Another White Woman’s Take On White Privilege: Where I’m Coming From
First off: I can bake my own cookies. “Checking one's privilege,” as the young people say, should be a basic exercise in self-analysis, not meant to curry favor.
This post is meant mostly for my fellow white people, or in Swahili, my wazungu. (I learned a little Swahili before studying abroad in Kenya, and if you want to write me off as a stereotypical white-girl-who-went-to-Africa, that's fine, I can't stop you.) But I like using the word “wazungu” because using a term from an African language seems better suited to reframe the issue – by pointing out that white is indeed a color and for political purposes a race, not just the norm from which “Other” is determined, but the “Other” itself to most people in this world.
Anyway, keeping the focus on me, me, me! Isn't that what blogging is for? Let me tell you more than you ever wanted to know about where I am coming from.
When I was in the third grade, my family was living in Lexington, Kentucky and I had three boyfriends. I should point out that they were not all at the same time, and that by “boyfriends” I mean we held hands at recess. I should probably also point out that this preceded a rather impressive romantic drought until my junior year of high school, but whatever, for purposes of this post, the important point is that one of my beaus was a little black boy. WHO COULD MOONWALK.
For those of you too young to remember Michael Jackson when he was hot stuff, I will include an image of the centerfold from the Thriller record album (yes, when I was a kid we all listened to records not because we were hipsters but because cassette tapes and compact discs were still in the future, OK?)
I bring this up because it was my first conscious exposure to my family’s racism, and immediately it appeared just as it was, irrational and unfair. Michael Jackson’s coolness was beyond reproach, y’all. (No, really. IT WAS!) So my parents’ disapproval of my moonwalking sweetie was just bullshit (although I would not embrace my pottymouth for years to come.)
I think this is important to point out because I’ve seen some of my fellow white people say that the glut of black entertainers is just proof that black America’s “ambassadors” (I guess for white people who only see black people on TV?) are somehow merely “jesters.” Ugh. Though there are meaningful questions to ask about why only certain avenues have been open for African Americans to reach a high level of visible success, our media’s superheroes do matter. Beyonce –regardless of any feminist issues one might have with the sexualized nature of just about everyfemale pop star’s corporate image-- really is just walking proof of an overwhelming coolness that undermines ideas of white superiority. You can argue this point if you want, but you can’t argue it with me. I’ll just give you my best white girl side-eye.
Cut to junior high. We’re living in North Carolina, which at the time was not yet in a race to the bottom of US educational rankings, though I still attended a nightmare of a school where both teachers and administrators seemed to despise me for being a girl who was good at math, but that’s a story for a different post. The story for today is of my one and only “D” evAr – which I received for refusing to regurgitate my social studies teacher’s premise that the civil war was waged not against slavery but against the Southern States’ economic sovereignty.
I made the point (on my lined notebook paper in my bubbly hand-written script) that the Southern economy was in fact dependent on slavery and slavery was morally repugnant so why were we glossing over this? … I’d never in my nerdy life seen so much red ink on a paper returned to me. (The other kids in my class who had not enjoyed a 3 year sojourn North might very well have had this same question, particularly the black kids! But they knew better than to openly resist like that. They’d received the Proper Southern Indoctrination. When I imagine what it must feel like to be a black child writing out that bullshit, literally whitewashing history like that –well. I’m sure my indignation pales (pun intended.)
Now onto high school. Thank any higher powers there might be that my mom got myself and my brother into a magnet high school in the next town over. This meant a one hour bus ride to and from school, and it was totally worth it for 1) the academics and extracurricular offerings, 2) the tons of kids who were smarter than me, meaning I wasn't uncomfortably visible as the biggest nerd around for one of the first times in my life, and 3) the social education. At my high school there were just as many black students as white, and a fair number of students of Asian descent as well.
You know what makes it really hard to maintain even the most deeply ingrained ideas of white superiority? Being around a lot of POC on a day-to-day basis for an extended period of time. Because then you meet a lot of POC you like, don’t like, admire, don’t admire, etc. – just as you do with people who look like you. I’m not going to try to take this to a color-blind we’re-all-just-human Kumbaya type place, I swear, but I still believe that if you are in this type of environment and practice any kind of intellectual honesty with yourself, racism is going to be very difficult to maintain. I’m sure some white students were capable of doing so, but dang, they had to work hard for it.
(Of course as the maniac wing of the Republican party has risen to power in the state and local legislatures in NC, efforts at integration [which were demonstrated to raise the quality of schools] are being backpedaled into non-existence. God forbid we create environments for interracial empathy for our young people. Gotta keep the proletariat fighting amongst ourselves.)
