Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why We Need To Talk About Whiteness and Privilege

So the recent post on WPD caused quite the stir, talking about whiteness usually does.  As stated in both the post and comments white privilege is encoded to the body, and I do mean this literally.  Unless you want to go through the Michael Jackson school of beauty, you cannot rid yourself of your colour.  You also cannot change the way that people respond to you based in colour.  Not having control over others does not alleviate you having the responsibility to own your privilege, or make attempts to mitigate it.

"Now what, now what?"...I get that one all the time.  Of course whiteness wants a solution and people of colour need to provide it.  I am sure this is seen as being racially sensitive, because hey you're willing to listen right, but why should I be willing to serve.  For "now what" to be answered, you would have to have a true understanding of what it means to exist as an "othered" body in the Americas. You would have had to take the time to think about the ways that race/ class/gender/sexuality/ability etc intersect in our lived experience.  That takes work, so why not just get those of us that are considered raced to cough up the answer, so you don't really have to learn anything, but you can convince yourself how progressive you really are.

Socially there is an imbalance in knowledge.  For the sake of survival POC have had to learn about whiteness and how to negotiate it; whereas no such knowledge has been necessary for those that are white.  They can freely go about their days seeing whiteness reflected everywhere as good and positive. Open a history book and you will be immediately astounded by the achievements of whiteness.  Our knowledge of you is unavoidable, whereas yours is conveniently reduced to the month of February and the obligatory shout out to MLK.

Even in our so-called conversations about race we usually discuss how it impacts bodies of colour and ignore the degree to which whiteness is an active participant in maintaining racial hierarchy.  Oh no..talk sweet don't get white people riled up with the idea that they continually benefit from racism.  Make sure to walk on egg shells because it will be assumed that no matter what you say, you are calling all white people racist, or suggesting that there is no hope for change. Hell why even talk about this negativity in the larger social sense at all...feelings might get hurt. The illogic of this astounds me. Why initiate a conversation if not to inspire change. Would it not be easier for me to watch Barney with kids than go through this freaking headache every time I dare to suggest we climb the white monolith?

Discussions about racism cannot always be about the body of colour because it is not a one sided issue.  Framing the conversation this way maintains the idea that bodies of colour are always necessarily objects instead of subjects, and it further supports the racial hierarchy that has become institutionalized. 

Ultimately whiteness does not have to invest in the racial debate because to do so they would have to admit not only purposeful ignorance but shame.  OOOOh I wrote the shame word. Now I am not suggesting that you should be ashamed for being white, but how about shame in wilfully participating in a system that daily degrades others? How about shame in daily committing acts that maintain your privilege and support a concept that you claim in your most PC moments to be against? 

Peoples very lives are at stake and now is not the time to claim neutrality, it is passive aggressive and dishonest.  While you may openly say that you are not prideful (gee how sweet), not expressing shame in a system that daily dehumanizes a large percentage of the population residing in the Americas is disgusting.   Neutrality tells me that there is a limit to how far you are willing to invest in the project of equality.  You may claim to "own it," but having the courage of your supposed convictions is one step to far. 

Perhaps I should just order a round of cookies for everyone...hey its cheaper than buying drinks right? The only problem with that is a half assed effort doesn't get anyone anywhere.  Staring at each other from a rift that is wider than the grand canyon, talking at each other, instead of to each other just maintains the status quo.  Now I obviously know that some people are more than happy with the systemic inequality, but for those of you that dream about a time of real equality this impasse must be breached. 

So I say own it, and not on just some liberal look at me I'm PC level, but as a real and honest human being.  Anomie need not be a main feature of our society.

Editors Note:  There will be discussion soon to follow on biracial bodies. I feel that they deserve their own separate post.  Straddling the multiplicities of race should not be just an add on to a post on white privilege.


22 comments:

Dori said...

Renee, your current series of posts regarding privilege have been wonderfully written.

I have been very aware of my privilege for most of my life. I was lucky to have parents who were very conscious, and who made an extreme effort to raise contentious children. Even with that, I have been struggling with the aspect of taking responsibility for the inequalities that I benefit from, and separating that from my white liberal guilt (which I have since seen as the privileged reaction that it is)

It hit me, maybe a year ago, that in order to understand my privilege, and begin to mitigate it, two things had to happen.

