The Privilege of Being Remembered Like a Dead White Man

Image: CNN (YouTube)

Did you know that houses owned by black Americans are undervalued by an average of $48,000 per home? Combined, this makes for 156 billion dollars in losses—a discrepancy called a “segregation tax.” I didn’t know this either, until a recent study by the Brookings Institute articulated exactly how pervasive this brand of bias is, and the obvious generational impact of it.

If you comb through enough data and listen to enough anecdotes and read enough books and know enough black people, little nuggets of the effects of racism and anti-blackness will continue to reveal themselves, like post-credit Easter eggs when watching The Avengers.

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Oh, I didn’t know that’s why the black neighborhoods are on that side of the river.

Wow. I had no idea what that statue really meant.

Shit, so ‘uppity’ doesn’t just seem racist —- it actually is racist?

So that’s where the stereotype about black people and watermelons comes from!

With this context, white people’s (general) reluctance to recognize and acknowledge the existence of their (collective) privilege is (somewhat) understandable. If it is everywhere and has impacted everyone and has an effect on everything—if it’s less like smog and more like oxygen—understanding its ubiquity might just be too vast of a concept to grasp. Imagine, for instance, explaining gravity to a squirrel. (Of course, the less charitable takeaway is that they fully and completely understand that a membership to whiteness provides automatic privileges—like how a Giant Eagle advantage card grants you discounts and fuel perks—and they wish to extend this contract for as long as they’re able to, but it’s Monday so I’m trying to be magnanimous.)

Perhaps no greater example of the soft inertia of white supremacy exists than when a white man decides to die, and the powers of whiteness and maleness converge for a cleansing and beautifying privilege Voltron. Because the investments in the deification of whiteness and maleness are so great, so demanding, so exacting, the death of a white man gives birth to a pathological compulsion for veneration. Before the corpse is even cold, his sins aren’t just forgiven—they’re forgotten.

Admittedly, on the spectrum of dead white men who happened to be President of the United States at some point of their lives, George Herbert Bush exists at the less shitty end. For a dead white man who happened to be President of the United States, George Bush was decent. For a dead white man who happened to be President of the United States, George Bush was honorable. For a dead white man who happened to be President of the United States, George Bush was good.

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But what’s happening now—and what has happened with past dead white men who happened to be President of the United States, and what will continue to happen when white men who happened to be President of the United States decide to die—is that words like decent and honorable and good are being attached to Bush without qualification when the act of doing so is an unambiguous lie. And the compulsion for veneration—for whiteness and maleness to be exalted in perpetuity—is so strong and thick and juicy that it overcomes people we know should know better.

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I’m aware the compulsion to speak kindly of the recent dead also exists. But when white men decide to die, the soft inertia of white supremacy compels us to conflate and then replace kindness with lies. It is not enough for George Bush to have just been a human, because humans are flawed. Humans fuck shit up sometimes. Humans can be petty. Humans can be evil. Humans can be human. But the streaks and stains of his humanity are scrubbed, swept up, and blotted out, for perhaps the great privilege of whiteness is that as dirty as you wish to live, you get to die real clean.

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About the author

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB and a columnist for GQ.com. His debut memoir in essays, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins), is available for preorder.