Archive for the ‘White Privilege’ Category

GOP and racist messaging: permission and patriarchy

April 28, 2014

Paul Ryan:

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”

 

Cliven Bundy: 

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

 

I think what Paul Ryan said makes people like Cliven Bundy feel free to express similar statements, albeit less … coded.

And then there’s this from Donald Sterling, which speaks to the heart of what each man above expresses:

“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses,” Sterling rails. “Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have — who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?”

 

This is the intersection of racism and patriarchy, where white dudes feel the need to speak out as caretakers of Black people. This is concern trolling for financial, political, and personal gain. 

 

 

The Myth of White Privilege

July 23, 2010

Because of what Jim Webb has gone and said, (although, please notice he doesn’t actually talk about white privilege so much as the woes of the white man) I wanted to post a couple of reminders – specific and general – about White Privilege.

First, from Tim Wise, Imagine: Protest, Insurgency and the Workings of White Privilege:

Let’s play a game, shall we? The name of the game is called “Imagine.” The way it’s played is simple: we’ll envision recent happenings in the news, but then change them up a bit. Instead of envisioning white people as the main actors in the scenes we’ll conjure–the ones who are driving the action–we’ll envision black folks or other people of color instead. The object of the game is to imagine the public reaction to the events or incidents, if the main actors were of color, rather than white. Whoever gains the most insight into the workings of race in America, at the end of the game, wins.

So let’s begin.

Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters–the black protesters–spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government. Would these protesters–these black protesters with guns–be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose.

Imagine that white members of Congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry, screaming, black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of those congressmen for not voting the way the black demonstrators desired. Would the protesters be seen as merely patriotic Americans voicing their opinions, or as an angry, potentially violent, and even insurrectionary mob? After all, this is what white Tea Party protesters did recently in Washington.

Imagine that a black rap artist were to say, in reference to a white politician and presidential candidate: “He’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.” And what would happen to any prominent liberal commentator who then, when asked about that statement, replied that the rapper was a friend and that he (the commentator) would not disavow or even criticize him for his remarks. Because that’s what rocker Ted Nugent said in 2007about Barack Obama, and that’s how Sean Hannity responded to Nugent’s remarkswhen he was asked about them.

Imagine that a prominent mainstream black political commentator had long employed an overt bigot as Executive Director of his organization, and that this bigot regularly participated in black separatist conferences, and once assaulted a white person while calling them by a racial slur. When that prominent black commentator and his sister–who also works for the organization–defended the bigot as a good guy who was misunderstood and “going through a tough time in his life” would anyone accept their excuse-making? Would that commentator still have a place on a mainstream network? Because that’s what happened in the real world, when Pat Buchanan employed as Executive Director of his group, America’s Cause, a blatant racist who did all these things, or at least their white equivalents: attending white separatist conferences and attacking a black woman while calling her the n-word.

Imagine that a black radio host were to suggestthat the only way to get promoted in the administration of a white president is by “hating black people,” or that a prominent white person had only endorsed a white presidential candidate as an act of racial bonding,or blamed a white president for a fight on a school busin which a black kid was jumped by two white kids, or said that he wouldn’t want to kill all conservatives, but rather, would like to leave just enough–“living fossils” as he called them–“so we will never forget what these people stood for.” After all, these are things that Rush Limbaugh has said, about Barack Obama’s administration, Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, a fight on a school bus in Belleville, Illinois in which two black kids beat up a white kid, and about liberals, generally.*

Imagine that a black pastor, formerly a member of the U.S. military, were to declare, as part of his opposition to a white president’s policies, that he was ready to “suit up, get my gun, go to Washington, and do what they trained me to do.” This is, after all, what Pastor Stan Craig said recentlyat a Tea Party rally in Greenville, South Carolina.