1-I had to realize that it was not all about me

2-I had to stop being an asshole (by asshole, i mean stop assuming that I "got it" and admit that I don't know everything just because I'm well intentioned)

I'm not an ally, I don't need special recognition. I'm just a person with privilege who has made the conscious decision not to be an asshole.

Rj said...

Uh oh, Renee, they may not like this post. You've basically pointed out that it requires effort on the part of the privileged--not just effort meaning, donate to charity, effort that comes from actually getting into the "other's" shoes [physically and/or mentally] and walking more than a day in them. And I can only think of one person who has done this, John Howard Griffin.

Hypothetically speaking, It is ever so much simpler to continue living my life as is and just ask 'you people' for all the answers. I mean, you're living it, right? That way, I don't have to truly interrupt my privilege and concern myself with how "evil" the world is. You see, that is why we hire Hispanic and Black women into jobs, so that they can communicate down to people in their communities for us. And we will have crossed the barriers that exist while doing our community service.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Rj for taking me back to my childhood.

I was a very young girl in the 1960s who found my mother's copy of "Black Like Me" (she was reading it because she became a foster mother to two African American boys, one of whom became my lifelong brother). This book had a profound impact on me, even though I didn't understand so much in it. Also read Grace Halsell's book, "Soul Sister", when it came out (again, from my mother's stash). Not nearly as good as Griffin's, and extremely problematic in many ways, but worth a look as it was written in 1969.

Nothing pisses me off more when people come to this site or others and want POC, feminists, Muslims, GLBTQs, fat rights activists, the disabled, etc. to teach them about privilege or how to get rid of prejudice, or even instruct them about law and history and politics, because they are too damn lazy to use Google or pick up a book. That is why I am very skeptical about their "concern" and dubious of their claims of wanting to truly educate (let alone change) themselves. I think most (not all) are just trolling for justification/vindication for not interrogating and challenging themselves and their privileges.

Some of worst sexism, racism, classism, fat-phobia, anti-Arab/Muslim, anit-immigrant sentiments and gay rights bashing I have read is in the comments sections of so-called progressive websites, NOT written by the wingnuts (and much of the comments are written by "concern trolls", who probably consider themselves very liberal, tolerant and openminded people).

I guess the silver lining in the anonymity of the internet is that it brings all this into the open, shocking us back into reality about how much work we have to do and how much farther we have to go, instead of constantly patting ourselves on the back about how far we have come and how righteous we are.

julie said...

I think privilege should be off the radar by now. I don't know about other countries but in NZ we have come along way over racial issues.

And they were bad at one satge. Some still hold on to them but thank god they are the few and not the majority.

I can remember my husband working in the Sth Island and he wasn't getting paid which left me and my young children having to go to welfare for a hand out. My children have Maori in them and are proud of their heritage but I didn't consider I needed to present that to get help. I was considered white and I could not get the help because the attitude was that I, as a white person should be more able to cope. More able to survive because I was so called privileged.

The Maori have generations of bad treatment from when the English first came here. They were not allowed to speak their language and they were given a white name and even belted if they went against this. Their culture had been taken away from them.

So then they fell apart. Crime, DV, unemployment, non education, .. the list went on.

So they got extra handouts to balance the privilege. To balance the numbers. To balance for fairness.

But nothing changed. Drugs, alcohol, violence .. prisons filled and expanded, family breakdown,. fatherlessness, mothers losing children to welfare. It has been a terrible mess.

But out of it all a solution has been found. Maori have taken a journey into their own culture. Into understanding who there are. To accept and rejoice their differences. This is very special. And this works.

It is not a matter of priviledge. It is not a matter of forcing sameness. It is a matter of allowing differences. Accepting that each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

Now of course out come the complaints once again. This time it is about being treated differently not from the Maori but from the Europeans.

We don't go backwards because we can only go forward. We take from history and mix it with the last 40 years socialism work and make it even better.

julie said...

I also want to add that I enjoy racism being laughed at too. I think myself that laughing helps you cope better sometimes.

Chappelle had a comedy on racism. He showed a panel of different Nationalities. One person represented Black, one White, one Latino, one Jews and one Asians.

Each delegate took it in turn to pick a famous person like an athlete or singer or movie star or politician (just someone most people would have an idea of their background and life style).

The laughter came from the way the choices could finally fit into a camp. Like Tiger Woods. He has a Black father and an Asian mother. Which camp did he belong into.

