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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

July 20th, 2006 (12:25 pm)

current mood: pensive

It’s Blog Against Racism Week. I keep wanting to write a long entry about racism. I keep on getting hung up.

But I’ve been reading lots of really, really trainwrecky threads that have arisen this week. Threads that come up when someone makes a post to say “Hey, guys, have you ever considered [this] about racism and white privilege?” and the response is immediate and almost derangedly angry. [Note: I am not calling out anyone on my flist - the worst of this has happened off my flist entirely.] “NO I HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT THAT AND I WON’T BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE WHITE PRIVILEGE! I’M POOR AND I’M A WOMAN AND THOSE ARE NOT PRIVILEGED THINGS AND YOU’RE BEING RIDICULOUS BECAUSE THE WAY THIS SOCIETY IS IS JUST THE WAY THIS SOCIETY IS AND ANYWAY I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING SO JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!”

I mean, people get really heated.

And I just have this to say. “White privilege”, as a concept, is not limited to any one person, and a person’s possession of it is not an indictment of that person’s character. We live in a patriarchal society in which institutional racism has been the norm since its conception. Let me emphasize that. Institutional racism has been the norm in this society since its conception. It’s not the same as individual racism, and it’s something that started long before we were born.

But just because it started before we were born, we are not excused from the need to examine it. With an open mind. Thoughtfully. Not defensively.

It’s the defensive aspect that shuts down almost all discussions on this subject, or turns them into trainwrecks. People hear “white privilege” or “institutional racism” and they think “ZOMG THIS PERSON JUST CALLED ME A RACIST.” And, I mean, in that one word, there is a *lot* of negative baggage. Calling someone a racist, in a lot of people’s minds, is to put that person in the same category as the people who owned slaves, lynched blacks, and endorsed the construction of “separate but equal” laws and facilities. People get really pissed when they think they’re being told that they’re bad people in the same way that slave owners were bad people. And they get defensive, and they get angry, and that angry defensiveness completely shuts down all further discourse.

And people who don’t have that anger are accused of having “white guilt”. And you know what? It does feel guilty. It feels guilty to be a part of a race that has the kind of disgraceful history with respect to race relations that the whites here in America do. We get freaked out. We don’t want to acknowledge that not only is that part of our history, it’s part of our present. Slavery is gone, and we have taken a lot of steps forward; and we want so desperately to believe that the steps we’ve taken have been enough. It’s all right now, everything is equal, we can just forget about it. We’re not racist. We know who the racists are these days – they’re the people like the ones in the movie Crash, the ones who call black people n----rs and Thai people Chinamen and assume that any black with a job got there via affirmative action and that a Latino guy with tattoos got those tattoos in prison. But those people aren’t us – we would never call a black person a “n----r”!

Being a good person and being a person who benefits from institutional racism in ways s/he is unaware of are not mutually exclusive circumstances. In fact, most good people, if they are white, are also people who benefit from institutional racism in ways they are not aware of. What’s more, their benefiting is not a character flaw, and their unawareness is often due to lack of exposure to adequate information and knowledge.

But when someone tries to impart that knowledge, the defensiveness often rises up to crush the discussion; and at that point a line has been crossed, and a person who was innocently unaware becomes a person who is *deliberately* unaware. That still doesn’t make him or her a bad person. But it’s not an okay thing to do, either.

It being Blog Against Racism Week, these discussions are going to keep coming up. My request, a request I’m making of anyone who reads this entry, is this:

The next time a discussion on racism comes up, on LJ or anywhere else, think carefully about what you are saying and what the other person is saying. Try to remember that if you are white, the power structure in this country is in your favor. That’s not to say that if you are a woman there isn’t a different power structure working against you – there is – or that if you’re poor, that’s canceled out by the fact that you’re white – it’s not. All of these are different issues, and yes, the power structures in this country are weighted against women and poor people as well as against people of color. But they don’t negate the issue of race.

The next time a discussion comes up and you want to get defensive, don’t.

Remember that if someone is angry at you personally for being white, that anger is debatably understandable but unquestionably misdirected. (It’s also something that is often misinterpreted; people often hear anger where there is no anger, or they simplify the reasons for that anger and set up a straw man without realizing it.) It’s not your fault that you are white. It’s not your fault that you have privilege.

It IS your fault if you take that privilege and manipulate it. It is your fault if you shut down all discourse on the subject because it makes you feel guilty and scared and angry.

Just listen. Even if you think what someone is saying is wrong, listen to them. Listen and try not to get angry. Listen and try not to take it personally.

