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White Privilege

July 20, 2013

At dinner the other night, over some delicious food and perhaps a few drinks, my friend and I were talking about the Zimmerman trial. The conversation (inevitably) went to white privilege and he said

“Let’s just call white privilege what it is: racism.”

I understand intellectually that, on some level, this is obvious. But I had never connected it like that in my mind. I felt like the Earth shifted beneath me and I asked him to clarify and confirm that white privilege is a synonym for racism. I must have looked befuddled, because he gave me a moment to turn it over in my mind before he did.

In the very beginning of my thinking, learning, and talking about white privilege and racism, someone said, “Of course white people in America are racist. It’s in the water. And you can’t blame a fish for being wet.”

The idea of acknowledging my racism and the fact that I am, honestly, racist felt dangerous. It still does. Despite everything we’ve been through, seen, read, witnessed, “racist” is still a nuclear word, reserved for white people who use the n word and wear white sheets. It’s abstract and other. They are not our families, our friends, and certainly not us. Calling someone racist is a sure way to shut down any conversation. Even calling out third parties as racist makes white people twist and flip and adopt a defensive attitude with no empathy or compassion.

Have we couched our internalized, persistent, ever-present, destructive racism in the frame of “white privilege” to make us more comfortable? Ironically, centering the conversation around us (for instance, when someone says “white people always think xyz” we jump up and say “I’m not like that!” making it about us, and not the experience being relayed by a person of color) is central to white privilege. Is framing the discussion about us by calling it white privilege instead of acknowledging we are racist an extension of that?

Sitting with that thought reminded me of an invitation I received a couple of years ago to this:


My instant reaction was of the “what the fuck?!” variety and I still feel that way. And now I think I can really pinpoint why.

to death

July 14, 2012

I’m dozing in bed on a Saturday morning. Like so many previous Saturday mornings, I woke up early – before 7 – and chose to listen to the radio, check email and twitter on my iPad and wait to get drowsy. The first time I remember staying in bed all day (or at least all morning) without being asleep are the days after my mom died. 

My calf is aching. This time it’s the right calf. It started a few days ago and I really hoped I had injured it. I just started taking to cruising down Metro escalators like a pro, like I did before four knee surgeries, many, many infections, and six months of fear of falling because the blood thinners I was on meant that a fall could mean bleeding out or bleeding in. I don’t know which would be worse.

In the days after my fourth surgery, I had a similar feeling in my left calf. It was painful enough that I thought it inhibited my mobility more than the 10inch incision bisecting the flesh over my knee. I got an ultrasound in the middle of the night (they joys of being in the hospital for a long stay – you go when the equipment is available, even if it’s 3am) to confirm what everyone suspected: blood clots in my thigh. A young intern and his teaching doctor from internal medicine had a long talk with me about the possible cause and the risks, as well as the six-month course of medicine in front of me, including shots I woud be taught to give myself. By the time I left the hospital, internal medicine team and the nurses had me pretty convinced I could very well die if I didn’t take the meds. 

Honestly, I vacillated between terrified and ambivalent. I just can’t be terrified all the time (although I gave it a good try), and, at one point, the sunset of orange, blues, and purples across my belly, along with the tenderness and the hard little nodules of tissue the injections left behind made me wonder if a pulmonary embolism would really be worse. Still, I kept track of my blood pressure, went to the clinic weekly, paid attention to my breathing, stayed vigilant about chest pains and tried to trace my mental fuzziness to pain killers and not stroke. 

During this six (or seven, or so) months, I was told so many times how many ways I could die. This infection? The one I cancelled a doctor’s appointment over because I felt too sick to go and thought it was viral and didn’t want to get anyone else sick? The one that elevated my temperature over 103? If I hadn’t gone to the hospital the next day for IV antibiotics, I could have died. In fact, untreated, it kills more than half the people who get it. Sepsis? My original diagnosis? People die from that all the time. And then the great clot threat. 

The night before my first (or was it second?) surgery, I was in the hospital and had convinced myself (in what I thought was a rather matter-of-fact way) that I was going to die from the anesthesia. I felt truly awful for my friends and couldn’t imagine the unspeakable grief of my dad and brother, as my mom had died only months before. I shared this with my friend, Erika, who was kind enough not to tell me I was being utterly ridiculous (which, of course, I was), and who reminded me that there’s no sense in acting as if I know the unknowable and acting as if it’s truth. Worry is most decidedly being in another moment and, therefore, not in this one. She invited me to come back to where I was. 

