Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Privilege

A friend linked to this article, which originally came from Good Black News.   According to the author, she "was tagged in a post by an old high school friend, asking me and a few others a very public, direct question about white privilege and racism."  She then answered this friend's question, at length, giving personal examples of encounters with white racism, and did a good job of it.  What I want to do here is to say what is wrong with the way the friend, Jason, expressed himself; one aspect of white privilege, it seems to me, is that I am allowed to question the motives and bona fides of other white people, where it might be considered rude for a person of color to do so.  Not only am I allowed to speak up, I think I'm obliged to.  So here's the friend's post, as quoted by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, the editor of Good Black News.
    “To all of my Black or mixed race FB friends, I must profess a blissful ignorance of this ‘White Privilege‘ of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing. By not being able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone from a background/race/religion/gender/nationality/body type that differs from my own makes me part of the problem, according to what I’m now hearing.

    “Despite my treating everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know), I’m somehow complicit in the misfortune of others. I’m not saying I’m colorblind, but whatever racism/sexism/other -ism my life experience has instilled in me stays within me, and is not manifested in the way I treat others (which is not the case with far too many, I know).

    “So that I may be enlightened, can you please share with me some examples of institutional racism that have made an indelible mark upon you? If I am to understand this, I need people I know personally to show me how I’m missing what’s going on. Personal examples only. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I only want to understand (but not from the media). I apologize if this comes off as crass or offends anyone.”
There are several red flags here, culminating in the faux apology at the end.  He's not "trying to be insensitive," but he achieves insensitivity effortlessly, without even trying.  He makes it look so easy!

I'm skeptical of his claim that he has treated "everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know)."  I've known numerous white people who made exactly that claim, and then proceeded to make some bluntly racist statements.  In general, announcing one's respect and humor is a direct prelude to saying something vile.  I'd never make such a claim myself, partly because I know that I have my own blind spots and have failed more than once in treating everyone with respect (a tricky word anyway), but even more because one aspect of structural / institutional bigotry is that the dominant group is shielded from feedback on its conduct.  Those on the bottom mostly know not to speak up, most of the time; they know they'd damn well better laugh at the little jokes of the Privileged.  One symptom of white or other privilege is wondering loudly why These People are suddenly making all this noise and trouble, the Privileged One thought things were mostly all right, this is America, and besides, the Privileged One has always treated people with respect and humor.

Humor, of course, is a minefield, and a Priviliged One who assumes that his or her jokes are as funny to the less privileged as they are to him or her is probably assuming far too much.  As Ellen Willis once wrote,  “Humorless is what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls. It carries no imputation of humorlessness if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth.”  I’ve noticed over the years that when I repeat this quotation, women usually laugh delightedly, but men usually look unhappy. (The more so if the men had previously been complaining about “humorless feminists.”) 

But what I noticed right away was the opening reference to "ignorance of this 'White Privilege' of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing."  There's been a lot of complaining -- almost all by white people, naturally -- about the term "White Privilege" lately; and also many attempts to educate the complainers.  I think I'd be cautious about using that term myself, not because it's inaccurate but because it is the kind of idea that gets people's backs up, and even if they're wrong, if you want to communicate with them you want to find ways to express what you want them to learn in ways and words they'll be able to hear.  It's going to be hard enough in any case.

Anyway, here's the thing.  White privilege is not something you're "guilty of possessing."  It is assigned to you, and you can't divest yourself of it.  No matter how respectful and humorous you are, no matter how much you oppose racism, you will be perceived and treated as a white person -- accorded white privilege, in other words.  You will not be followed around by store personnel who are convinced that you're a shoplifter, even if you are a shoplifter.  You will not be stopped for Driving While White, Walking While White, even for Carrying a Gun While White.  You're a lot less likely to be gunned down by police while you have your hands in the air.  You will not experience what John Howard Griffin called the hate stare, just for existing.  Barriers that black Americans learn to take for granted will not be there for you.  (It is possible, however, to have your white privilege taken from you, if you become a race traitor effectively enough.  White privilege didn't protect Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo, or numerous others.  But I doubt Jason wants to go that far himself.)

This doesn't mean that white people always have it easy.  Privilege is never absolute.  I had privileges as the oldest child in my family, but that didn't mean I could do whatever I wanted.  My parents were explicit that as the oldest, I had obligations as well as privilege.  Which is why it's absurd when apologists for racism point to the existence of white poverty (or to the existence of black wealth) to refute claims about white privilege.  When someone invokes poor whites in West Virginia, I want to know how poor blacks are doing there.  One symptom of white privilege, indeed, is the conviction that no black person should get a job or be admitted to a historically white college or own a pair of shoes until every white person has been taken care of, first.  Such people see Oprah not just as a disproof of black advantage, but as an insult to poor white people, who presumably would be better off if Oprah hadn't gotten all those Special Rights.

Also closely involved here is "guilt."  I've never felt guilty for being white, or for being male, nor have I ever felt that black people or women were trying to make me feel guilty or wanted me to.  (Which is odd, because personally, I am very susceptible to guilt most of the time.)  Whenever a Privileged One complains about being made or expected to feel guilty, I feel pretty sure they're projecting.  I qualify that because I can't say for certain that guilt hasn't been used at times by some people in this way.  I'm sure that it has not been an important factor in the movements or the discourse.  Besides, feeling guilty, expressing one's guilt, confessing one's guilt to the congregation is often a way to avoid doing anything, either to make reparation for what one did or to change one's behavior in the future.  It turns one's offenses into something that is all about Me Me Me, and distracts attention from the people who've been hurt by those offenses.  This may not be deliberate, but it is damned convenient.

So I have severe doubts about Jason's good intentions in posing his question.  For one thing, how can someone who's been out of school for several years, and who claims to have "numerous Black or mixed-race FB friends," and who further claims to treat everybody with respect, be as ignorant as Jason claims to be about what people of color experience in this country?  Someone's living in a very effective and impermeable bubble.  I'm glad Lori Lakin Hutcherson answered Jason's question, and I'd be very interested in seeing how Jason responded to the answer he got.  In my experience, people who ask such questions rarely stick around to hear the answer, and tend to get all spitty if they do.  From the tone and spirit in which he wrote, I feel pretty sure Jason will find some way not to hear what Lori Lakin Hutcherson tried to tell him.