I’m thinking of submitting this to The Angry Black Woman’s Carnival of Allies, you may want to write your own submission.
Privilege is going to be an important concept to grasp for anyone who’s going to read my blog, and it’s something I’d like to flesh out a definition for, so here we go. I’m going to talk mostly about white privilege with respect to racism against black people, although there are many other types of racism and many other types of privilege. I’m going to ask you to first read this through and just think about it in relation to me and/or in the abstract. Think about whether you think this response is appropriate coming from someone in the group oppressing you, if you feel yourself to be in an oppressed group. Then, unless you’re a completely unprivileged queer atheist disabled fat mentally ill poor undocumented transwoman of color, read it again and apply it to yourself and your type(s) of privilege.
Clearly I think certain groups are oppressed. But the corollary of that claim is that other groups are privileged. For example, if people of color are oppressed, white people are privileged (via ABW). (Let’s be clear that racism didn’t end with slavery and people who have long been dead; this is about us, now.) It’s a lot easier to swallow the first part than the second part if you belong to the privileged group. Pity isn’t too hard of an emotion to work up, but guilt sucks. Not as much as being oppressed sucks, though.
I’m white and I grew up soaked in white privilege. That’s different from growing up soaked in explicit racism. I heard some racism, but it was whispered and usually looked down upon. But I did grow up in a white neighborhood, and I belonged to a white country club, and I went to schools that had some black kids, but not a whole lot, and we tended to stay fairly separate. There was only one black person in the gifted program in my elementary school. At my high school graduation, I saw a lot of black people who I didn’t even recognize. And of course, the mainstream media wasn’t about to fill in the blanks for me on the lives of people of color, except for the cribs of a few rappers.
I believed in equality. But I didn’t really know black people, so I didn’t identify with them. That meant I didn’t need to examine whether or not I really felt that they were just as normal and just as human as me. Racism and other types of oppression can affect you without you even noticing it – for instance, I’m not only racist, I’m also prejudiced against women, despite being pretty much obsessed with feminism. I can’t get some of that subconscious “Men=Normative” to go away. So I’m suspicious of anyone who says they’re totally not racist (or whatever-ist) at all. It’s much more helpful to admit that we are and go from there.
Another result of not really knowing black people and not really living in their world was that I didn’t hear about how racism affected their lives, so I was able to think racism was over just because I didn’t see it. When I did think about people of color, I would more or less extrapolate my experiences to imagine what theirs were like. Since my life was free of the effects of racism and seemed to fit the idea of meritocracy pretty well, I figured theirs was similar.
I didn’t know that even in black families with the same income as my family (which were probably rare because they probably had less chance of getting the education my dad got), black people had less wealth than my family had, and that the difference in wealth was due to the accumulation of racist government policies and white privileges. I didn’t know that the kind of cocaine more commonly used by black people was punished 100 times more harshly than the kind more commonly used by white people. I didn’t know that black women try to change their appearance to look more like white women because they’ve gotten the message that black is ugly. I didn’t know that the reason other races have their own special clubs and magazines and TV shows and so on was because they didn’t feel welcome in ours, and I was completely unaware that my clubs and magazines and TV shows and so on weren’t just general, they were white. I didn’t realize that if I was able to see white as general it was because of racism – because I saw white as the Norm, because I had no trouble momentarily forgetting about the existence of people of color, because I saw people of color as the Special Case, the people that would only be on a TV show if it was expressly trying to prove it wasn’t racist, and that PC stuff is so annoying, isn’t it? (Let it be known that calling something PC does not count as a real argument on this blog. You can say it, but get ready to be criticized.)
Privilege of Better Treatment
Privilege includes a lot of things – it includes how I get messages that my skin color is prettier than others, it includes how people assume I’m well-behaved, it includes how I can call the police and expect them to actually help me (potentially not in the case of rape and DV, but if I’m robbed, you betcha, and even in the cases where they often assume women are lying, they’re a lot less likely to assume I’m lying than to assume that of a woman of color). It includes how I have connections with rich people that can help me get good jobs, it includes how my parents and grandparents have home equity that can give me a head start financially, that black people were systematically excluded from getting.
