Personally, I believe that being a white anti-racist or ally is kind of like achieving Nirvana. By which I mean, it's a long road to travel, and most will never completely get there, but we can continue to work towards that goal. Overall it's a journey. Will I ever become the perfect white anti-racist who never screws up or reverts or makes a hasty judgment? Sadly, no.
For example, let's take something I did just the other day. (Hey, if you can't share embarrassing stories in an anonymous blog, when can you share them?)
This was set off, as so many terrible things are, by Facebook. Now, I share my generation's love for Facebook and I thought the Doppelganger meme thing was cute. You remember - change your profile pic to your "celebrity doppelganger" for a week.
And then I saw this post at Racialicious, asking if this meme left out POC or other marginalized groups (fat people, PWD [people with disabilities, for future reference]). In the comments, Just A Thought wrote:
The doppelganger meme leaves out a lot of people of all colors, but leaves out more POC. There are less POC celebrities, so less opportunity for someone to find their “twin.”Yes commented:
As an East Asian American woman, my first thought upon discovering this–I don’t look like Lucy Liu. Well, shit. There’s not much of a range outside of that.
I have dealt with this all my life, but no matter how remarkably different their facial features are [other people of the same race] I am always told I look just like_fill in the blank__and usually the only thing we have in common is medium brown skin tone/and or long hair.And honest to God, my first thought was - stop harshing my buzz, Racialicious! I was just trying to play a stupid Facebook game, not unpack my privilege! The ladies at Disgrasian thought it was ok! Heck, the meme was seemingly created by an Indian. Can I do ANYTHING lighthearted and fun anymore?
My reaction bothered me (obviously, it was a very privileged and asshole-y reaction), and I couldn't put my finger on why exactly (besides the privilege thing, which we've covered), until my class had its Native American sports mascot discussion.
OHHHHHHHH. I've fallen into THAT hole, have I?
Something that always bugs me on social commentary sites is the inevitable commenter who says something like "stop taking everything so seriously, everything isn't about race/class/gender. It's just a movie/commercial/t-shirt/sports game. It's just a joke/accident/misquotation. YOU'RE WRONG."
Everything we produce in our society is, naturally, a product of our societal conceptions of race/class/gender/whatever. So everything is therefore open for critique because everything - literally, everything - is a representation of our society in a nutshell. Without our social context, most media wouldn't make any sense at all.
When my students make this argument, I have a genius response that seems to work every time.
RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.
Are you upset that your mascot is called racist? Well, in a non-racist world, we wouldn't have mascots based on harmful stereotypes. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.
Are you annoyed that someone got offended by a less-than-politically correct joke? Well, in a non-racist world, we wouldn't have racist jokes to offend people. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.
Are you frustrated that you can't just watch Avatar in peace without someone pointing out the White Savior complex inherent in its plot? Well, in a non-racist world, we could have movies with non-white main characters capable of saving their OWN damn planet without worrying about whether white audiences will go to see a movie with a non-white main character. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.
Are you pissed that someone stomped all over your little Facebook game by pointing out the ways in which POC and other marginalized groups don't get to have any fun with it? In an equal world, we would have celebrities of every color, background, size, and ability. See, Lady Instructor? RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.
And it works really well when the subject turns to Affirmative Action.
Are you angry that your obscenely well-qualified wife/cousin/neighbor didn't get a job because "they" "had to" give the job to a less well-qualified (implied, never directly stated) black person?* Well, in a non-racist world that person would have a) had the opportunity to get a better education and would therefore BE just as qualified, and b) we wouldn't have the unfair hiring practices that led to Affirmative Action in the first place. RACISM HURTS EVERYONE.
What my students (and myself) are actually doing is, of course, blaming the victim. Is it the person's fault who got offended over the racist joke that we shouldn't tell racists jokes? No, it's the system that encourages racism. The offended party is the victim here. Is it the black person's fault that Affirmative Action exists? No, he is the victim of the unequal hiring practices. Is it a POC's fault that they can't find a celebrity doppelganger that looks like them? Duh, no. It is, once again, our society's fault.
Now, this response, while it is handy, elides over another very important point.
WHITE PEOPLE BENEFIT FROM RACISM.
While you, the white person, are being mildly aggravated by the fervor over that joke, mascot, movie, or Facebook activity, you may be living in a house that an (equally well-qualified) POC could not get a home loan for, working at a job that rejected the application of an (equally well-qualified) POC for no specific reason that anyone in the hiring committee could put their finger on, and living a life entirely free from fear that police will pull you over and harass you or beat you for no reason at all except the color of your skin. Just to name a few examples.
But as I mentioned in a previous post, many people get uneasy at the idea that they benefit from the system or that the balance has been unfairly tipped in their favor. I saved for that down payment! I went to school for six years for the degree to get that job! I always use my turn signals so the police have no reason to pull me over! And etc.
Both of these statements are true - racism does hurt everybody, and white people do benefit from racism. However, I can only gently suggest the second to many of my students, or their defensiveness will discredit anything else I have to say.
And so I have to hope that by shouting the first statement I will get them to think twice about their victim-blaming annoyance, and by whispering the second, they may finally open their eyes and be angry about the ways in which they have unwittingly assisted in the active oppression of others.
*If this happened even a third as often as some of my students suggest, we wouldn't have a minority unemployment problem.