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.
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.
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.