I’d like to take a moment at this point in my personal timeline to discuss an experience of economic class. When I was a teenager and would attempt to shop at the more upscale department stores in the mall (I’m talking Belk’s not Barney’s) – I was often followed. I did not look like I had money to spend there. I didn't have nice clothes and I had the crispy permed hairstyle of the white lower class. I was stopped a couple of times to have my purse searched. And I was a goodie-goodie to beat all goodie-goodies, so that was a real shock to my system.
I’m not saying this to downplay the experiences of black people who have had this happen more often and without regard to their appearance vis-à-vis economic class. What I want to point out is that even now, as a 38 year old professional and homeowner, I feel immediately on-edge as soon as I walk into a middle-tier department store (I don’t even attempt to visit the upscale ones). I feel, irrationally, as if I’m being watched at all times and every cryptic announcement over the loudspeaker is to alert clerks to my undesirable presence. And as I’m leaving I will always, always make a show of looking for my keys or Chapstick so that the security camera gets a good look at the 100% un-stolen contents of my non-thieving handbag.
So when white people write off the emotional effects of this kind of profiling? They can kiss my nearly-100%-limited-to-online-shopping-ass.
Fast-forward to the college years.
I attended an "elite" university. I was the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, and I did so with a lot of scholarship money, grants, work study, summer jobs and a shit-ton of loans. Most of the kids around me were enormously wealthy and took their wealth completely for granted. It was hard to stomach. I had to stretch my money to cover basics like food and laundry, and I had classmates complaining about daddy buying them a Beamer instead of a Porsche; blaming me for “making them feel guilty” because I couldn’t afford a ticket to Cabo for spring break; thinking me gauche for not wanting to split the check when their meal cost $50 and mine $10; asking why I didn’t buy nicer clothes because they’re totally worth it and why don’t I just have daddy send me an Ann Taylor card for emergencies? Kids writing in to the student newspaper about how their tuition shouldn’t go toward helping poorer students (it didn’t, all financial aid came from endowments, but one should never let facts get in the way of resenting the poors.) I had one class where the other students couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around the fact that a smart person could be poor (this was posed as an objective thought game). I felt pretty goddamn sorry for myself. I also felt like my life experiences were superior, because they were more real.
Then I studied abroad in Kenya.
For some reason I can’t pin down, I’d always felt some discomfort with pop-individualism, even without having read any de Toqueville or what have you. So I signed up for a freshman seminar in cultural anthropology entitled “Individualism and Culture.” Turns out the professor did most of his fieldwork in West Africa and we spent the semester reading about and discussing more interrelational/interdependent concepts of the self in society. This led me to major in anthro and to a more specific interest in sub-Saharan African history and culture, about which I had (of course!) learned very little up to that point. (I nearly fell off my chair when a 10th grade social studies teacher referred to Africa as a country.)
For what it’s worth, I chose Kenya for my study abroad semester because I wanted to learn about the culture and the people, not because I wanted to save anyone or have some grand exotic adventure. Anyway, this was my first experience leaving the US, and it was quite an eye-opener, in regards to both economic class and race.
Here are some experiences from that semester that granted me some perspective on my economic privilege:
This was also my first experience with being the minority race in a country, not just a classroom, for four months, not just 40 minutes. Very obviously, this is not the same thing as growing up a racial minority. But it was still extremely eye-opening.
In my homestays, at the guest house, walking on the side of the road or taking a bus or a train, at the restaurant, at the hospital – I was white white white. Stuck out like a sore thumb. Got judged as an ignorant colonialist or marked as a target for bilking or mugging. (Note: bilkers bilking/muggers mugging to survive. Not b/c inherently criminal. Also: duh.)
This was exhausting, physically and mentally exhausting. I would spend all evening in bed recovering from a daytime outing. Some of the other white kids in my group managed to be much less affected by it, and I’m really not sure how. I do suffer from tendencies towards anxiety and depression which might result from social oversensitivity. But I do remember the only Latina in our group coming to see me while I was lying in bed one evening and saying something along the lines of, she’d experienced a damn lot of racism in her life but she still felt more pity for people with mental illnesses. She did this in a very kind way, but I remember not being able to answer her because my “mental illness” was really just an abject failure to cope with prejudice.
And all of that is to say that white people writing off the effects of sporting an epidermis that basically shines a neon light of Otherness wherever one goes can once again kiss my (lily white) ass.
Coming to terms with the reality of my privilege was not easy. But the only other option was to be psychotically dishonest with myself. I guess I could have blamed the impoverished people around me for their own poverty, but how the hell would I be doing if I was born into their lives? My homestay family in Nairobi was a mom, her two daughters, and three far-removed cousins, one a young man who had been kicked out of his family for being gay, and a single mom and her baby daughter (she'd been disowned for getting pregnant out of wedlock). The mom had taken these cousins in after she kicked her husband out for being an abusive alcoholic scumbag who couldn’t keep one job while she juggled two. She worked those two jobs so she could help these young people get educations, so they would have at least some kind of shot at employment themselves – even though decent full-time jobs were almost impossible to come by…
This mom liked to sit me down and tell me about her problems with white people. Was this polite of her? No. Was it awkward and uncomfortable for me? YES. Could I argue with any of her points? Nope. Was it a valuable learning experience for me? You bet your ass it was.
