Elizabeth Lauten and Privileged Obliviousness

What privilege means: The luxury of knowing racism exists and thinking it doesn't matter

So Elizabeth Lauten lost her job. Saw that coming. She’s a communications specialist who, let’s say as euphemistically as we can here, failed to observe the best practices of her profession. I wish her well, sort of, and stipulate that she’s not really the issue.

As is the case in the reaction to the Ferguson grand jury decision, the real problem is privilege and—in the strictest sense of the term—ignorance. Or maybe obliviousness is the better word. Activist and writer Tim Wise lays this out more fully in AlterNet, in a piece well worth a full read:

To white America, in the main, police are the folks who help get our cats out of the tree, or who take us on ride-arounds to show us how gosh-darned exciting it is to be a cop. We experience police most often as helpful, as protectors of our lives and property. But that is not the black experience by and large; and black people know this, however much we don’t. The history of law enforcement in America, with regard to black folks, has been one of unremitting oppression. That is neither hyperbole nor opinion, but incontrovertible fact. From slave patrols to overseers to the Black Codes to lynching, it is a fact. From dozens of white-on-black riots that marked the first half of the 20th century (in which cops participated actively) to Watts to Rodney King to Abner Louima to Amadou Diallo to the railroading of the Central Park 5, it is a fact. From the New Orleans Police Department’s killings of Adolph Archie to Henry Glover to the Danziger Bridge shootings there in the wake of Katrina to stop-and-frisk in places like New York, it’s a fact. And the fact that white people don’t know this history, have never been required to learn it, and can be considered even remotely informed citizens without knowing it, explains a lot about what’s wrong with America. Black people have to learn everything about white people just to stay alive. They especially and quite obviously have to know what scares us, what triggers the reptilian part of our brains and convinces us that they intend to do us harm. Meanwhile, we need know nothing whatsoever about them. We don’t have to know their history, their experiences, their hopes and dreams, or their fears. And we can go right on being oblivious to all that without consequence. It won’t be on the test, so to speak.

Even though she was writing about the new season of “Survivor,” not an officer-involved shooting, Lauten herself vividly illustrated that myopia in a column for The East Carolinian in 2006, when she was an ECU student. One choice excerpt:

As a society, we like to say that race doesn't matter anymore, or rather, that is our ideal—that race shouldn't limit and set boundaries. Yet it seems to me that at every chance, we make it more of an issue than it needs to be. How is race ever going to take a backseat to political or social issues if we keep making it a huge factor?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying people are not discriminated against or that people are treated fairly all the time, but I cannot believe that people have to make such a big deal out of it. There are many more important things to worry about in the world.

Her penultimate sentence: “Issues only exist when we give it [sic] attention and power.” OK, I know, she was a college student. (Still an adult, unlike Sasha and Malia Obama.)

Still, if you’re wondering how Lauten could have been dense enough to post that decorum lecture to the Obama girls to Facebook in the first place, there’s your answer. “I'm not saying people are not discriminated against or that people are treated fairly all the time, but I cannot believe that people have to make such a big deal out of it.” Someone should chisel that into marble.