Imagine a black radio talk show host gleefully predicting a revolution by people of color if the government continues to be dominated by the rich white men who have been “destroying” the country, or if said radio personality were to call Christians or Jews non-humans, or say that when it came to conservatives, the best solution would be to “hang ‘em high.” And what would happen to any congressional representative who praised that commentator for “speaking common sense” and likened his hate talk to “American values?” After all, those are among the things said by radio host and best-selling author Michael Savage,predicting white revolution in the face of multiculturalism, or said by Savage about Arab Muslims and liberals,respectively. And it was Congressman Culbertson,from Texas, who praised Savage in that way, despite his hateful rhetoric.

Imagine a black political commentator suggesting that the only thing the guy who flew his plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building did wrong was not blowing up Fox News instead. This is, after all, what Anne Coulter said about Tim McVeigh,when she noted that his only mistake was not blowing up The New York Times.

Imagine that a popular black liberal website posted comments about the daughter of a white president, calling her “typical redneck trash,” or a “whore” whose mother entertains her by “making monkey sounds.” After all that’s comparable to what conservatives posted about Malia Obama on freerepublic.com last year, when they referred to her as “ghetto trash.”

Imagine that black protesters at a large political rally were walking around with signs calling for the lynching of their congressional enemies. Because that’s what white conservatives did last year, in reference to Democratic party leaders in Congress.

In other words, imagine that even one-third of the anger and vitriol currently being hurled at President Obama, by folks who are almost exclusively white, were being aimed, instead, at a white president, by people of color. How many whites viewing the anger, the hatred, the contempt for that white president would then wax eloquent about free speech, and the glories of democracy? And how many would be calling for further crackdowns on thuggish behavior, and investigations into the radical agendas of those same people of color?

To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark “other” does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic. Which is why Rush Limbaugh could say, this past week,that the Tea Parties are the first time since the Civil War that ordinary, common Americans stood up for their rights: a statement that erases the normalcy and “American-ness” of blacks in the civil rights struggle, not to mention women in the fight for suffrage and equality, working people in the fight for better working conditions, and LGBT folks as they struggle to be treated as full and equal human beings.

And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis.

Game Over.
__________________

And, of course, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (pdf):

I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group

Through work to bring materials from women’s studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.

Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that, since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there are most likely a phenomenon of while privilege that was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see on of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.

Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”

After I realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious. Then I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive. I began to understand why we are justly seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us”.

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographical location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can see, my African American coworkers, friends and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place, and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

I usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work to systematically overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals,the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
21. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, out numbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
23. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in flesh color and have them more or less match my skin.

I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.
__________________________

I’m not sure why Jim Webb thinks these things are mythical. They are very real parts of many Americans’ every-day existence.

Fear

May 19, 2010

I’m starting to think it’s possible that fear is the root of all evil.

Semantic discussion of the religious implications of evil aside, I have seen people twist themselves in knots in fear. Fear of pain, hurting someone else, or seeing something unlovable in themselves. Fear of seeing themselves as they truly are, as if it’s something unimaginably horrid. As if seeing ourselves in all our history and present is worse than death.

Around racism and privilege in particular, I have seen this fear manifest as (sometimes incredibly skillful) avoidance. From often vague and lofty claims of colorblindness, to interpersonal conflicts and competition among white people that are misplaced – if not entirely created – to avoid even talking about talking about racism.

I’m struck in particular by one dichotomy I’ve witnessed. On the one hand, it’s generally accepted when talking about and exploring white privilege and racism, it’s up to white people to do their own work. Part of White Privilege 101 is that it is not okay to ask a person of color to teach us about racism and oppression, both because one person can’t be asked to represent an entire group and because it’s not their job to educate us about our shit. And privilege and racism is definitely our shit. White people also add that they would likely not be as honest about their own racism with a person of color in the room. On top of that, people will question someone of color who is willing to lead or facilitate a discussion with white people on privilege, wondering about where they are with their own internalized racism and having genuine concern about the re-wounding of a person of color in that role. On the other hand, I get a strong message from people of color and other marginalized groups – and throw off the same signal in groups where I am marginalized – that if you are trying to be an ally to me and protect me from your -ist bullshit at the same time, then you have seriously underestimated me. The notion that we can decide what other people can handle around their oppression seems to be a privileged one, and one that meets with lots of resistance.

