You may have seen this story making the gossip rounds: at Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s wedding, Timberlake’s longtime real estate agent made a congratulatory gag video, featuring footage of homeless people from L.A. giving the couple their congratulations. Gawker went public with it yesterday, and their write-up covers its “greatest hits,” as it were:
After the guests at Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s wedding were whisked to southern Italy via private jet last week, they were greeted by a video produced by Timberlake’s longtime pal, L.A. real estate agent Justin Huchel. The video had a gag: Huchel hit the streets of Los Angeles and asked a bunch of homeless people, street musicians, and transexuals to wish the multimillionaire newlyweds well. Funny, funny stuff.
The 8:30 video featured street interviews with ten people, many of them obviously homeless, premised on the idea that they were friends of Timberlake and Biel’s who, for whatever reason, couldn’t quite swing the trip to the Borgo Egnazia resort in Puglia for the nuptials, which were reported to cost $6.5 million. “Greetings from Your Hollywood Friends Who Just Couldn’t Make It,” reads the opening title card, “Featuring Sid, Chuck, Robert, and More!” Sid, Chuck, Robert, and others appear to be penniless and living on the street. Some of them are obviously intoxicated, mentally ill, or both, and at least one of them is entirely incapable of speaking.
“Justin and Jessica, I haven’t seen you for a long time,” one toothless man tells the camera. “I hope the wedding goes fine for you. My gift is in the mail.”
A male off-camera voice, apparently Huchel’s, asks the man when he last saw Timberlake and Biel, adding, “Did you and Jessica mess around?”
At one point, after commentary from an apparently transexual man, Timberlake’s “SexyBack” is played in the background.
Another glassy-eyed apparently homeless man woozily tells the camera, in a lengthy and rambling monologue, “Jeez I miss you so much. I wish I could be there.” (“There” being the $1,000-plus a night Italian resort hanging out with guests like Jimmy Fallon and Andy Samberg. “Here” being behind what looks like a McDonald’s.) Others mumble unintelligibly in response to questions about when they last hung out with Timberlake and Biel. When one shirtless man says he saw them at the L.A. Coliseum, the male voice asks, “were you performing with them?”
I’d also suggest watching the video yourself, available at the top of the Gawker post.
So there we go.
For much of my life, I had no idea what white privilege was. Because I lived in a town where white privilege went unquestioned, it was invisible to me. I don’t blame my parents for this; I don’t even (entirely) blame my education for this. My high school was operating within the system of white privilege, which works very, very hard to make white privilege invisible. If it were visible, then it would be questioned. In my school district, one of the junior highs had the mascot “Sacajawea Braves” — which, until about ten years before, had been the Sacajawea Savages. And no one ever said anything about it. The fact that a school governed by white people, in a predominantly white town, could get away with calling the people associated with Sacajawea “Savages,” or even “Braves” — that’s white privilege. That I never was made to think of my own race an actual race — that’s white privilege. There’s a privilege inherent to not having to think about your own race, to not having to think about not offending other races.
One of my favorite distillations of white privilege comes from the work of Peggy McIntosh, who authored a clear list of all the things that white people don’t have to worry about. I copy it in full because it is just so f-ing incisive:
As a white person….
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
25. 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.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
That is white privilege, and white privilege is real. We have a black man as president, but that doesn’t mean that these assertions don’t hold true. To be white in America means to be privileged; to deny as much is to deny the realities of lived race relations in the world today. I am not saying that this is awesome. I acknowledge that I benefit from white privilege every day of my life, but that doesn’t mean that I think that this is the way things should be.
And no where does privilege manifest itself as overtly as celebrity culture. Now, I anticipate the initial counter-arguments: lots of non-white people are celebrities! Indeed, some of the *biggest* celebrities are, in fact, non-whites! Obama! Beyonce! Jay-Z! Kanye West! Denzel! Crucially, the concept of “white privilege” doesn’t mean that people who aren’t white can’t be celebrities. It just means that those people don’t have the behavioral latitude as white celebrities. Take, for example, the backlash against Obama’s First Debate, when he didn’t bring the “anger” — as Chris Menning explains, “When reading articles that laud Mitt Romney for winning, keep in mind that they’re celebrating the fact that Mitt Romney can get away with behaving like a white man and Barack Obama, the President of the United States, still can’t.”
