Monday, April 5, 2010

How I Got Here

As part of a meditation on being white, white guilt, white pride (or the absence thereof), and the practice of being an ally, I decided to write a little about the path by which I arrived at this point in my education and anti-racism. I intend to write more about the general experience of being white and white guilt at a later date, but for now I'd like to indulge in some navel gazing.

I was inspired by this post by the totally awesome and hilarious feminist blogger Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown, particularly this part:

A particularly irritating brand of privileged semi-feminism...[comprises] a certain variety of white, ... fairly well-to-do heterosexual cisgendered woman, a woman with a comfortable white-collar job that is so very comfortable and so very white-collar that she is free to spend her spare time yearning for, and semi-believing that she could attain, something with more “meaning.” This woman doesn’t do ... posts about sex workers’ rights, but she does do complaining about “raunch culture”; she doesn’t do anti-racism, disability activism, or trans ally work to any huge extent, but she does do “body image” (and oh, does she ever do body image, without taking much note of the fact that as a white, abled, cis person she conforms to the “beauty standard,” and benefits from conforming to it, in more ways than she will ever let on).

And yes, I butchered it. Go read the original. It's about Liz Lemon. Anyway, Doyle's point is that this type of feminist is inadequate because she doesn't 1) admit her own (vast) privilege and 2) include POC (people of color) in her feminism. She focuses on what oppresses her (body image) without acknowledging where she is the oppressor (white-centric standards of beauty, etc).

Doyle also explains how she has used the experience of her own oppression as a woman as a gateway to step into a larger community where she can explore and educate herself about other areas of oppression that she does not have experience in.

This is almost exactly where I find myself coming from. I clearly remember at some point in college realizing that we do not live in anything approaching a "Post-Race" society, and that to claim so was incredibly ignorant. I remember having thoughts like, "Wait, we're still screwing over the Indians?" I remember realizing that just as every woman has a few stories about sexism that has happened to her, so too does every POC have a few stories of racism that has happened to them. This floored me.

POC, I can hear your knowing, bitter laughter from here.

In the same way that we now claim to not see race, the dominant culture pushes the idea that there is no longer any such thing as racism - or that the racism that exists is aberrant and extreme (like a KKK member). It can be a difficult journey for a sheltered little white girl to come to grips with the idea of institutional racism, nevertheless the idea that she benefits from this system.

I reacted to this news the way that many of my students do - I was defensive. B-b-but, I've never done anything to capitalize on my privilege, right? I didn't create this system, it wasn't my fault, I am not a bad person and I never asked for this...

Let's take a second to tally my identities into two columns - area of privilege vs. area of oppression.

  • White
  • In a heterosexual relationship
  • Conventionally attractive (or at any rate, not entirely hideous)
  • Cis-gendered
  • Average body size
  • Able-bodied
  • Middle class

And I've probably missed a few.

  • Female

Sexism is nothing to sneeze at, but clearly the balance is weighted in my favor.

Yet, despite this fact, when I first began to explore issues of privilege, I wasn't ready to explore the ways in which I benefited in this system. I was more comfortable getting angry and exploring a system in which I did not benefit. And I think that's ok. Because I had had the experience of sexism I could relate to at first low-level feminist complaint (a girl in a short skirt is not asking to be raped) and I could gradually work into more complex ideas (our culture supports and makes light of rape and sexual assault in numerous common ways).

But still I shied away from or skimmed thoughts on how sexism interacts with other "isms", particularly racism. I had begun to read activist blogs and although I occasionally read something in Racialicious or Stuff White People Do, these ideas still confronted and scared me.

For the first time I was confronted with an environment that was not for me. I had sort of encountered this before with traditionally male-dominated environments, but our culture rewards women who can be "one of the guys" (which remaining feminine, of course), and I had always been fairly fearless at walking that line. I certainly wasn't afraid of male-oriented environments (naively perhaps), and was powered by a feminist "anything you can do I can do better" attitude.

In environments like Stuff White People Do, I realized that my participation wasn't required and wasn't welcome (at least, wasn't welcome in my current deluded mindset that had no appreciation for race theory or an understanding of racial inequality in our society). I was used to putting in my two cents, but here I felt - silenced, I guess. It was my first clue at how many POC feel all the time. If I wasn't too self-absorbed to realize that, anyway.