To further confuse myself, I have started reading James Baldwin. (If you know me and you know Baldwin, you’re right to be scared. I blame Joshua.) From No Name in the Street:

If Americans were not so terrified of their private selves, they would never have needed to invent and could never have become so dependent on whey they still call “the Negro problem.” This problem, which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them; and this not from anything blacks may or may not be doing but because of the role a guilty and constricted white imagination has assigned to the blacks.

There’s a lot said in Buddhism about being fully present in the moment, and fear seems to be the antithesis of being present. I think fear has a lot of anticipation of what’s next in it.

There’s a well-known Zen koan about a man chased by a lion over a cliff. Clinging to a vine for his life, he sees a tiger below him, waiting to eat him, while the tiger that chased him is just above him on the cliff. To add to the peril, there are mice gnawing at the vine he is clinging to. In the midst of all of this, when his fear should be at its highest, he sees a strawberry near him. He lets go of the vine with one hand to grab the strawberry and eat it and enjoys how wonderful and sweet it is.

I’m told the opposite of fear is love. I’m tempted to wax poetic about how the world would be so much better if we could love ourselves enough to love one another enough to vanquish fear, but that’s too corny and optimistic for even me. But if we could place love – or being in the moment – where fear comes up, I wonder how the conversation would change.

Tea Party Racism

March 23, 2010


From NPR‘s website

There’s a lot to be said about the racist undertones (and sometimes overt messages) in protests of the current administration’s policies, most notably by the Tea Party.

Although I have heard some feeble cries from among the Party that those voices are isolated and don’t represent them (and the same cries from among Conservative Republicans, who fund and support the Tea party), the fact is they are continually and with no apparent internal resistance showing up at Tea Party events with their signs, shouting epithets.

As I become more aware of my own racism and white privilege, I often find myself looking around groups I am affiliated with and noticing whether people of color are represented and, if not, why not. I wonder if the Tea Party’s founders, funders, and members have the same question. I think white people rarely do.

I wonder, too, if racism isn’t so steeped in our culture, society, and the way we move through every day life that outpourings like this, filled with such vitriol and seemingly rooted in a deep fear that their way of life and the founding of this country are at stake, are manifestations of that deeply rooted racism being challenged daily by a Black President.

That, conflated with the empty allegations of a “post-racial America,” seems to have carved out a niche for racism that is more virulent and viciously defended than any other I’ve seen in my lifetime.

How Important is it to be Comfortable? Framing Discussions on Race and Privilege

March 8, 2010

Way back in August, when a handful of us Buddhist white people got together because we were all interested in discussing white privilege and racism, I don’t think any of us would have guessed it would take seven or eight months for the discussion to actually begin.

When we first met, sitting on the grass in upper Meridian Hill (or Malcolm X, depending who you ask) Park, our immediate task was to find someone to teach us. Naive as I am, I was certain that there would be no dearth of people in DC who would be chomping at the bit to lead us in our discussions about white privilege and oppression. I volunteered to find us a teacher.

Through the miracle of Twitter, I was in touch with the brains behind GAP Consulting LLC, Aisha Brown. It occurred to me in conversations with her that she might be the perfect fit and she agreed. I asked her to put together a proposed curriculum. In putting the proposal together, Aisha worked closely with me to understand the group and our goals and reached out to the leader of the POC community in our larger Buddhist community to see what the issues were from their perspective. The proposal she put together was amazing.

At our planning group’s very second meeting – inside this time! – I had copies of the proposal to share. I was excited that I’d found someone and I was eager to get working. I started to tell the group about Aisha, but as soon as I said her name, I could hear the needle go off the record and the wheels come off the bus. One person interrupted me to tell me they assumed because her name was Aisha, she was Black. I confirmed that she was and that’s when things got really uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that the group would not even look at the proposal.

