then they steal from the poor.”
    5. One of my direct benefits is my home ownership. Technically my house is built on stolen property. I bought fit rom one who “bought” it from the powerful people who stole it from the Native Americans. As a receiver of stolen goods the penalty is clear. My property is forfeit and I am imprisoned. There is no consideration of my good intent, no allowance for my ignorance of the law, no place for my story of how I was raised to not see this crime.
    6. My wife and I discuss the possibility of willing our house to a Native American young person (couple). We might do it as gift to our children and grandchildren, as a restitution for the crimes of their ancestors. We might do that instead of funding college for our grandchildren. It could be the greater gift for everyone.

    • I think your points 1-4 are very insightful and agree that racism is created by those groups in power who seek to exercise their power to steal from groups that they marginalize. I don’t think that a “reparations” solutions approach will work; it will not bring healing and unity to all people in our country, rather it will just fuel an endless and escalating battle for power and wealth between increasingly divided groups. If you use the rule of “Who owned it first” should get the land/wealth and the power to decide who gets what, then you need to go ALL the way back to the Creator – God. God is clear on his decision and direction to us. He says we are ALL his children and therefore brothers and sisters, and He directs us to love one another, help and give to the poor and needy, forgive, and do unto others as you would have others do to you. If we could move forward following those simple 4 directives then we could make real progress on healing and unity.

  4. Emily Thompson Mar 28, 2018

    Not a mere “bonus, mini episode”—this is my favorite one yet. I’ve listened to it twice. Thank you!

  5. corrie Apr 27, 2020

    Thanks for your thought provoking interview. As someone who has spent many years unpacking her own “whiteness” and really looking deeply at racial equity work, there is a perspective that is commonly left out. This work is usually done by affluent, college educated whites and as a result a key component and voice is left out of this perspective. I am from a poor, rural white area. I felt proud on behalf of my community when I graduated from college and I feel shame and sadness on behalf of my community when I read about crime that someone from my community has done. I became so frustrated at college when I moved out of my state to Boston, when the only poor, marginalized people we talked about were brown folk, inner city folk and developing nations. Poor rural white folk were never brought up. I was upset my story was never told, connected to or recognized. I think a huge part of this work is helping bridge that divide poor, marginalized people across our country. I am very aware that my whiteness affords me privilege. But I am also aware that the similarities and connectedness I felt with the brown inner city folk WAY over my white affluent college classmates is something that sticks with me to this day. The more we can bridge this gap and connect people the more the real race work can be done. We are being played by a system that wants to divide poor folk. Not cool.

    • Lauren Hanson Jun 13, 2020

      Hi, Corrie, very interesting comment. I have given the theory (it’s a theory) of white privilege a lot of thought and prayer, especially lately. Something I can state with a pure heart and total honesty is that my husband, a poor white southern boy, white privilege doesn’t apply to him. I have white privilege as I grew up a middle class child of two very educated parents who are still married and fostered educational opportunities. But my husband had a very different experience. So different in fact that my parents were sure we would never make it because he was from “the other side of the tracks”. His parents were both poor and worked more than one job to make ends meet, there were hard drugs and alcoholism in his modest southern rural home at all times, there was physical, verbal and emotional abuse, there was drug dealing and incarceration, there was little to no emphasis on achieving anything through education. When he graduated college, because my parents made him go, he was the first and only of his kind in his family. He was the exception. His granny picked cotton when she was a kid and almost everyone in his family was either a remote backwoods farmer of some kind, a mill worker, a drug dealer etc, with a few exceptions (all of which had to climb out of their own out). I’ve battled with him and stood by him when he was passed up for athletic scholarship because he wasn’t black, when he was passed up for jobs because he wasn’t black, when two of his family members (one of them a police officer) were killed by black men, when he mother was killed by a drunk driver who was an illegal Mexican. He’s been pulled over and his truck ransacked by cops for drugs just because he looked a certain way, or dirty after a long shift at work and on the wrong side of town helping a friend move something heavy. Does he have to worry when he goes into a store? No. Do we have to tell our kids to not wear hoodies at night? No. So maybe he has a small amount of privilege that people don’t assume he’s a threat. But nobody will ever convince me that my husband achieved anything because of his whiteness. He had to scrape and climb and get brave and get his head in the game of life just as much as his poor black neighbors. I agree with you that the plight of the poor white are left out of the whole conversation. I acknowledge my privilege that I was born into because of a cultural hegemony that I don’t believe anyone has any control over.. nevertheless we know it’s there always operating behind the illusion of freedom. But no, I don’t think white privilege applies to everyone. In fact I think there are times that black privilege does exist and favors people of color over very poor whites. Just depends on what side of the tracks you find yourself on.

      • JoAnn Ottman Aug 8, 2020

        The issue you and Corrie are raising speaks to a deep vein in American values and experience that needs to be brought into the light because it is part of the journey towards racial healing we must grapple with. In the book White Trash: the untold story of 400 years of classism in America, Nancy Isenberg traces the continual belittlement of the poor in this country. The one olive branch given them was their whiteness which encouraged many lower class whites to see themselves as superior in the one way that the color of their skin offered them and is certainly foundational to the resentment that many poor whites feel towards blacks whom they perceive as getting one over them. Just looking at how our systems operate against all blacks and poor whites gives credence to the idea that those 2 groups have much more in common than the usual narratives allow for. If we could find a way to help all the members of those groups see each other as victims of white wealth and power, we could take huge steps forward. MLK was beginning down that path when he was assassinated as have other black leaders. We need white leaders with roots in the lower class to also take on this cause which I think we are beginning to see.

  6. Brian K Freeland May 22, 2020

    The ideal of Whiteness or Blackness is not a human distinction it was derived for racial capitalism for the purpose of economic hoarding. The root cause of “RACE” is economic.

  7. Patricia Jun 4, 2020

    I agree there is a lot of things in our society that need to be restructured; however, many of us are in low societal positions – like we can impact that!?! But, I CAN love my neighbor as myself, not big enough, for certain, but it’s a START! BTW, enjoying this series, very eye opening. I’ve heard much of this in the past, but not from this angle, that of white privilege. Thank you.

  8. Dawn Foss Aug 6, 2020

    Thank you. Just, thank you. This resource is helping me get a handle on being White.

  9. Mme Amy LOVBERG Sep 23, 2020

    What an incredible eye-opener! THank you, thank you. The peaceful, intelligence of the interviews, the historical expositions and the editorial commentaries permit candid reflection and sincere soul-searching. Thank you. Thank you. May you continue!