At first I couldn't handle that and I fell back on many of the same arguments that my students make with me now. These people are over-reacting, I would think. It can't all be about race - can it?

Then I crossed my own personal Rubicon. I began paying more attention to what I was watching on TV - specifically, the commercials. Who was in them? What races were represented and how? Who had speaking lines? Who was in the front, and who was in the back? Who was stereotyped? What actions were individuals performing, what attitudes did they represent, what were they wearing? This was revolutionary.

Holy crap! White people everywhere! POC confined to the margins, the token "friend" or "Magic Negro", representing exoticism and stereotypical conceptions of tribalism. How had I never noticed this before?

With this wedging open the door, I was able to return to the blogs and writings that challenged me before, and realized that I didn't need to comment here, all I had to do was listen and learn. I didn't need to express my ignorant opinions, but rather to just shut up and let others school me on a wide variety of subjects.

After months of listening and delving deeper into race theory, I gingerly submitted my first comment, and I still comment very rarely. That environment - and ones where activists discuss other "isms" is still a place where it is best for me to shut up and pay attention.

And then I was offered the opportunity to teach a class on Multiculturalism, realizing every day with my students' questions how much I still need to learn. But now that the gate is open, I'm no longer afraid of confronting my own privilege.

And that's how I got here. Does this mesh with your personal experiences or those you have seen friends taking? Or, perhaps, your understanding of your own privilege, wherever it might spring from? Why is it so difficult for us to accept this idea? And can we do anything to help others discover their privilege, or is this something that we must let them find for themselves - while accepting that they may never make that discovery?

1 comment:

  1. I've been meaning to comment on this for a while, but I haven't gotten around to it til now.

    Anyway, first, I HATE the term People of Color. It irritates me, and I think it's a) divisive, and b)lumps everyone that is non-white, as if they are simply homogenous.

    In my experience, part of my reason for that irritation is because I've known some very privileged Indian kids, who, being non-white, have taken up this...identification? (not sure if that's the right word), with minorities that have suffered far more oppression, and sometimes carry on as though they are horribly downtrodden and discriminated against. In particular, I remember someone I knew who was, to my knowledge (at least in terms of wear he grew up, and the sort of education received) was very privileged, taking a rather extreme position in terms blaming whites for discrimination and oppression that, quite honestly, I doubt he's ever really experienced. And in one of his "racial consciousness-raising parties", a friend of mine (also Indian) made the huge faux pas of bringing some white friends, who were very expressly made to feel unwelcome and unwanted. And I fear that when we try to divide people up into "POC" vs. white, it sometimes encourages that sort of mindset.

    In my experience I have had a few experiences of racism. For the most part though, they've been few and far-between, and haven't affected me that much. But my experiences of sexism (not in the form of discrimination, but more in the forms of harassment) FAR outnumber those. So I would definitely say that some of the negative experiences of being female have affected me way more than any negative experiences in being brown/Indian.

    In fact, being brown has been an advantage to me, as both of the phd fellowships I was offered (at two different schools) were, in part because I'm consider a minority (for some reasons, those fellowships were also open to over-represented minorities). And, quite honestly, I do feel a bit of guilt about this, because while I do think that academically, I earned and deserved it, I come from a much more financially privileged than most of the white graduate students I know. And while, on one hand, I feel my accomplishments helped me earn that funding, my dad's financial help as I spent two years doing various internships and field positions before grad school, and his assistance in affording the ability to travel to different conferences to present my research and network, have played a HUGE role in those accomplishments. While I now get research and conference funding (mostly) from grants now, my ability to get that sort of funding is a result of all those previous opportunities. Could I have been where I am now without those opportunities? I really don't think i could have.

    So anyway, my point is, I don't think it make sense to lump people into "white" vs "non-white"/"privileged" vs "oppressed" dichotomies. As you brought up in your tally of privileged vs. non-privileged statuses, you bring up some of the complexities involved, but honestly, I think we need to recognize that SES, sex, gender/sexuality, religion, disability, obesity, etc. all play a role in shaping experiences of privilege and discrimination, and these can intersect in different ways.