White Privilege and the Politics of Personal Exoneration

seed-image coates-cover

I have recently read, or read again, two important pieces that I believe are interconnected and I want to take this blog entry to encourage you to take a deeper look at both of them. One is “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and the other is Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege – Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” I am including a link to the McIntosh article below and I really urge you to read this piece. Peggy’s words affected me deeply and had a tremendous impact on my personal beliefs and my subsequent classroom practice. Here is the link:



The politics of personal exoneration is taken from Coates’ book (p. 97) and he is referring to the practice of white people who attempt to absolve themselves of racism (“I am not a racist.”) This line of thinking allows people to go further and, in Coates’s words believe that “There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.” It is that thinking that allowed Richard Nixon to conclude that “Strom (Thurmond) is no racist.” It is that thinking that allows our Pennsylvania Senator Toomey (that would be rubber stamp Toomey) to say of Jeff Sessions in today’s (3/3/17) Inquirer: “I have always known Jeff Sessions to be honest, ethical and fair”, when a simple check of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website will demonstrate the falsehood of that statement.

            This is important, today, more than ever, because of the presence in the White House of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump and their white nationalist/racist agenda for America. I believe our democracy is in peril at the hands of these white nationalists. As a white male I feel compelled to speak out and resist this shift in the principles and goals of the diverse society that America is becoming.

            Allow me to return to Peggy’s article on white privilege. I was first introduced to her work in the early 1990’s when I became part of a teacher network called Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (S.E.E.D.) Even before that time I had begun to question, as a white male, my place and my responsibility/culpability regarding the racist nature of American society. This began in the 1960’s when as a Navy radioman I was assigned to duty in Ethiopia. Suddenly I found myself a distinct minority, surrounded by African people and culture and that was a revelation for me. This experience left me with a lot of questions and very few answers. I have written about this in earlier blog entries. Peggy’s article provided a basis to understand the depth of the racial/social dynamic that existed and that served to maintain oppression of others. To be fair, around the same time I became part of another teacher network – the Philadelphia Writing Project, part of the National Writing Project, and that connection helped me to assume a reflective and questioning stance regarding my personal and professional lives that has since become a part of my very being.

My S.E.E.D. and Writing Project colleagues, with a special thank you to Emily Style, helped me to examine and search for answers to my questions. I would note that the search began with self reflection – looking at my own story and seeking ways to find where I fit in with the intersections of race, class and gender and how that could impact my teaching practice.

If you are a teacher, former teacher, student, parent, or concerned citizen of American democracy then I urge you to read Peggy’s article and Coates’ book. While you are at it, it may help to read James Baldwin’s “A Fire Next Time” as a companion piece. Coates and Baldwin come to differing conclusions, but provide a rich environment for a reader to reach some of their own conclusions.

If you wish to continue this discussion you can email me at tremphilpa@gmail.com and I will respond to you.

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