Tuesday, March 24, 2009

POC'S Special Knowledge of Whiteness II

This is a continuation of a series from Whatsername of the Jaded Hippy.

Part II:
Hierarchal values and their enforcement culminates in a daily existence unique to people of color, who are living in a system set up with whiteness as the ever-perpetuating-itself ideal and power structure(6). Renee Martin discusses this reality regularly on her daily blog, Womanist Musings; white people think nothing of reaching out and touching you without your permission(7), when you offer critique on a topic you are expected to have all the answers to fix it(8), white people respond hostilely to being asked to make compromises people of color have to make every day(9), and (especially male) children must be taught “to carry [themselves] in ways that white people will not perceive as threatening,” or risk the consequences suffered by many, from Emmet Till to Oscar Grant(10). Simply to survive, people of color have to be constantly aware of whiteness, but whiteness never truly has to be aware of them. Is it any wonder that bell hooks has experienced and articulates this constant vigilance as a form of sheer terror?(11) What other word is there for a reality which disregards you fully in the knowledge that it can enforce itself upon you, violently if necessary, at any time?

Perhaps ironically, there is also no example which displays the divide in the lived experiences of people of color and white people as much as when a Black woman like bell hooks or Renee Martin expresses theirs. “White students respond with disbelief, shock, and rage, as they listen to black students talk about whiteness, when they are compelled to hear observations, stereotypes, etc., that are offered as ‘data’ gleaned from close scrutiny and study.”(12) White people are commonly totally incapable of dealing reasonably with the fact that their experience of life is in fact not universal, that they are not invisible, untouchable beings or even worse; that they have at some point benefited from a system that has caused terror in or violence upon another human being. Barbara Smith points this out when she says, “it’s not white women’s fault that they have been raised, for the most part, not knowing how to talk to Black women…What is your fault is making no serious effort to change old patterns of contempt – to look at how you still believe yourselves to be superior to Third World women and how you communicate these attitudes in blatant and subtle ways.”(13) This is a trend which has unfortunately not abated much in the two decades since Smith spoke these words, as the comments section of Womanist Musings will attest to on any given day.

Violence in lived experience is another example where whiteness and its hierarchies impact white women and women of color (especially Black women) differently. These disparities are a topic which Kimberle Crenshaw addresses in her influential work; “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color;” a concrete rendering of how whiteness impacts the lives of white and Black women differently(14). One of the topics discussed is the disparity in rape convictions depending on the victim’s race and the perpetrator’s race. White women are more likely to have their cases taken seriously and a conviction attained, while even when Black women overcome these hurdles they are still likely to have a far shorter sentence attained for their rapist.(15)  Crenshaw also looks at a disparity in organizing, where white feminist antiviolence organizers “frequently have the power to determine, either through material or rhetorical resources, whether the intersectional differences of women of color will be incorporated at all into the basic formulation of policy,”(16) something they often refuse to do, and then act surprised when their coalitions with feminist of color activists end “when the women of color [walk] out.”(17)

(6)Martin, Renee. “Why Whiteness”. Womanist Musings. http://www.womanist-musings.com/2008/11/why-whiteness.html.
(7)Martin, Renee. “Can I touch your hair? Black women and the petting zoo.” Womanist Musings. http://www.womanist-musings.com/2008/09/can-i-touch-your-hair-black-women-and.html.
(8)Martin, Renee. “Why We Need To Talk About Whiteness and Privilege”. Womanist Musings. http://www.womanist-musings.com/2008/11/why-we-need-to-talk-about-whiteness-and.html.
(9)Martin, Renee. “Negotiating White Spaces”. Womanist Musings. http://www.womanist-musings.com/2009/01/negotiating-white-spaces.html.
(10)Martin, Renee. “I Am Sean Bell: A Mothers Lament”. Womanist Musings. http://www.womanist-musings.com/2009/01/i-am-sean-bell-mothers-lament.html.
(11)hooks, bell.
(12)hooks, bell. 167.
(13)Smith, Barbara. 26.
(14)Crenshaw, Kimberle. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color." Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241-1299.
(15)Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1269.
(16)Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1265.
(17)Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1265.

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