In short: white people can get away with all sorts of egregious shit because they are the ruling class. Non-white people (an overarching conflation I hate, but that works here) cannot. White privilege has been all over the rhetoric attached to this election: Mitt Romney has connections to the company that controls voting technology, which is, overall, okay; imagine how people would deal with that if Obama had such connections…..or imagine how differently people would treat an “underage” pregnancy on the part of a white candidate and the same on the part of a black candidate. Privacy, indifference — that’s what white privilege grants.
And that’s what’s in overt display at Justin Timberlake’s wedding to Jessica Biel.
I’ve been public in my celebration of the boringness of this wedding. It’s a “secret” wedding that somehow managed to garner the cover of People — I call bullshit. This was a highly orchestrated, ostensibly secret wedding primed to promote its two stars, both of whom are struggling with their Hollywood careers. (Biel is tanking; Timberlake, who’s made it very public that he’s concentrating on acting, will make or break his career with his turn in the Coen Brother’s next film). Fact is, the wedding was a classic celebrity affair: public event masked as intimate affair.
Which makes the video mentioned at the beginning of this piece all the more egregious. Justin Huchel (who is white and privileged) put the video together. Sure, it’s humorous. Sure, it’s possible that Huchel paid the partipants, thus (ostensibly) negating complaints that he exploited them. But the fact remains: at a party full of (almost entirely) white, privileged people, this video was presented with the specific purpose of amusement. People of color, people of ambiguous gender, people of explicitly lower class — employed for amusement. It’s a white person’s privilege to produce this video, and it’s a white person’s privilege to think that this is funny. To be blunt, it is privilege that allows these testimonies to be funny. Absent that privilege, they are singularly tragic.
You might think I’m overreacting, or too sensitive, or need to be reminded that this was all in jest. To repeat: the idea that this sort of action could be “all in jest” is a product of white privilege. It is, plain and simple, exploitation, and exploitation of the disenfranchised. Arguing that it’s “just a joke” is tantamount to arguing that systemic race and class exploitation is “just a joke.” This sort of behavior is a symptom of the greater, systemic disease. That’s the sad, totally shameful truth.
Generally speaking, I like Justin Timberlake. I don’t like Jessica Biel, but that’s because I think her image is boring — not because, to this point, I thought she was a racist. I understand that Timberlake and Biel did not spearhead this video. But they have spearheaded its cover-up, as clearly illustrated in the letter sent to Gawker upon its publication of this information. This was, as the lawyer explains, intended as a “private joke” at Timberlake’s wedding, and not meant for further distribution. Again, that’s white privilege: the idea that you could create an explicitly racist, classist, exploitative text and assume that it would go no further, and that if it did, that you could shut it down with a letter to the editors of Gawker. Critique Gawker all you will, but you must admire its defiance. Granted, Gawker is headed by a white male, and that’s part of what has made the site historically viable. This post undoubtedly garners a lot of page views, but it also speaks truth to (white) power…and in a way that white people can’t possibly disavow.
This petite-scandale won’t do much to Timberlake/Biel’s image. They weren’t responsible for it, per se, although they are, without doubt, responsible for cultivating an environment in which this sort of behavior would be considered okay/humorous. I don’t know how, or whether, we should blame other attendants of this wedding for calling attention to it before it went public. Would Jimmy Kimmel make a public statement about this sort of thing before it was made public? No. Again, that’s white privilege: the ability to ignore.
But I hope that this incident has the same effect on you as it does on me: reminding me how insidious white privilege can be while reminding me to call attention to it in our own lives, whether we’re white or not. The only way to interrogate and, eventually, challenge privilege is to make it visible. That’s the goal of this post, and hopefully it will become yours as well.