The group came up with lots of reasons why they couldn’t possibly learn about white privilege from a Black person.

First of all, it’s not the responsibility of people of color to teach white people about privilege. We’re supposed to do our own work! I agree with this. As white people who want to fight racism, it’s our job to examine ways in which we benefit from privilege and institutional racism. It’s our job to dig into the ways in which we have adopted and act on racial stereotypes. Asking a person of color why some things are offensive or racist or what people of color think about something is thoughtless and insensitive – it puts them in the place of speaking for all the people who look like them, and that’s not possible, much less reasonable. I also think this approach runs the risk of getting permission to not change or examine behavior. If one Black friend says it’s okay for me to use the n-word and that’s as deep as I go, I could use that permission to continue in racist and oppressive behavior.

However, Aisha’s role was not to act a a representative of all people of color and I am certain she would be very clear about that. We were not asking her to teach us about people of color. She was offering to lead our discussions and work with all of our ugly, messy stuff. For us as a group to decide it wasn’t fair to her to guide us in conversations about oppressions and privilege is incredibly presumptuous. We were assuming that we knew better how to take care of her than she did, that we understood her needs and impact of her role better than she did.

Another reason we couldn’t possibly have a person of color teach us was because we wouldn’t be as honest with her in the room for fear of hurting her by voicing our racism. I was on the fence about this. On one hand, it’s pretty enlightened to realize brave to admit. On the other hand, it seems like a cop out. It makes people gathered for the expressed purpose of talking about privilege and racism look like, as my Daddy would say, they are “all hat and no cattle.” As if people are willing to say they are going to talk about race to a point. Enough to be a good white person, but not enough to be uncomfortable.

The issue of comfort came earlier up at the same meeting in a different context, when we were talking about how, when, and where we would like the meetings to be. As there will be when eight people come together, there were at least eight opinions on everything. One person, clearly growing a little impatient with the logistics discussion, said that perhaps we should realize that not only would we not all be 100 percent comfortable with how things went, but that other people – including the people we were striving to be allies to – didn’t have the privilege of carefully tailoring their environment for their comfort every day when they walked out the door.

Another reason, and maybe the one that bothered me the most, was that a person of color couldn’t talk to us about white privilege because they didn’t have it. How could she identify with what it’s like to have privilege? How could she understand the burden we carry?

It might sound reasonable on its face for a second. However, there are different types of privilege and being a person of color doesn’t exclude an individual from enjoying them. (Cis)Gender, class, and hetero privilege come to mind first. People of color experience these privileges. It would be foolish of me to compare or equate privileges (and about as much fun as comparing oppressions) and just as foolish of me to dismiss someone else’s experience of privilege because it’s not the same privilege I have. I don’t want to contemplate what assumptions the group may have made about Aisha based on knowing she is a person of color, so I am going to assign this reaction to panic. Hard to do with Buddhists, but that’s where I am with that.

In the end, the group decided on a more broad approach to seeking a teacher/facilitator. Everyone was given the responsibility of researching and suggesting someone. We ranked possible teachers according to our ideal criteria, including experience, availability, cost, Buddhist background, and, ultimately, race. It was rather unceremoniously decided weeks later that we would absolutely not consider a teacher of color. I wanted to ask the group which of them would contact Aisha and tell her we would not be hiring her because she is not white. My only out-loud resistance was to ask the group, point blank, in hopes that it would jar them, if we would only hire a white teacher. The answer was swift and certain and, it seemed, unashamed.

Yesterday, when we broke into two small groups to discuss ways in which we had ineffectively engaged issues out of our dominant group membership in a way that was real for the people in the room, I told the story I just told you.

I’m not sure my anger and frustration over this process is appropriate to discuss within the group and I hate feeling like “my stuff” is the center of a group’s attention. At the same time, I think it would be the perfect thing to engage people in the real-live, present effects of how we act and react. This group, and the planning group before it, has been so skilled in avoiding actually talking about race and white privilege that bringing it into the room seems to push all the air out. However, the objective act of a group of white people flatly denying a person of color a job opportunity based on her race seems too rich not to explore, no matter how uncomfortable it makes people.

