“White Men Without Feathers”

 

Recently I went to the Museum of Natural History to view the exhibit on the evolutionary links between birds and dinosaurs.  I enjoyed the exhibit very much.  The fossil bones are so exquisitely preserved that in some cases you can see faint traces of the feathers that were once associated with the living creature. Yet while my visit certainly fed my long-held interest in fossils in general and dinosaurs in particular, it also provided me with a disturbing fact.

It is very possible, if not likely, that Tyrannosaurs Rex had feathers.

Yes, you heard that correctly. T.Rex, perhaps the most famous dinosaur and certainly the most notorious predator in earth’s history was a Theropod, the group out of which birds evolved. Recent fossil discoveries have revealed that a number of these dinosaurs had feathers, and while no fossils of T.Rex (which are extremely rare ) have shown such traces, some paleontologists think that is the way to bet.

Let that sink in for a minute and you will understand the cause of my angst.  Remember that scene in the first Jurassic Park movie, when the fearsome Tyranosaurus is about to close in on the jeep? That moment when the scene shifts to the view from the driver’s side mirror upon which are written the words: “Caution objects in the mirror may appear closer than they really are”?

Now imagine  that dinosaur dressed  up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.    It is hard for me to accept that this ancient animal which, from my first visit to the museum in grade school, sparked my sense of wonder about the natural world as well as haunted a nightmare or two had feathers and not scales. Ugh!

Of course, no one is saying that T.Rex could fly.  If in fact the dinosaur was covered in feathers (which would have resembled something closer to porcupine quills than the feathers of modern birds) they must have served some other purpose.  Perhaps they helped in the dissipation of body heat, or the preservation of warmth. Modern birds use the color of their feathers to attratk mates; perhaps dinosaurs did also.   No matter how I spin this, however, it will be hard for me to ever look at the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the same way again.    “The truth will set you free”, Garfield the cat once famously said, “but first, it will make you miserable.”

As I reflected upon all of this on my way home on the train towards my white suburban neighborhood,  I wondered if there might be a greater insight here.  It is of little importance whether I, a materially comfortable white man, can accept that T.Rex had feathers.  It is of enormous importance, however, that I can accept I don’t.

The ”feathers” that I am speaking of here are, of course, metaphorical ones.  They symbolize the aura  that has enveloped me and millions like me since birth, a covering so fine and so subtle that we (almost) didn’t notice it at all.  And so we came to accept our “feathers” as the way nature –and God (take a good look at the images of God in your house of worship next time you visit)- intended things to be.

Peggy McIntosh provides a name for these feathers: White Privilege.    In her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, she defines it as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

Ms. McIntosh goes on to specifically describe 50 different experiences of White Privilege – think of each as an individual feather in the overall covering.  Here are a couple:  “ I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” and “ If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race”.   Speaking as a white male baby boomer who was born, has lived and will (I most sincerely hope) die among the economically advantaged I would add this to Ms. McIntosh’s definition: White Privilege includes an almost complete obliviousness to the fact that I have been born into a generation that has known more per capita prosperity than perhaps any other in the history of the world.  Yes, I have worked hard and I take pride in the success I have achieved.  But how much of that success have I really achieved?  And how much has come to me because the playing field is tilted in my direction?

The reasons for the rise of Donald Trump as a political force in American politics are complex.  Yet we would be naïve – or worse – to think that White Privilege isn’t among them.  In his subtle and not so subtle disparagement of immigrants, women, and others, buried deep within his promise to”Make America Great Again” (at least as he seems to define this phrase) is an implicit message:  White men do indeed have feathers. And we are entitled to them.

Why is it so hard for me to picture T.Rex with feathers?   Because when I do so, I feel I have diminished the creature, reducing it from something fearsome to something almost pedestrian.  Yet when I look at this situation objectively, I come to see this is not true at all.  T.Rex was what it was, feathers or not.  And either way,it was a magnificent creature. My imaginings and illusions don’t change that.  Accepting truth never diminishes us but can only enhance us.

Can I imagine myself without feathers?  Can others like me who have benefited from the “feathers” of White Privilege find the courage and the compassion needed to see in the movements towards fuller participation in American society sought by disenfranchised groups not an angry mob come to pull off our feathers but an invitation from the source of all Justice  to recognize we were never meant to have them in the first place?

Spending time learning about extinct creatures can be time well spent.  But embracing extinct ideas is downright dangerous.  In this case, it is only when one loses his feathers that he is able to fly.

 

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh

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