Listen. Think.

I’m not trying to say “all the whites reading this need to realize RIGHT NOW that they have privilege and it consists of exactly what I say it consists of and they need to acknowledge it and be clear on that from this moment on!” That sort of talk accomplishes precisely nothing. I can’t make you realize anything. No one can make you realize anything. I have my beliefs, and other people have theirs, and that’s the way the world goes. But it frustrates me when I see so much anger and defensiveness around this subject that people stop thinking deeply.

Think for yourself. Don’t let me, or anyone, tell you what the truth is; don’t accept it unquestioningly because someone else said it.

But listen. Listen to what people have to say. Think about it. Set everything else aside, all the baggage you’ve carried for all these years, and look at it from a different angle.

Listen. Think.

That’s the best start anyone can possibly make.

A note: I have a lot of work to do today and will not be answering comments very quickly or frequently. Please don't think that if I don't respond to your comment, I am uninterested in having a discussion. I'm sure I've said a million things in this entry that are debatable or problematic or just plain wrong, and if you call me out on one of those and I don't respond, it's not because I'm not considering your response, it's because I have work and may not be able to get to your comments until this evening. I will get to comments as soon as I can, because I'm really interested in discussing this.


Posted by: Oriana (fairoriana)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)

I think that white priviledge is easier to spot when you're not in your own place where you're used to how things work.

For example, I spent 10 weeks in Mozambique, on the East coast of Africa. The one thing I had known about MZ before going there was that it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Anyway, the passport of my skin was tremendously apparent while I was there. I could be wearing normal regular street clothes and walk into a three star hotel. Why? Because I was white. The streets outside were crammed with dark people who would've loved to come into the air conditioned foyer. The men in uniforms at the door who stood as though part of the decoration for me would've tossed a similarly dressed African out in a second.

The malls in South Africa were the same way. There were white people and well dressed black people. Either you had to have the skin or you had to prove the money.

My skin color walked before me like a herald, announcing that I was set apart. This was both dangerous -- it made me more of a target -- and protective (the police would most definitely have investigated if something bad happened to me. Could the same be said if I had been a citizen of Mozambique? Most likely not.)

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 04:45 pm (UTC)

You certainly can send her a link. Maybe this evening would be better, though? Is that all right?

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 04:46 pm (UTC)

Dude, I own my privilege.

OK, not really.

Posted by: Truculent Charmer (bias_cut)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 04:52 pm (UTC)

There was this lovely guide someone linked me to that detailed ways that well-meaning White folks can learn to deal with accusations of racism without immediately freaking out, but I can't find it amongst the wreckage. I'll keep looking.

Posted by: rainswolf (rainswolf)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 05:56 pm (UTC)

i would like a copy if you can find it.

Posted by: Truculent Charmer (bias_cut)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 06:01 pm (UTC)
don't fuck with queen bee

I couldn't find it no matter how hard I Googled! I'll keep looking.

Posted by: Truculent Charmer (bias_cut)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 09:24 pm (UTC)

Found it!

Damn, that took awhile.

Posted by: The Doctor (pisica)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 05:21 pm (UTC)
emotion !!!

Can I just say that for some reason I thought this was written by someone else on my flist (the icon must have reminded me of someone else's) and then when I got to the end I was thinking, ya know, this REALLY sounds like a slammerkinbabe entry. (Okay, partly because it was long.) But you have a style all of your own!

Posted by: An Unreliable Narrator (thewriteratwork)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 05:52 pm (UTC)

V good entry. Crazy at work, so can't comment more, but wanted to cheer you on.

Posted by: rainswolf (rainswolf)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 05:55 pm (UTC)

My thoughts on racism (and white or middle class people in particular):

People's investment in not being racist can be very dangerous. I think most people have this "I am not [a] racist" identity and due to that investment/identity they avoid thinking or talking about race. On the other hand, an "everyone is racist" attitude can also be dismissive.

I think issues related to race/racism in our society are extremely complex and perhaps require many years to really understand. I like to think of it as a journey of perpetual education rather than there being some ultimate "not-racist" point that could be reached.

The defensive thing is quite true, though I am training myself to do it less. I'm on the "ap_racism" message board and often my initial reaction to posts is to somehow be defensive so I try to be aware of and self-critique that defensiveness.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 06:34 pm (UTC)

Your last paragraph opens up a lot of issues that I don't have answers to, but that I find interesting and troubling. Thank you for that.