Avoidance and Having a Seat at the Table

March 7, 2010

No, sorry, this isn’t going to be a post about food (although I am about 20 minutes away from putting almost no-knead rustic bread in the oven). It’s going to be about privilege.

One of the many messy things about having privilege in any area is the tendency to believe we can fix things. While it’s usually well intentioned, it bears with it the assumption that we’re invited or allowed in the discussion of how to “help” or make things “better” in a group we don’t belong to.

It’s a tendency I struggle a lot with, personally. Part of my cultural baggage as a white woman is the strong urge to smooth everything over, to make everything nice, to make everyone comfortable, to rescue people, to help. I’m not assigning this desire any positive or negative value, just acknowledging that it affects how I move through the world.

I remember watching the movie Malcolm X in the theater when it first came out. When a well-meaning young white girl approached Malcolm X as he left a building on a college campus and asked if there was anything she could do to help, Denzel Washington, playing Malcolm X, didn’t even look at her when he said, flatly, “No.” The black people in the theater with me erupted in cheers and applause. I was utterly mystified. How could they possibly not want our help?

I see similar feelings of confusion and frustration among privileged folks when members of an oppressed or “other” group seek space of their own to come together. Why are we required to share our spaces with them, while they are free to exclude us? I think this is the flip side of the “helpful” privileged thinking: that we always have a seat at the table. That our opinion is always welcome, that our help is, in fact, needed.

Nope. In a culture that systematically and institutionally assigns privileges to certain groups of people, people who are not in those groups deserve a space to not only share their common experience, but be free of the exposure to that privilege (by its presence in the room), even if only for an hour a week, or a weekend retreat, or in entire organizations and institutions dedicated to them.

Part of this urge to help and need to fix things is a fantastic way to avoid doing our own work. If I declare that race doesn’t matter to me, that I am colorblind, I give myself a pass on examining and dismantling the privileges afforded to me because I am white. This goes, too, by the way for the misanthropic old favorite of mine, “I hate everyone equally.” An attempt by me to be witty, but still a denial of my privileges.

I’ve learned over the last several months that there is no shortage of ways to avoid doing white privilege work. My little group started a planning committee in August – six months ago – and has now only met to talk about privilege twice. We had planned a little book group as a way to actually “do the work” while we were working on talking about talking about it, but that never took shape. Now that we’ve met twice, we’ve talked about white privilege … not at all. Our homework last time was enough to prompt more than half the (15-member) group to express misgivings about continuing. And we spent most of the rest of the meeting addressing an interpersonal conflict within the group, which ultimately resulted in a change of venue. (The first meeting was mostly ground rules and logistics.) I am so frustrated about our collective avoidance that I’ve completely disengaged from my own white privilege work this week. I’m pretty sure I can stoke this frustration and anger long enough to avoid my own work for at least another week.

The third meeting is today, and I have more homework to do. I’m supposed to complete some exercises on triggering events in my work on dismantling racism and reflect on a specific time when I spoke up and ineffectively engaged issues out of our dominant group membership.

But my bread just came out of the oven …

Talking the Talk: White Privilege, People of Color, and Racism

February 25, 2010

I am really new to the world and words of anti-racism. So new, in fact, that I sometimes forget the language common to anti-racist discussions isn’t necessarily known and understood by everyone. From discussions I have had with friends today about my post yesterday, I realize that there are three terms in particular that I would like to provide clarity around.

The first is white privilege. This is a term used to describe the advantages white people have based solely on the fact that they are white. It’s not earned or asked for, and it is not about consciously claiming or asserting superiority. It’s simply the result of having the same color of skin as the people who hold the institutional power and who are considered the “norm.” Often, part of white privilege is not being aware that you have it.

Second is people of color. A brief, informal poll on twitter today revealed to me that lots of white people seem to think this is a euphemism for Black people. It’s not. The term people of color, in discussions about race, refers to anyone who is not white.