Privilege to Ignore
But what makes privilege so dangerous is that it includes the luxury to ignore. As Kate Harding said: That’s what privilege is. It’s the option to ignore nasty shit that doesn’t directly affect my own life, my career, my relationships, my bank account, my social standing, my housing situation, etc. I can ignore people of color; they can’t ignore white people. I can ignore racism; they can’t. And when I ignore them and I ignore racism, I make the institution of racism stronger, because I cover for it. I can swear up and down that it’s not there because I don’t see it, then sit on the pile of advantage I have and yell down at black people that they must not be working hard enough. There aren’t a whole lot of people in the US anymore who are willing to openly say they hate people with a certain color of skin, but there are plenty of people who are willing to ignore what happens to people with a certain color of skin, and if there’s no listening to what people of color are saying, no awareness of the long history of institutionalized racism, no acknowledgment that it was more than “hard work” that got white people where they are today, and not even much concern for what it’s like to be a person of color because they’re not your friends or really on your radar, can you really be so surprised that racism is still around?
This is important. It means that although I can ignore racism, I cannot opt out of it altogether. I can feel like it doesn’t have anything to do with me, but I am already part of it. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t burnt any crosses on people’s lawns, I’m still part of it.
Privilege to Ignore + Privilege of Better Treatment = Entitlement.
When I don’t know that the privileges I get, the way people think better of me and treat me better, are in fact based on my skin, I assume that I earned them and that I am entitled to them. Then if someone tries to take them away, I get mad. I think I’m being robbed of rights, being penalized for something I didn’t do, but that’s just because I don’t see that I am doing something – perpetuating racism – and that I’m losing privileges, not rights, and that I have to give up those privileges in order for other people to have their rights.
Now let’s walk through the analysis of guilt together, because this is where people get all freaked out.
There are two kinds of being guilty. There’s being guilty in a court of law, where ignorance of the law is not a defense against being found guilty, where guilty means you committed the crime. That’s guilty, the state. Then there’s guilty in terms of morality, where ignorance is a defense because you’re judged not on what you did but on what you intended, and where things that are out of your control are not held against you. That’s guilty, the emotion.
I only need to feel guilty, the emotion for things I had control over, times when I knew better. In those cases, guilt is a healthy sign that I’m not a psychopath (meant literally) or a hypocrite (believing in human rights only for my group). It should lead me to think and to try to do better. But that’s really my deal. Speaking as a feminist on male privilege for a sec, I frankly do not care how you feel. I care how you act. I don’t want revenge (see my posts on prison), I want results.
So whether or not I’m guilty, the state (actually did something to help racism) matters more. But there’s no need to get all freaked out about how I couldn’t help it and that’s not fair, because it’s not about revenge, it’s not about the kind of guilt that makes you sulk and hate yourself. It’s about taking upon myself the responsibility to improve. It’s an asymptotic kind of motion, I can’t just snap my fingers and be perfect, but I have to keep in mind that it affects other people’s lives whether I get it right or not (whereas my good intentions don’t really help them much). So I have to work on it.
From Negative Motivation (avoiding guilt) to Positive Motivation (creating change)
If I can see past guilt, the emotion and care about guilt, the state, I’m shifting the issue from being my personal problem about clearing my conscience and reputation (because let’s be honest, sometimes it’s less about how I feel so bad and more about how I look bad) to a problem about how other people are suffering. My conscience will always be involved in my personal thoughts about it, but in order to actually be helpful, I need to be motivated by the fact that people are oppressed and that is unacceptable, not by the fact that I don’t want to be criticized or to have to feel uncomfortable. I have to be motivated to move towards change rather than just trying to flee guilt.
Now what I have to do is stay in that I’m-not-the-center-of-the-universe mindset when I mess up and get called out on it, as is inevitable if I’m really trying in the first place (which I haven’t been doing enough, in case you were wondering). When that happens, if I get defensive and forget all about how my privilege means my racism detector is defective and thus I’m not the best judge of this, I’m going back to caring more about my comfort than about justice. Remember: being oppressed hurts more than feeling guilty or being wrong. It may be hard to believe in the moment, but it’s true. So what I have to do in those times is shut up and listen to the people who know racism from the other side. Be warned: just because someone belongs to the group in question doesn’t mean they’re right (see: female anti-feminists). But since I know my racism detector is defective – and only in one way, it only underestimates racism – I know that I should give extra credence to whatever a person of color says about racism being present somewhere that I didn’t see it. It may be wise to just think about it for a while and not say anything at first. Then I’ll probably have questions. Finally, in the vast majority of cases where I will be the one who was mistaken, I should apologize, fix my mistake as well as I can, and move on (via ABW again).
Ok, your turn.
PS: I hope to write a post about anger soon, which is another controversial emotion, like guilt, but on the other side of the oppression. I also have a draft going on how race is fake but racism is real; I know that sounds obvious, but people continue to argue as if it’s not.
PPS: Link to your favorite blogs by women of color in the comments. Clearly I find The Angry Black Woman’s blog pretty useful (and I swear I’m not sucking up by linking to it all the time, it just had related stuff).