That girl in the first paragraph sounds like a horror show. I... yuck. I've actually seen tally boards like the one you describe - they're very interesting. I wish I could find one again; I'd like to look at it with fresh eyes.

Link all you want, and thanks. :)

Posted by: Ginger Honey (sweetgingertea)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 08:00 pm (UTC)

I agree with you. White people do benefit in ways they don't often know from Institutionalized racism.

Posted by: Katherine (septicemic)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 08:24 pm (UTC)

What I like most about this essay is that so much of it still works when "white" is replaced with "male" and "racism" is replaced with "sexism".

I've believed for some time that white people can never fully understand white privilege, just as the members of any privileged class can never fully understand the ramifications of their privilege, but that doesn't mean everyone's not obligated to try.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)

Very true, and an excellent point.

Posted by: ems (ems)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 08:42 pm (UTC)

I've read about a gazillion of these entries today, and this was the best. I find white people writing about racism and how it effects POC really quite distasteful, most of the time, but you managed to write about your own experiences without being preachy or self-righteous. Thank you.

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 08:45 pm (UTC)
Little Fairy

You know, my friend John and I were talking about this very issue last week when he was in town, in the context of our teacher training (we were both trained via the same method; it was one of those "get-certified-in-a-summer-teach-by-the-fall" programs geared toward providing warm bodies in high-need areas). The training program was very much focused on indoctrination of the appropriate philosophies and really minimized actual teaching skill and practice. But I digress.

One of the problems I had with the program was how it confused white privilege, which is a real and unfortunate part of our society, and something all whites have to one degree or another, with white racism-- the program materials and lectures all started from the vantage point that all whites were inherently racist. My friend and I both had serious problems with this view, obviously.

But white privilege is a huge problem, and the failure of some groups to realize this is also a huge problem. John was saying how in one of his graduate classes, the issue came up of underprivileged whites not recognizing their own privilege. But it's not simply a case of "I'm poor, so I can't have white privilege," or "I'm a woman, so I can't have white privilege"......or any other repressed group (gay, Jewish, wiccan, what have you). If a nonwhite in your exact same circumstances would be worse off than you, then you have white privilege, plain and simple. And I think in most instances this is the case. I know for sure that in my situation, white privilege exists. I know because my students will often let racist remarks slip by-- which means that if I were black, Asian, Latino, whatever, they'd think less of me. I know because I know the parents in the communities I serve. I know because I know how I'm treated in restaurants, and I see how nonwhites are treated. Even well-meaning white liberals, of which I am one, often treat people who are visibly members of a minority group differently, even if it's differently in a nice way.

Wow, I just deleted about three long rambling illustrative examples, when I realized I was rambling. But the main point is, 1) I agree with you, 2) I think that the defensiveness is most common in people who don't really understand what privilege and guilt entail, and 3) we won't make much progress on race relations until we acknowledge the privilege, guilt and denial.

Posted by: Ches (whitmanschild)
Posted at: July 21st, 2006 03:45 am (UTC)
Thumbs Up Kuma

If a nonwhite in your exact same circumstances would be worse off than you, then you have white privilege, plain and simple.

*DINGDING!* You win the prize for today. This is a clear, succinct and easily understandable phrasing for presenting the concept of "white privilege" to potentially defensive clueless types, as something different from "white racism." It's not about blame or value-assignment--it's about recognizing institutionalized disparity in people's situations based on things outside of their control. It also removes the need for "white guilt" and replaces it with basic human identification and sympathy.

Nicely done.

Posted by: Tasha Rebekah Martin (lietya)
Posted at: July 20th, 2006 09:34 pm (UTC)

I just wanted to say that this was beautiful and illuminating, as always. (I realized I hadn't actually *said* it! Whoops.)

Posted by: el grande queso (thehandmaid)
Posted at: July 21st, 2006 01:50 am (UTC)

i took an awesome class called critical theories on race last spring. it was amazing. we got into really cool discussions, and our professor was (is, really) brilliant. we talked a lot about institutional racism, as well. i learned a lot in that class - i think everyone benefitted from it in some way or another. more people need to take classes like that, classes that flush out the ACTUAL issues, instead of focusing on slavery and how we've done so much since then and blah, blah. it's not wrong to acknowledge the steps we still have to take.

Posted by: Jonquil Serpyllum (jonquil)
Posted at: July 21st, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC)

But when someone tries to impart that knowledge, the defensiveness often rises up to crush the discussion;

Yes. I was astonished at how the fear and defensiveness rose up -- in my own as well as others' postings.

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