Finally, racism. Racism is often used and defined as any sort of racial prejudice. For purposes of anti-racism discussions, it is specifically prejudice plus institutional power. In that framework, people of color cannot be racist, because they simply don’t hold institutional power.

All of these terms as I have described them apply to anti-racist discussions in the United States.

All of these definitions are from my understanding of a subject I am pretty new to. Please let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed or bungled.

White Privilege Homework

February 24, 2010

Last month, I attended the first in a series of facilitated discussions with white people about white privilege. The first meeting was mostly logistics and introductions, with some hand outs and a homework assignment. The homework is to help the facilitators understand where the discussants are and guide the conversation going forward.

I’ve been carrying around the questions for weeks and the answers are due today. As it turns out, carrying the questions around isn’t an effective method of responding to them. I also started this post days ago by cutting and pasting the questions into WordPress. No, that didn’t work either. But I have been thinking about them a lot. Kind of reminds me of writing papers in college. I would read up on the subject at hand and think about it all the time, then stay up the entire night before trying to piece it all together. I’m told this is a sure sign of a true perfectionist, but I digress.

I am sharing the questions and my answers here with you, partially in hopes of getting your response.

Oh, it might help to know that these discussions were initiated in the context of a Buddhist group, or sangha, (thought the facilitators are not Buddhist) so any Buddhist principles or mentions are due to that.

Here goes:

When did I first realize I was white? What did I feel experience in this awakening?

This, I’ve decided, is a trick question. As a white person in the US, I am born with the privilege of being the accepted default normal. (Moreso if I were male, hetero, cis, etc.). It seems like the question should be, “When did I first realize someone else wasn’t white?” And that’s how I thought of it at first. Thinking about when I first realized I was white is a subtle but mind-blowing paradigm shift for me, which I suspect is important to my understanding of white privilege. Claiming an identity, to me, seems to necessitate rejecting the ingrained, default “normal.”

The first time I realized I was white, I was probably 17 or 18 years old and it was because I was one of two white people in a crowded restaurant. I remember very clearly feeling isolated, on display, and afraid. I felt like I was in the wrong place and unwelcome. My friend who was with me, the only other white person there, seemed not to notice. But I remember staying as close to him as I could and really feeling urgency around getting out of there because I felt so self conscious and like I didn’t belong.

What are the significant events along the way that have influenced who I am today as a white person?

Another tricky one. It would be too easy to talk about what things have simply influenced my life and what part white privilege had in those things. But, trying to keep in the paradigm shift I’m trying to get my mind around, I am left to think of things that have happened since I’ve become aware of white privilege.

As part of my training to be a rape crisis counselor and advocate, I took a day-long training with my fellow trainees on “isms.” Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc. When we started talking about racism, we discussed being “color blind,” and I was floored by the reaction of people of color in the room. I was in my mid-30s and had never heard anything negative about being a color-blind white person until that day. In fact, I thought it was rather enlightened of me. What I learned that day was it is my privilege as a white person never to think about race and how it affects me. Or other people. To blithely and boastfully say that I was blind to it was expressing the height of my then-unknown privilege.

During the same training, another one of the counselors in training, a black woman who by then I considered a loved friend, talked about being called the n word by a softball coach when she made some sort of error during a game. He yelled it in front of her teammates, the other team, and everyone who was at the game. As she talked about it and tears rolled down her cheeks, the sense I got from her was not anger, but overwhelming, soul-shriveling shame. The n word is the one word I’ve ever had my mouth washed out with soap for saying, so I always knew it was capital-b Bad. As I grew up, I began to more fully understand the social implications of the word and how it was inappropriate for me to use it ever, for any reason. But until that day, I didn’t even begin to comprehend the emotional weight behind it, the horrifying dehumanization of it. I am certain I still don’t understand it fully and never will. But in that moment, I got a nauseating, Earth-shattering glimpse. I realized then that there isn’t a single word with the same weight, effect, or history that could be leveled against me, and that shifted my perception of myself as a white person. The combination of the frank discussion of color blindness and the introduction to the words “white privilege” made that a life-changing
day.

