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Stephanie Li Headshot

The White Elephant in Romney's Room

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ROMNEY INVESTMENTS
AP

Mitt Romney's recently leaked comments to Republican fundraisers are a stunning illustration of how poorly the former governor understands his own racial identity. Romney has tried to use his racial identity -- his whiteness -- to his advantage with his comment last August "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate." But the leaked video reveals something more pernicious: his utter blindness to his own privilege. For decades, scholars in the field of critical race theory have demonstrated how "whiteness" is not a universal standard but instead a specific social identity built upon unearned entitlements. Romney's whiteness is most flagrant not in the remarkable privilege he enjoyed, but in his denial of how his race has fundamentally influenced his life's trajectory.

In the video, Romney states: "Everything that Ann and I have we earned the old-fashioned way, and that's by hard work." While it's true that Romney gave his father's inheritance to charity, the former governor's statement entirely disregards the unearned privileges of his upbringing and race. He attended prestigious private schools, and according to statements made by Ann Romney while students at Brigham Young University, the couple lived off the sale of stock Romney received from his father. Romney was later accepted into Harvard Law School while his father, former governor of Michigan George Romney, was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Richard Nixon.

It is impossible to precisely quantify how George Romney's political success and wealth influenced his son's rise to national prominence, but the two are hardly independent developments. No doubt Mitt Romney has worked hard; however, a statement like, "I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success," made by Ann Romney at last month's Republican National Convention, is surely naïve at best. Romney's remarkable wealth is built not just on his own efforts, but also upon the educational, political, financial and racial foundation provided by his parents.

The Romney's shortsightedness on this issue demonstrates their ignorance of one of the central ideas in the field of critical race studies, the unearned privileges accorded to whiteness. In her foundational essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," Peggy McIntosh likens whiteness to "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks." McIntosh goes on to list dozens of ways in which her whiteness provides her with greater degrees of social validation, convenience, comfort, safety and opportunity. She enumerates how because of her whiteness she "can be sure that if I ask to talk to 'the person in charge' I will be facing a person of my race" and "Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability." Read by countless high school and college students every year, McIntosh's essay is a classic in understanding how whiteness, with its close associations to financial stability, remains an invisible standard in American society. Critical race studies has elucidated the ways in which all Americans are impacted by their racial identities, and how whiteness is not a universal model of being, but instead a specific social construction.

Romney truly is the whitest man to run for president because he doesn't realize how his whiteness has influenced his life and how his class standing provided him with remarkable educational and financial opportunities. Instead he explains in the leaked video, "I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America." Romney's blindness to his own racial and class privilege feeds into the myth of meritocracy, the false illusion that simply by hard work and steely determination, it is possible to attain the American dream. According to the 2010 census, 40 percent of black children are born into poverty compared to 8 percent of white children. None of these children, black or white, are born with silver spoons.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the recent party conventions involved dueling responses to Obama's widely circulated comments from a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia. The president stated:

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

The second day of the Republican National Convention was cued to the theme, "We built that," with Ann Romney declaring of her husband's success, "He built it."

This theme and the Romney's repeated vow that they are the creators of their own success taps into long standing myths of the self-made American man, a man who is always implicitly white. But Romney's narrative of rugged individualism is as false as the image of self-reliant colonists and frontiersman who made their fortunes in large part by relying on the slave trade and the exploitation of Native Americans. Romney's blindness to his own racial privilege is a further function of his whiteness and its invisible entitlements. It would not be fair to criticize Romney because he was born to great privilege. But it would be naïve not to judge him for his unwillingness to acknowledge it.