Is it White Privilege for a White Person to Write a Book on Race?

A number of weeks ago, an African American woman sent me a message concerning my book, Racism in Kansas City: A Short History, which chronicles 200 years of white hatred and anti-black oppression in Kansas City, Missouri.

The woman seemed disappointed that a white person wrote the book. She told me it was “time for reparations” and asked when I would donate some of the profits of the book to the black community in Kansas City. She disliked the idea of me “making money off” and “taking advantage” of the black community.

I assured her that indeed a portion of the money garnered from the book is donated and that profiting off the black struggle and our ugly racial history was not my intent. She pointed out, rightly, that intent and impact are not the same thing. In a public social media post (not a message directed to me), she said I was exercising white privilege.

White privilege clearly exists. If whites bothered to study the evidence of modern prejudice or had any understanding of how past discrimination created disproportionate, intergenerational minority poverty (I recommend Racism in Kansas City: A Short History), the idea that whites generally have an easier time landing a job, getting a good home loan, or driving without being stopped and searched wouldn’t be controversial in the slightest (see How Whites Misunderstand White Privilege). Being divorced from the very possibility of experiencing racism is white privilege. I cannot actually understand how racism feels, having never experienced it. It’s certainly white privilege to write a book on something you will never experience.

The conversation echoed one I had with my brothers (also white) two years ago, in the early stages of writing the book. While documenting a truly horrific local history of segregation, discrimination, and violence, I told my brothers that once the book was in print I would be profiting off that horrific history — profiting off the retelling of the suffering black families and individuals went through and their valiant fight for equality and justice. Was that ethical?

Thus I feel this woman had a point (the foreknowledge that a white person telling this story might raise some eyebrows led me to decide I couldn’t publish it unless it had a foreword from a respected black Kansas Citian — namely, Alvin Brooks). Not that I’m making a great deal of money off Racism in Kansas City — some of the profits go to justice causes, most go to buying more copies of the book or social media advertising — but I am making something.

So indeed, I am benefiting financially from racism past and present — that’s white privilege at its finest. A sentence disturbing to write, but not untrue. Clearly, had so many white Kansas Citians throughout history not been barbaric toward our black neighbors, had slavery and Jim Crow and ideas of racial inferiority or deviancy never existed, Racism in Kansas City: A Short History never would have existed. Who could deny such a statement? In this way, I am benefiting from white privilege in a way most whites are not.

Yet at the same time, my justifications are perhaps reasonable. It wasn’t financial gain that motivated me to create the book, but rather an interest in American racial history and its effects, sparked by writers black and white — from Howard Zinn and Tim Wise to Malcolm X and Cornel West covering our national racial history, with Charles Coulter (Take Up the Black Man’s Burden) and Kevin F. Gotham (Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development) and others examining race relations in Kansas City. (The book I envisioned, unlike these other local works, would cover all 200 years of Kansas City history, be readable for a high school audience, and sharply focus on the darkest moments.)

Further, the alternatives to writing the work seemed unsatisfactory. Simply not writing the book, to someone kept awake at night obsessing over it, couldn’t be the answer. It was a story I thought Kansas City — particularly white Kansas Citians — needed to read. (One won’t be reading long before figuring out who the book is for.) What other alternatives existed? Finding a black writer and encouraging him or her to take up the project in my stead?

Lastly, it occurs to me that while this is white privilege, surely it must also be “the historian’s privilege,” if you will. Some historians focus on “feel-good” history, where everything is loving Pilgrims feasting with Native Americans. But most histories must contain brutality, oppression, and death, as this is what makes up much of history (and, I will add, makes history important and relevant to today). Can it not be said that any historian who writes and sells a book is in some way profiting from human misery — someone’s misery — of the past?

And when I think of all the people, of all colors, who have told me, often with great emotion, how the book impacted their lives, what it meant to them… Hopefully, despite the brutal history that afforded a young white person the opportunity to write a successful book, history will judge me as having done something good for Kansas City.

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