The Expectation of White Privilege

    Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition begins with a baby being born. This child does not represent a fresh, vibrant wave of the future, instead the baby is marked by the past and is representative of the inequity and injustice of the present:

Old Mammy Jane, however, was not entirely at ease concerning the child. She had discovered, under its left ear, a small mole, which led her to fear that the child had been born for bad luckÿIt was manifestly impossible that a child of such high quality as the grandson of her old mistress should die by judicial strangulation; but nevertheless the warning was a serious thing, and not to be lightly disregarded. (The Marrow of Tradition, 474-5)
The mole is like the mark made on a person when s/he is lynched. The wrongs of slavery were never properly dealt with and continue to fester into the future. The baby's mole is a metaphor for this persistent and unresolved problem. Not only does this child point to the festering race issues, but he manifests the problem: a belief that "the expectation of white privilege is valid and the legal protection of that expectation is warranted." ("Whiteness as Property," 1769) Mammy Jane says if this child were not white, he would surely be hanged. But since he is "of such high quality", it is impossible to have such an end. Chesnutt writes of white privilege that lingers from before emancipation. He twins many people across the color line to manifest the innate equality, and the realized inequality of the pair. With the pair of young Tom Delamere and Sandy Campbell, Chesnutt shows how this one in grained belief palpably maintains white supremacy by allowing whites and denying blacks the right to an identity and to dignity, and by allowing the law to be broken to favor white life over black life, and by keeping all money and property in the hands of the whites.

    Young Tom Delamere and Sandy Campbell are not likely twins. One is a wayward grandson of a respectable gentleman. Tom gambles and drinks excessively. Sandy is a very religious and dignified body servant for the former's grandfather. They are paired as twins when Tom, for fun, masquerades as Sandy in a colored cakewalk or dancing contest. As Chesnutt writes:

The cakewalk had results which to Sandy were very serious. The following week he was summoned before the disciplinary committee of his church and charged with unchristian conductÿ (The Marrow of Tradition, 568).
Tom caused great pain and humiliation to another human being, but he only finds this amusing:
Tom laughed until he cried at the comical idea which Sandy's plaint always brought up, of half-a-dozen negro preachers sitting in solemn judgment upon that cakewalk!Cand sending poor Sandy to spiritual Coventry. (The Marrow of Tradition, 569)
Although Tom is a particularly degenerate character, his assumption of white privilege is indicative of his and our society's beliefs. Young Delamere seized Sandy's identity and ruins his reputation. The right to identity and reputation is reserved for white people, and Tom asserts this right. In fact, Tom doesn't even see him as a real person--he is the other. Tom makes his views clear when he says: "'Brace up, Sandy, and be a man, or, if you can't be a man, be as near a man as you can!'" (The Marrow of Tradition, 570) In Tom's eyes, Sandy is just a silly, meaningless black thing pretending to be a man. Black people are jokes, just "comical" when they exhibit characteristics of real people who make "solemn judgement" or feel crushed when they are exiled by their beloved church. This belief in whites as the only real people clearly denies black people the right to any dignity and even refuses them the right to an identity. Their humannes is laughed at and denied validity.

    The notion of white people's right to identity and reputation is an abstract result of the ingrained belief of white privilege, and one that is hard to measure. Another, more blatant result of this belief in white supremacy is the expectation of law to favor white life over black life. Chesnutt again illustrates this with the twins of Sandy and Tom. Tom, dressed as Sandy, brutally kills his great aunt and takes her money to pay off his gambling debts. When witnesses identify Sandy as the killer, a white riot is formed, and Sandy is to be lynched! This is completely illegal, but as one white judge sees the matter:

He admitted that lynching was, as a rule, unjustifiable, but maintained that there were exceptions to all rules,--that laws were made, after all, to express the will of the people in regard to the ordinary administration of justice, but that in an emergency the sovereign people might assert itself and take the law into its own hands. (The Marrow of Tradition, 631)
Basically, the legal support of the white privilege is expected. This man of the law, who is, we find, considered by blacks to be fair, feels it is ok for a respected black man to be publicly tortured without even a trial! This belief in white privilege is so deeply ingrained, people simply "feel" it is right and are willing to break all laws to maintain white supremacy. When the truth finally makes its way out that Tom is the murderer and thief, there is a completely different reaction. Whites, unlike Sandy, have the privilege of the law defending their life--and if the law does not support it, then it can be broken. Carteret, the editor of the newspaper, when he is told Tom is guilty, says, "But a white man must not be condemned without proof positive." (The Marrow of Tradition, 658) When Carteret finds "proof positive" that Tom is the murderer, his reaction is to announce to the public that Sandy is innocent, and that the murder "was perpetrated by some unknown man, who has fled from the city." (The Marrow of Tradition, 662) White men have the privileges so great that they remain alive and unpunished when any black person in the same place would be killed.

    Finally, Chesnutt uses this pair to demonstrate the systematic stealing of money and property from blacks. It is expected that whites and not blacks have the right to own property and have money. Just before Old Delamere died, he discovered what a wretched person his grandson really was and decided to change his will to give Sandy three thousand dollars and to the black Dr. Miller, the rest of his estate. Tom Delamere was not included. Despite the complete legality of this will, the keeper of it, General Belmont, never produced it. Everything went to Tom. Belmont justified his action:

Miller"s hospital was already well established, and, like most negro institutions, could no doubt rely upon Northern philanthropy for any further support it might need. Mr. Delamere=s property belonged of right to the white race, and by the higher law should remain in the possession of white people. (The Marrow of Tradition, 666)
Sandy's reputation and identity have been tossed around and ruined as if meaningless, his life was just barely spared, and now his rightful three-thousand dollars is stolen from him and given to his undeserving twin. This "higher law" is simply the grandiose manifestation of the protection of white privilege. Most people are not evil, and certainly do not think any sort of stealing is justified. Yet, this expectation of white privilege is so rooted in people's values, they are able to blatantly rob and oppress blacks without feeling the slightest remorse.

    Chesnutt, by pairing Tom Delamere and Sandy Campbell is able to illustrate the horrible inequity one all encompassing expectation of white privilege is able to maintain. This belief gives whites the right to an identity and to have control over this identity. Blacks are not seen as real people (because they're not white) and, of course, they needn't worry about identity. The belief holds that white life is more valuable and the law ought to support it. Money and property are expected to in the possession of whites and again, all necessary will be done to enforce this. Until this belief is irradiated, oppression will be expected and defended.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr., Three Classic African American Novels: Clotel, Iola Leroy, The Marrow of Tradition. Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1990. pp 465-747.

Harris, Cheryl, I., "Whiteness as Property," Harvard Law Review.

This page is the work of E. Fleur Nicklen

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