On June 18th, I got another ultrasound. The technician who performed it (who had worse bedside manner than a box of rocks – at one point I could hear the blood wishing through my veins and it sounded like the typical “that’s that baby’s heartbeat!” moment and I asked if he could tell if it was a boy or a girl and he made no response) told me that he didn’t see any clots. After that, I went to Whole Foods and got a boatload of spinach (leafy greens were limited while I was on blood thinners; they’re coagulants) and some bubble bath to celebrate. My friend, Vanessa, met me outside of Whole Foods and I was jubilent. We recounted all I’d been through and blinked and laughed at the notion that it was finally all over. This stupid, long, death tango was finally over. For a while, anyway. Until the Next Thing, which, god willin’ and the creek don’t rise, is many years off.

I’m lying in bed, almost dozing, acutely aware of this calf pain that is, again, hindering my mobility, weeks after I finally ditched the (motherfucking) cane that was my constant companion. It occurs to me that, given the way I’ve heard pulmonary embolisms work, and all the people I have heard of who just die in their sleep at any old age, every time I doze off could be the last time. 

I told a neighbor – the one who has promised to get me ready for a 5k in november, as soon as I am fully mobile, which my physical therapist says will be in a week – if it was another clot, I was going to throw myself in front of a bus. He grabbed me, suddenly and tightly, hugging me and kissing my cheek, telling me no. I won’t. I will get through it and I will run with him.

Next week, I’ll see about getting another ultrasound, this time of my right side. And I’ll try not to worry myself to death.

Gender Text Field

December 9, 2010

Today, I got an invitation to sign up for a neat new thing called Diaspora. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but that’s beside the point.

The registration process was typical: name, gender, birth date. But when I got to gender, I noticed something completely atypical: the gender field was not a drop down, but a text field. So rather than have to choose from the standard binary male/female, I was able to enter whatever I wanted. (I entered “yes.”) I was delighted.

And then I sort of forgot about it and started checking out Diaspora: their background, the blog, what ever I could find to help understand it. I saw they have a presence on Twitter and started following. This was the most recent tweet:

RT @sarahmei Why Gender is a Text Field on Diaspora:

where the person who developed it that way explains why.

This, in particular, blew me away:

I made this change to Diaspora so that I won’t alienate anyone I love before they finish signing up.

I made this change because gender is a beautiful and multifaceted thing that can’t be contained by a list.

Go tell that.

Please consider this my electronic standing ovation. Thank you, Sarah.

Thank you, Dr. Dorothy Height

April 29, 2010

From her last interview, March 15, 2010.

I think my greatest legacy is that I started out at 14, winning an oratorical contest on the Constitution of the United States. And I took the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and I am still working to see that the 14th Amendment and its promise of equal justice under the law is fulfilled.

I think my greatest legacy is that I’ve tried to stay the course; that I have tried to focus on rights for women, for men, for everybody.

Guest Post: the myth of colorblindness

April 21, 2010

My friend, Alicia, has a blog over at Manifest Freedom. Because I thought it was so on point, I have copied the following from her blog (here), with her permission:

“I don’t see color, I don’t care if you are white, black, or purple with stripes.” oh, good ol’ post racial america. we have a black man in the white house, we are all MLK’s dream realized, right? um…i think you know the answer. there has never been a question more rhetorical. I’ve been having some very interesting conversations about race and color blindness lately. and quite frankly, much of it has me feeling spent and hopeless, wondering when racism will end, because at this rate, talking about it daily is getting exhausting. I mean, sure. I’d love to be in a world where race doesn’t matter, but we don’t live in that world. there have been a few troubling things about these “color-blind” conversations, but in the interest of not writing a dissertation, I will pick my favorite questions. and by favorites, I mean my least favorites.

while, it would be nice to live in a world that didn’t see race, or where race was not a barrier, when I open my eyes in the morning, I am acutely aware that I a person of color. media, and systems have made me the “other” or “exotic, ethnic, spicy and plain ol’ black” and I experience the world in that way– but what about people who genuinely don’t see race as a big deal? or the people who say: “I don’t see color, I don’t care if you are white, black, or purple with stripes”?

