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My college class asks what it means to be white in America — but interrogating that question as a black woman in the real world is much harder to do. Photo illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban. By Claudia Rankine. I n the early days of the run-up to the election, I was just beginning to prepare a class on whiteness to teach at Yale University, where I had been newly hired. Over the years, I had come to realize that I often did not share historical knowledge with the persons to whom I was speaking. Would my students understand the long history that informed a comment like one Trump made when he announced his presidential candidacy?

Would they connect the treatment of the undocumented with the treatment of Irish, Italian and Asian people over the centuries? In preparation, I needed to slowly unpack and understand how whiteness was created. Did the United States government bomb the black community in Tulsa, Okla. How did Italians, Irish and Slavic peoples become white? Why do people believe abolitionists could not be racist? My class eventually became Constructions of Whiteness, and over the two years that I have taught it, many of my students who have included just about every race, gender identity and sexual orientation interviewed white people on campus or in their families about their understanding of American history and how it relates to whiteness.

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Some students simply wanted to know how others around them would define their own whiteness. Still others wanted to show the impact of white expectations on their lives. Perhaps this is why one day in New Haven, staring into the semicircle of oak trees in my backyard, I wondered what it would mean to ask random white men how they understood their privilege.

I imagined myself — a middle-aged black woman — walking up to strangers and doing so. Would they react as the police captain in Plainfield, Ind. He became angry and accused her of using a racialized slur against him. She was placed on paid administrative leaveand a reprimand was placed permanently in her file.

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Would I, too, be accused? Would I hear myself asking about white male privilege and then watch white man after white man walk away as if I were mute? They rarely sought me out to shoot the breeze, and I did not seek them out.

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Maybe it was time to engage, even if my fantasies of these encounters seemed outlandish. I wanted to try. As I crisscrossed the United States, Europe and Africa giving talks about my work, I found myself considering these white men who passed hours with me in airport lounges, at gates, on planes.

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They seemed to me to make up the largest percentage of business travelers in the liminal spaces where we waited. That I was among them in airport lounges and in first-class cabins spoke in part to my own relative economic privilege, but the price of my ticket, of course, does not translate into social capital. Maybe these other male travelers could answer my questions about white privilege.

He meant he was being punished for the sins of his forefathers. He wanted me to know he understood it was his burden to bear. I wanted to tell him that he needed to take a long view of the history of the workplace, given the imbalances that generations of hiring practices before him had created. But would that really make my friend feel any better? Did he understand that today, 65 percent of elected officials are white men, though they make up only 31 percent of the American population? White men have held almost all the power in this country for years.

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I knew that my friend was trying to communicate his struggle to find a way to understand the complicated American structure that holds us both. I wanted to ask him if his expectation was a of his privilege but decided, given the loss of his job opportunity, that my role as a friend probably demanded other responses.

After a series of casual conversations with my white male travelers, would I come to understand white privilege any differently? But because I have only lived as me, a person who regularly has to negotiate conscious and unconscious dismissal, erasure, disrespect and abuse, I fell into this wondering silently.

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Always, I hesitated. I hesitated when I stood in line for a flight across the country, and a white man stepped in front of me. He was with another white man.

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Was his statement a defensive move meant to cover his rudeness and embarrassment, or were we sharing a joke? When the black woman told her she was in line, the white woman responded that it was the line for first class. His embarrassment, if it was embarrassment, had everything to do with how he was seen by the person who did matter: his white male companion. I was allowing myself to have too much presence in his imagination, she said. Should this be a comfort? Was my total invisibility preferable to a targeted insult?

During the flight, each time he removed or replaced something in his case overhead, he looked over at me. I tried to imagine what my presence was doing to him. On some level, I thought, I must have dirtied up his narrative of white privilege securing white spaces. Racial profiling becomes another sanctioned method of segregating space. Harris goes on to explain how much white people rely on these benefits, so much so that their expectations inform the interpretations of our laws. Or voter-registration laws in certain states can function as de facto Jim Crow laws.

On the plane, I wanted to enact a new narrative that included the whiteness of the man who had stepped in front of me. I felt his whiteness should be a component of what we both understood about him, even as his whiteness would not be the entirety of who he is.

His unconscious understanding of whiteness meant the space I inhabited should have been only his. The old script would have left his whiteness unacknowledged in my consideration of his slight.

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But a rude man and a rude white man have different presumptions. Just as when a white person confronted by an actual black human being needs to negotiate stereotypes of blackness so that he can arrive at the person standing before him, I hoped to give the man the same courtesy but in the reverse. Seeing his whiteness meant I understood my presence as an unexpected demotion for him.

It was too bad if he felt that way. I hoped to find a way to have this conversation. Nonetheless, the phrase has stuck. McIntosh listed 46 ways white privilege is enacted.

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My students and I also studied the work of the white documentary filmmaker Whitney Dow. He filmed more than a hundred of their oral histories. I asked Dow what he learned in his conversations with white men. The individual actor on the grand stage always had the support of a genocidal government, but this is not the narrative we grew up with.

I wanted to know what white men thought about their privilege. so i asked.

How many people know that? The slaves that were brought to America were sold to the white man by blacks. Full comprehension would include the understanding that white privilege comes with expectations of protection and preferences no matter where he lives in the country. How angry could I be at the white man on the plane, the one who glanced at me each time he stood up the way you look at a stone you had tripped on? My own socialization had, in many ways, prepared me for him. I was waiting in another line for access to another plane in another city as another group of white men approached.

When they realized they would have to get behind a dozen or so people already in line, they simply formed their own line next to us. He wished me a good flight.

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We had shared something. I found the suited men who refused to fall in line exhilarating and amusing as well as obnoxious. Watching them was like watching a spontaneous play about white male privilege in one act.

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I appreciated the drama. One or two of them chuckled at their own audacity. The gate agent did an interesting sort of check-in by merging the newly formed line with the actual line. The people in my line, almost all white and male themselves, were in turn quizzical and accepting. After I watched this scene play out, I filed it away to use as an example in my class. How would my students read this moment?

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Some would no doubt be enraged by the white female gate agent who let it happen. I would ask why it was easier to be angry with her than with the group of men. Based on past classes, I could assume the white male students would be quick to distance themselves from the men at the gate; white solidarity has no place in a class that sets out to make visible the default positions of whiteness.

As the professor, I felt this was a narrative that could help me gauge the level of recognition of white privilege in the class, because other white people were also inconvenienced by the actions of this group of men. Some students, though, would want to see the moment as gendered, not racialized. I would ask them if they could imagine a group of black men pulling off this action without the white men in my line responding or the gate agent questioning the men even if they were within their rights.

Just do it, I told myself. Just ask a random white guy how he feels about his privilege.