A couple of years after that, when I was working for the same organization that offered the training, I said something racist to a colleague. Fortunately, I was in an environment that, for all its other failings, fostered confronting the isms it taught about, and a colleague confronted me in the moment. She was very direct and plain, and did not mince her words with any pleasantries or kindness – nor did she have any obligation to. I reeled and walked away, dumbfounded, knowing my intent was much different than my impact (but not yet knowing the importance between the difference). Later that day, I took her aside and told her what she said was really painful to hear. She told me calmly and resolutely that it was not her job to take care of me around that pain and she walked away. Again, I was left with my jaw on the floor. It took me weeks to sort it all out for myself, and I am forever grateful to her for it.

What messages do I hold about being white?

I feel like I have to skip this one. I don’t know. Usually, I (still) don’t think of myself as white. I am learning that as a white person, I am afforded certain privileges. I feel like being a white anti-racist could be powerful. I feel like as a white anti-racist, I have a moral obligation to call out other white people when they are being racist and to otherwise leverage what power and privilege I have to work toward eradicating racism.

What privileges do I hold/enjoy because I’m white?

I think Peggy McIntosh covered it pretty well in Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. More specifically, I can catch a cab on K Street here in Washington – even after dark. I can complain about services or products in a restaurant or store and not be suspected of trying to get anything over on anyone. I am generally perceived as non threatening on sight. I can be angry or belligerent or loud in public without it being attributed to or perceived as a bad reflection on my race. People don’t comment with surprise when I speak intelligently and without an accent. No one is ever surprised after they talk to me on the phone that I am the race I am. When I interview for jobs in my chosen profession (writer/editor), most people look like me. Most of my political leaders, CEOs, and bosses look like me. I can find a community of people who look like me in any urban or rural setting. It goes on.

How often do I talk directly about race with other white People? What do I find difficult to discuss?

Outside of anti-racist groups and in a general blogging/twitter sense or among people I know are anti-racist, almost never. I try to get a feeling for where they are on the subject before I bring anything up.

I find it difficult to discuss the fact that I think all white people are racist, including me. It’s difficult to discuss whiteness outside of privilege.

When and where do I get stuck? Not show up very effective or competent as a white anti-racist? How do I feel when I’m stuck and less effective?

Talking to other white people about racism, especially when it comes up in a group or professional setting. When I am stuck and ineffective I feel like a jerk and a fraud. I feel anxious and ineffectual and angry.

What do I know about my practice of Buddhism and how can I apply the “awakening” to this group process and beyond?

A big part of being “awake” is being in the moment. I think there’s a key part of understanding white privilege and being white that I can uncover and understand by listening honestly to my heart in the moment I react to something, the moment before I pile on all the stories I tell myself – all the old, learned responses that obscure and even completely bury honesty and clear thinking. It’s the internal version of hitting the snooze button without even becoming conscious (or waking up!). To unpack, as it were, ingrained, learned, immediate responses around race and identity and see things as they are with clarity in the moment would really help me not only fully understand my own internalized racism, but be more conscious of racism when I experience it externally – from individuals or institutions.

So, there it is. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve left out some questions and responses, mostly about group dynamics. If you are dying to know the other questions and my responses, I am happy to share.

I would love to hear your responses and questions, whether you are white or a person of color. I especially encourage white people to think about being white and what it means, what messages it carries, and what identifying as white means.

a white privilege primer

February 3, 2010

My first post will be largely not my own writing, but I have a feeling I will want to refer to it from time to time.

From White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (pdf) by Peggy McIntosh

Daily effects of white privilege

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.

10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.

12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.

17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.

18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.

20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.

25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.

29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.

30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.

32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.

33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.

34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.

37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.

38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.

39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.

40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.

43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.

44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.

45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.

48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.

49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.

50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.