well, in addition to being an absurd statement (noting that as far as we know, there are no humans who are purple with stripes) it is dehumanizing. it also minimizes the fact that for some of us, race is an important part of our history, culture, and lived experience. if you don’t see my race, you don’t see me; my history, my culture, and something that has a huge impact on the way I view and experience the world. here’s the thing. you can’t help to end racism if you swear you don’t “see race” or say that “race is no big deal to me” or that “race doesn’t matter.” it’s a big deal to me. denial of racial difference does not make racism go away. just like in AA, in order to change something- you have to admit that there’s a problem.

ok then. what about those who say “well if you keep talking about race, it will keep being a big deal. it’s the people who always bring it up that are the real racists”?

two comments on this point. 1. often (but not always, as I have learned more than once this week) the people who propose colorblindness are white folks. why is that? in my opinion, colorblindness gives a perceived (but impossibly false) sense of a clean slate. however, what it does not give is accountability. if people of color are saying, “hey, this is a big deal to us” and white folks continue to deny that any socio-economic or educational differences exist based on race, people of color are continuing to be silenced. when women say to men “we want our rights, and sure, we can vote, but rape is still happening, so the work isn’t done yet” most would not accuse women of sexism. stating reality, and lived experiences should never be discredited. ignoring race is racist. 2. “real racists” is a misnomer, i believe. here’s the thing about racism (classism, sexism, and heterosexism). besides all being quite interconnected, one does not cancel out the others. if i am a white, gay man, i can still be incredibly sexist and racist. being gay doesn’t give me a “pass” on using my white, male privilege. similarly, if i am a black straight man, I could very well be homophobic and sexist, while still experiencing racism. i know this seems pretty confusing. we all have multiple identities. some of which give us social and institutional power and advantage, some that do not. we are complex people, living in a complex construct of oppression. the other thing about racism (classism, sexism, etc) is that there is no inverse or reverse. there is no “reverse oppression.” oppression, by it’s very nature, is created by one group, and experienced by another. therefore, men and women cannot both oppress based on gender. i have heard many different theories on racism (and oppression in general, but especially race), including the belief that “anyone could be racist” and “we are all a little racist.” i have a different perspective.

prejudice (unreasonable, or unfounded bias against a group)+ power (institutions, laws, socio-political status quo)= oppression.

therefore, even if i have a prejudice against a person, or group, based on a physical, or spiritual difference, without power, i am not oppressive. for example: i could hate every man in the world. (i don’t) and obviously prejudice is bad, damaging, unhelpful, and on a very interpersonal level, is very hurtful, that is not the same as systems of oppression. my general disdain for men will do nothing to keep them out of militaries, government services, keep them from being the ruling majority and decision makers for everything from reproductive justice issues to domestic violence laws. it will do nothing to curb incidents of rape, it will not undo laws that keep women making 80 cents to every male dollar and will not change society’s ideas about a woman’s place vis a vis men. similarly, as a woman of color, i simply do not have the laws, government control, the current or historical power to influence white folks lives, histories, educations or pockets. as a queer person, i could hate every straight person in the world. but am i oppressing them? my [inter-personal] hatred may make one straight person cry, which of course, would be very sad. but my hatred will not take away their ability to marry (over and over again) or be with their partners in the hospital, or get tax credits because of marriage status. oppression is not interpersonal.

there are those that will say, “well, i’m not racist, i’m a first generation polish immigrant, and i had nothing to do with anybody’s slave trade” or “hey, that was my great-great grandparents. they weren’t bad people, and they were just doing what was normal for the time. and besides, i wasn’t there.” no. no you weren’t there. neither was i. yet, what you receive now, based on that slavery my ancestors endured is great. white folks are still receiving benefits based on 400 years of slavery. and people of color, are still experiencing disproportionate amounts of unemployment, unequal housing, unequal education. indigenous people are still living on reservations- so, while neither of us were there, we cannot dismiss that things that happened a year ago, still affect our lives today. white folks get to write our history books. white folks are primarily the ones making major decisions about brown folks’ education. the fact is, you didn’t have to be a slave-owner to benefit from institutions of slavery and racism. you still get white privilege today. right now. it doesn’t matter if you a KKK member or a white liberal gay woman. you still get white privilege. you can’t give it back. but it’s not hopeless. what you can do is be actively anti-racist. by being a good ally.

