Tuesday, July 16, 2013

White Privilege

Cross-posted at The Exponent

Ok all, I have to talk about race. I'm no race expert, but I need to know this issue better, so writing this up with 1) allow me to work through thoughts and 2) allow those of you more knowledgable about race correct me in the comments. Also, I've been avoiding the big race stuff on Facebook. Yes, I made one or two statuses to comment on the Trayvon Martin case, but that (I'm not going to lie here) was so I didn't look like a white person who is trying to pretend race doesn't exist while also trying not to say too much lest I need to put a couple of feet into my mouth.

I have white privilege. It's dripping out my ears. My family is white as far back as I know. I grew up from first grade on up in white Midwesternia: a few years in rural Indiana and the rest in a suburb of Chicago. My graduating high school class had one Indian student (as in India, not American Indian) and a handful of Hispanic/Latino students, but the rest looked like me. I went to BYU which is also pretty white (understatement of the year?). I knew race issues were important, but touchy. So touchy, in fact, that it was easier to not talk about it at all. After all, white privilege allows me to never have to talk about race if I don't want to.

American Mormondom is pretty white. Even after moving to Oakland, I have the option to isolate myself into my mostly-white Mormon ward and my husband's mostly-white coworkers, and my mostly-white moms groups. Here are the screenshots from the US 2010 Census data webapp about my "census block group," or the ~1000 people in my immediate neighborhood.

My neighborhood is 34% white, 47% African American. The other 19% are Asian, American Indian/Alaskan Native (AIAN), or identify with other races or multiple races. That's a lot of people of color in my neighborhood. That's a lot of people I can choose to ignore because of my privilege.

It is important to point out that talking about racial privilege isn't about making white people feel guilty. No one's arguing that you chose to be born white or that you, yourself, were responsible for slavery or other abuses of people of color. Also, no one is saying that white people have everything handed to them on a silver platter. White people work hard for their achievements. But white privilege does give a "boost" in many many situations. A good list of examples can be found at this article, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." Go read it now.
I think one of the hardest things for me on Facebook this weekend was seeing my black mom friends talk about how, "Moms: we need to take action! This is not ok that our children are not safe!" I was not sure how to respond. I wanted to show support, but I also realize, as the mother of white kids, my children are not in the same danger that children of color are. And then I end up making no remark, which I then worry looks as if I don't care and once again, I'm hiding behind my white privilege and not talking about race.

And you know what? It's really uncomfortable to talk about racism. It probably should never be a comfortable feeling to talk about hoe people judge and hurt each other. But we still need to talk about it or it'll never go away. Here are some of the things I try to remember.

Racism is Real. We are not in a post-racial world as much as I'd like to be. If I want to be an ally to my neighbors, friends, and community, I can't pretend racism is over.

No Gaslighting I have to listen more than I speak. It is wrong for me to tell someone, "You're reading too much into it, it's not related to race at all."

I am probably going to say/do something that is racist and mess up badly and I'm going to have to apologize. No, I don't like to think I'm racist. And as a person, I try really hard not to be. But do I have racist thoughts? Do I make assumptions about the people around me because of their race? Yes I do. Is it right? No, it's not. When a person of color tells me I say or do something offensive, I need to apologize and try hard not to do it again.

I'm going to have to get out of my comfort zone. It's comfortable to be surrounded by people who are like me. But you know what? I really should start going to the community education meetings about race relations so I can understand it better. Oakland has a history I'm not a part of. If I'm going to understand, I need to go and talk about race instead of ignoring it. Actually, probably I should do less talking and more listening. Always more listening. And asking honest questions and backing off when I'm told I'm out of bounds.

There are people of color who are angry. Just like it's absolutely ok to be angry about sexism and be the "angry feminist," it is ok for people to be angry about racial prejudice. This will sometimes translate into people of color being mad at white people and it's going to feel unfair to be lumped into the oppressors. I have to resist the impulse to say, "But I'm a good white person!" Let it go. More than one of my mom-friends of color have posted something on the lines of "Privileged moms: please don't say anything to me right now. Please," this last weekend. People are hurt, people are angry. That's ok.

No commandeering the cause. Yes, show up at the rallies, the meetings, participate in the email lists. But if I show up and decide to lead up some new action and I didn't first listen to what is needed, I'm overstepping my bounds. Sure, I might be qualified to help out, but guess who are more qualified? The people who are living in brown skin every day. Only if my idea is well-received and agreed upon and there is no one else to take the reins, should I lead up an action about race.

It's not even just race. Race issues intersect with women's issues. They intersect with class issues. It's going to take a long time to really know what to do and understand how I fit in it all.

It's not bad to use my privilege. It's bad to assume or expect everyone else has the same opportunities and experiences I do, yes. But privilege isn't inherently "good" for "bad." It can even be advantageous for fighting racism. For example, in the link above, number 30 states, "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." The next time Aunt So-and-so makes a racist joke? I can use the power of my privilege to say, "Hey. That's not ok," and I have a good chance of being heard. That is the power of allies.

It's going to take time. There's no magical post-racial fairy who will come and *poof* us into utopia. There's no one way to fight the systemic racism in our lives. But I can check my thoughts and actions every day. And I can keep trying to "mourn with those that mourn."

I don't normally like "challenges" prompted by blogs, but I want to challenge you all to do something to break down your comfort levels regarding race and learn a little more. I'm resolving to go to a community education event where the film Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible will be screened and discussed next month. Look into what you can do. Does your community have race education event? If you are a person of color, what do you think is the most important thing for white people to understand about privilege? Also, feel free to critique or add to my list. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent and thought provoking post. It is difficult to unpack this kind of privilege, but it's key to improving race relations. As the white mother of bi-racial children, one of the most difficult realizations recently is that my children, particularly my son, will have more challenges during his life. And I feel terribly unprepared for guiding him.


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