The moral of the joke is that many have moved on. I don't think it fair of me to say racism means nothing because there IS a lot in history and there are a lot of people who know the pain still ... but we are allowing different cultures into our different cultures more now a days than previously.

I think personally that those who fought for freedom of their cultures would be happy to see the world we live in today. It is not perfect but perfection is impossible to attain.

Anonymous said...

Oh whine whine.
Black people have an attitude problem.
Like the guy who made misogynist comments to me at a tube (metro) station. And the woman who threw my bag of shopping on the floor of a bus for no reason whatsoever, breaking the glasses within.
So angry, yet no-one cares about the colour of your skin. We do care that you act like normal decent people.
I am not saying ALL or most black people act like that, but from my encounters, *some* do and think their race is an excuse to do what the hell they like and they are immune to criticism, that they can be aggressive to white people and cry racism when one stands up to them.
Yeah, pooooor oppressed black people. Stop playing the race card.

isonprize said...

To anon @ 4:48pm,

Why didn't you move your bag from the seat on the bus when folks got on the bus? The seats are for people, not bags.

It should not have mattered what color the person was, s/he was entitled to an available seat.

Renee said...

@Anon#6 Deal more than happy to..How about you start first you wpd troll

Ilyka said...

What the hell is up with commenters from outside North America--white commenters, near as I can tell--showing up to claim that, oh, that's strictly a North American construction, all that "race" business, and we totes don't have that here?

Because you know what? Not buying it. I can believe it manifests somewhat differently based on different cultures, different histories, different narratives, and different people. And yet, a funny thing happens when I read a blog by a person of color from a country other than North America: They still write as though white privilege were a problem.

Well, maybe they're just playing the race card. I hear you can win fabulous prizes with that [eyeroll].

Maureen said...

Renee, thanks for this excellent post!

PortlyDyke said...

julie said: "It is not a matter of priviledge."

But it is. The fact that you can't see your own privilege doesn't erase it. That's the very nature of privilege -- it's hard to see -- because if you're privileged, it's your own face you're looking for -- so you need a mirror to even get a glimpse, and even then, it's hard to see.

Oh, and Renee, I fully support you to toss that other trollage out post-haste (but I can completely relate to letting the comment stand just as an example of the crap). Arrgh.

Anyway -- excellent post, and thank you. I find getting white people to talk about racism, let alone whiteness, is excruciatingly hard -- and I need that dialogue so that I can talk about my own shit with being white.

This gives me a great opener for talking to my white friends about racism -- I'm going to start a conversation with "So, how often do you realize that you're white?" I can just imagine the stupefied looks right now. I have just the test candidate -- a "friend" who sent me a "funny" (racist) video -- and I've talked to him about racism before -- I wonder if this approach will penetrate differently. Thank you.

anothernobody said...

If you changed all the WPD stuff to be about 'how men don't get their male privilege' I bet most of the riled up and annoyed women WPDS would join in the bleating on how men 'just don't get it' and how you need to have conversations about feminism that include men and male privilege, yet when the same concepts are applied to their privilege and the subject of race they become just like the men who just 'don't get it', by well just not getting it.
Might not be the best analogy but it just hit me.

and Ilyka; I'm from Europe and none of the 'but it's just a North American problem we don't have that here' things just don't seem to ring true with me. WP is all over the place here. Eg a quick google about stop and search statistics here in the UK: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7069791.stm

I really don't buy it, especially as most of Europe became wealthy and owes it status as an economically and politically important part of the world to plundering most of Africa and Asia, the fact that is also plunders other bits of Europe and exploits other white people doesn't change this.

I benefit from my WP everyday and I don't see it as any form of personal attack I need to get all defensive about and it doesn't make me a bad person. Admitting that I benefit from a racist society does not make me some sort of evil monster.
Racism is a problem for our whole society, and while I believe that POC should be active and vociferous in tackling these issues and take a role in the forefront, at the same time white people can't just sit back and pretend it has nothing to do with us and do fuck all about it. Admitting there is a problem is something you need to do before you can start to solve it and this denial and casting aside as 'not my problem' of WP is not getting anyone anywhere.

ZoBabe said...

You can also take it with you! (Sorry couldn't resist the tongue in cheek). Having left North America to seek my fortunes almost ten years ago, and investing a lot of time and all my money in helping my estranged husband build up his businesses in a third world country, two things have struck me profoundly.