ok. so what does this have to do with being colorblind? well, white folks have created whiteness as a standard. i am non-white. simple, right? white folks are never “non-people of color.” this is because whiteness is the standard by which all other races are judged and compared. therefore, in an ideal world, sure, it would be nice if whiteness was not the standard, but the fact is, i do have a visible difference based on race. so, to suggest that those differences do not exist is false. it minimizes and silences. color-blindness is in fact white-washing our diversity. because when white folks don’t see color, i think, what they are actually saying is “i want to see everyone exactly like me, because my way is right.” colorblindness wipes away any larger, governmental accountability about inequities in policies, and allows the government to place blame on individuals, to re-write our histories, and make the past seem irrelevant to the present. for example: “there is a black man in the white house now. the rest of these blacks are uneducated because they are just good for nothing” vs. “ok. there is ONE black man out of many presidents who is the exception, not the rule. and black folks were not allowed to read in the usa for 400 years in an effort to keep them uneducated, and then when the government finally gave them the “right” to read, black children had inaccurate text books, and sometimes none at all. black and brown children are disproportionately not provided with the same educational tools as their white counterparts.” see the difference?

and besides. what’s wrong with being “different?” what would happen if we could acknowledge our differences, and notice it, and talk it about it, and still be loving, and treat people with respect, taking into account our various needs and experiences? my hope is that world. that world where we are finally equalized- not through dismissing, white-washing or downplaying our differences, not through erasing painful histories, and not through guilt. but through accountability, owning up, speaking our truths and being heard. and then real healing and reconciliation can occur.

have you had conversations about colorblindness? what were they like?

Institutions and Racism: What’s Wrong with this Picture, Part 2

February 27, 2010
10 On-air personalities of MSNBC, all white

Meet the Faces of MSNBC

Ten prominent faces of MSNBC, their on-air personalities from morning ’til night, and not a single person of color. Certainly, they were not all hired by one single racist person acting with strict intent to keep their public face white. More likely, it’s institutionalized racism. The only other possibilities I can think of are coincidence or a dearth of talent and ability among people of color, and neither is plausible.

Quoting Melissa Harris Lacewell in The Nation:

Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story.

As my friend UrbanBohemian pointed out, MSNBC may have even outdone Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair cover showing "young Hollywood." Nine women, all white.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

February 15, 2010

Vanity Fair "New Hollywood 2010" cover

Vanity Fair wants us to know that young Hollywood is white and skinny, cisgendered, and hyper feminine. I’m certain they didn’t think about it in those terms when they put the cover together and that most of those things don’t even come to mind when most people look at it. In fact, when the sheer whiteness of the cover is pointed out, a lot of white people seem to lose their shit, totally missing the point by bemoaning the lack of white people in Ebony magazine and the like. One reason media, groups, and organizations exist specifically for people of color (and other oppressed minorities) is because they are so underrepresented in the “mainstream.” Another is to have space where the day-to-day weight of oppression and isms can be lifted, if only a little and only for a while.

I’m glad to see there’s a lot of chatter around the sheer whiteness of this Vanity Fair cover, even if it does bring out the bizarre notion that, somehow, post-racial America means “they have their magazines and we have ours” (and I wonder what Vanity Fair would think about being perceived as a “white” magazine). But the whiteness is just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s some chatter, too, about the size of the women on the cover. Whether through the magic of airbrushing, diet and exercise, or nature, the women all seem very, very thin. It’s too easy to be snarky and lob thinly veiled accusations about eating disorders and the like. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. The disturbing there here, again, is that only one type is represented and it is the type upheld as the ideal. Exclusion is part of oppression, and not seeing it is part of privilege.

What I haven’t heard or seen anyone discuss is the unabashed heteronormativity. They all seem hyperfeminine. From the way they’re dressed to the way they’re holding their bodies, there is no question that each and every one of them is a woman. With the exception of one, or maybe two, can you imagine a man sitting like that? Each one of these people probably presents as female in their daily lives – in fact, counts on their femininity for their profession. Anything less would make us squirm and wrinkle our noses. KD Lang wore a suit and (apparently) no makeup when she sang Hallelujah at the opening ceremonies for the winter Olympics in Vancouver this past Friday night, and the Twitterverse was alight with people commenting on her lack of femininity and saying they didn’t know who she was at first because they thought the singer was a man. Short hair, slacks, square shoulders and an unadorned face on a woman skirts (as it were) the edge of transgender, but it’s enough to make us scratch our heads. Imagine if Bryan Adams came out in a dress, heels, and make up? We would question his sexuality and his sanity. And very few among us would see anything wrong with that.

So, what’s wrong with Vanity Fair’s picture of young Hollywood? It aggressively, unabashedly, (perhaps unconsciously) and without apology reinforces race, body, and gender norms, asserting and supporting oppression and privilege by means of total exclusion.