I went to Kenya because I wanted to learn, and expand my worldview. It was a difficult semester. I was sick a lot, and at one point I got down to 75 pounds (dysentery, followed by giardia.) Many of the people I met there were very kind to me, but none of them held my hand and told me I was a “good” white person just for showing up. In fact one woman pointed out to me that Kenyans who were just as sick as I was had to go work in the coffee fields. They just shat themselves as they worked. Not very sympathetic, that. But no less true just because it made poor little me feel bad!
Just one more note on my college experiences and I’ll move on. I wrote my senior honor’s thesis on mainstream multiculturalism on college campuses. It was a lot to unravel, too much in fact, and ended up being fairly convoluted, though bless them, my committee gave me credit for the effort. But my major point was that talk of “tolerance” was really talk of non-engagement.
White people can talk about tolerating difference as long as we aren't made to engage it. When we do have to engage it, well that’s uncomfortable. And we feel entitled to our comfort. So we react very badly when, for example, a POC classmate points out something that was previously invisible to us and thus embarrasses us. We can, for real I’m not kidding, experience this as an “attack”.
What I found over and over when conducting interviews with my fellow students about multiculturalism is that we wazungu can in one breath hold POC up to the standard of enduring lifelong day-to-day discrimination with grace and humor, and in the very next breath deride POC for making our poor little white heartbeats race a little bit, for a small period of time, in a completely safe classroom setting.
Which brings me to this: There’s been a lot of discussion in my Twitter circles about the meaning of certain words, so I’ll just throw in my two cents, for whatever they might or might not be worth. You now know more than you ever wanted to know about where I’m coming from, so you are totally equipped to dismiss my opinions if that is what you choose to do.
Racism means judging someone to be less than you, based solely on their race. Less moral, less educated, less capable, less human, less whatever. Others have made the point that racism is prejudice + power so cries of reverse-racism are asinine, and I can see that, but I also think cries of reverse-racism are asinine in and of themselves with no arguments re. semantics required. White people can suck it up.
White supremacy is another way to get around the “anyone is capable of racism” crap, but it does also seem to me to cut through that crap in a most efficient way. Yes, the problem really is that white America assumes itself the real America and judges all non-white Americans as lesser and institutionalizes that judgment. (Not that white supremacy is limited to the U.S., I’m just speaking from my limited perspective.)
White privilege, as I see it, is being able to walk out of your house without giving a thought to your whiteness. Much like male privilege, white privilege is the utter obliviousness that comes when you are assumed to be the “norm” by the powers that be.
We can try to be aware of whatever racism lurks in the corners of our brains (this is bred into us early and often and might be impossible to eradicate entirely) and work to be aware of that and to squelch it as much as we can, especially in regards to letting it affect others.
We can honestly believe that white people are not in any way naturally superior to people of any other race (as anyone with a functioning brain should recognize).
But we can’t give up our white privilege. Not as long as we live in a country that practices white supremacy.
We wear it on our very skin. The people in power see our color and put us in a category of rightness whether we want them to or not. We skate through our early, formative years unaware of what it is like to be always noticed and always already judged for something we can never change. (Of course gender and other factors intersect as a markers of privilege, but goddess this post is way too long already.)
I have made some effort to engage different races and cultures in my life – but I had that choice. Every time. In most places, people of color do not have this choice. That choice is privilege, and it is the threat to that privilege that white people are all up in our neurotic tizzies about. How dare anyone make us think about how we have a race and how that race gives us unearned privilege? That is uncomfortable. And we have the right to be comfortable at all times! Everyone’s just an individual! Racism is in the past! Anything to make ourselves feel OK!
I honestly think this stunts our humanity. I buy into bell hooks’ thesis that those who see from the margin see more clearly than those who see from the center. I buy into this as a feminist who, as a woman, sees some things from the margin – but because of my race, I see other things from the center. This means my vision is necessarily compromised. My analysis and in some ways my capability for empathy is knee-capped by my white privilege. That’s unfair, sure, but that’s just the way it is as long as we live in a white supremacist world.
(There will be those who think the above paragraph is racist towards whites. I see it as a frank acknowledgement of the downsides of privilege.)
Simply put, wazungu who are interested in issues of injustice must check our egos, accept our stunted vision, and embrace the inevitability of social discomfort if we want to temper our privilege enough to be of use.