1. Why did I think it would be easier? That would be white privilege.

2. That I am treated differently and with different expectations by almost everyone. It is acknowledged that my looks and nationality leave doors open to me that are closed to others. I am expected to use those advantages to assist my partners and extended family in their endeavors. That would be white privilege.

Erin Elizabeth said...

Excellent post.

As a white person, I spent many years wondering "what now? what can I do?" I struggled with the question, and somehow knew it wasn't an appropriate question to ask of communities of color. What I finally came to realize is that my responsibility is recognize privilege, call it out, refuse to accept it when I can, educate other white people about their own privilege.

Charles said...

Renee,

Great post. One criticism:

""Now what, now what?"...I get that one all the time. Of course whiteness wants a solution and people of colour need to provide it. I am sure this is seen as being racially sensitive, because hey you're willing to listen right, but why should I be willing to serve."

Sometimes that reaction is what you're calling it. But sometimes it's an honest person asking you, who have obviously spent a lot of time thinking and struggling with these issues, to point them towards resources so that they can better learn and struggle with these issues themselves. That isn't looking for a cookie, it's one person asking another person for assistance in learning how to become a better human being. And it can be an opening into exactly the kind of real, open, honest discussion you say you want to have.

Even answering the 'now what' question with "Now you go and struggle with this on your own, now you put in the hard work" can be more constructive than answering "You're just looking for a cookie."

Charles said...

@Anonymous @3,

"Nothing pisses me off more when people come to this site or others and want POC, feminists, Muslims, GLBTQs, fat rights activists, the disabled, etc. to teach them about privilege or how to get rid of prejudice, or even instruct them about law and history and politics, because they are too damn lazy to use Google or pick up a book."

Some people don't know what to google for or what book to pick up. Is it that insulting to be asked for a reading list?

@Renee,

Speaking of which, could you do a 'reading list' post at some point?

Renee said...

@Charles would you like books that I have in regard to racism or books that I have read written by black authors that have touched me?

Charles said...

Renee,

Either/both. Even just books that have informed your thinking about any of the issues you blog about here. Every now and then I read a book and it totally changes the way I think about life, or I read it and think 'everyone should read that.' I guess I'm looking for your list of those.

exholt said...

"To anon @ 4:48pm,

Why didn't you move your bag from the seat on the bus when folks got on the bus? The seats are for people, not bags.

It should not have mattered what color the person was, s/he was entitled to an available seat. "

Just to add, placing bags/other objects on seats which ends up depriving other commuters of a seat is treated as a misdemeanor offense on NYC's subways and buses if a cop happens by. There were several stories of commuters who were fined by cops for this very reason over the last few years.

Probably one reason why I've noticed a steep decline over the last few years in the number of self-absorbed jerks who placed their bags/objects/feet on other seats and in the process, depriving other commuters of available seats.

green flying cat said...

"What the hell is up with commenters from outside North America--white commenters, near as I can tell--showing up to claim that, oh, that's strictly a North American construction, all that "race" business, and we totes don't have that here?

Because you know what? Not buying it. I can believe it manifests somewhat differently based on different cultures, different histories, different narratives, and different people."

OMG, let's listen to a western person teaching those uneducated third world countries' inhabitants. They obviously don't know about their own culture and history.
What on Earth gives YOU the right to judge how I live and what is my culture?
And, sorry, didn't know the blog was strictly for people inside North America.

whatsername said...

Green Flying Cat, I'm fairly certain that comment was directed at the New Zealander who basically claimed racism was dead there, not at 3rd worlders.

Charles,
Sometimes that reaction is what you're calling it. But sometimes it's an honest person asking you, who have obviously spent a lot of time thinking and struggling with these issues, to point them towards resources so that they can better learn and struggle with these issues themselves.

Usually it's both, which is sort of the point. Even when we are serious about wanting to learn our (white people) first action is to ask "help me help me" instead of doing the hard googling and reading on our own to at least find a foothold.

I don't think Renee was talking about white folks who have read a few things and say "hey what do you think of this book" or things of that nature, but the immediate "help me" thing... Yah. I've been there, I've done it. I was trying to make things easier for myself, and that's often a waste of other people's time.

That said, Renee, I WOULD love to see a list of "everyone should read these books in their lifetime" from you, just because I love such lists from everyone. :P

Renee said...

@whatsername

I am working on it. I don't want to just post a list without some commentary for each book.