Tag Archives: privilege

“But Not All ______ Are Like That!”

25 Feb

I see this happen all the damn time.

Someone describes the actions of a privileged group of people and how these actions, purposefully or not, encourage the marginalization of a less-privileged group. Most often this description occurs within the context of trying to explain to the privileged folks how this dynamic is hurtful and oppressive. The hope is that the privileged group will listen to the marginalized person, examine their own behaviour, and try to do better in the future. The reality is that the person doing the explaining is nearly always met with a chorus of, “but not all men/white people/straight people/cis people/able-bodied people are like that!”

Look. I get it. You, whatever privileged group you happen to fall into, are a good person. You want to remind the marginalized group that you view yourself as an ally. You want them to know that not everyone is against them – the world, after all, isn’t such a grim place as all that. You want to make it clear that although you understand that your group has done some not-so-great things in the past, you are a better, more evolved person than that.

Maybe you even think you are somehow helping the marginalized group realize that you’re more than just a blank face in a group – you’re an individual person with your own thoughts and actions.

You know what, though?

You are not helping.

You are just making things worse.

In fact, you are only helping to prove the original point: that you, as a privileged person, perpetuate actions and ideas that oppress less privileged people.

See, what you’re really doing with your comment is a classic derailment tactic. In a discussion that is supposed to be about those who have frequently been silenced, you are contributing to that silencing by making it all about you. The message that you are giving out is that your feelings, your poor, hurt, privileged feelings should be taken into account no matter what the topic at hand. You are putting yourself in the centre of the discussion, and pushing the original topic off to the side. You are occupying a space that was created by and for people who don’t have many other spaces to occupy, and yet you feel entitled to be there because your privilege has taught you that you are entitled to be anywhere you want. You are telling oppressed groups that they cannot discuss the issues that affect them unless they have first considered the feelings of the oppressive group.

You are being a bad fucking ally.

I’m going to give you three pieces of advice:

1. If you don’t feel like the action attributed to the privileged group is something that you do, then assume the person is not talking about you

If you are not guilty of this particular oppressive act, then great! You are a good ally! Here’s a cookie for you! You can revel in the knowledge of your goodness without having to ask for reassurance from anyone else.

2. Take a moment to examine your past actions and ask yourself if this might, in fact, be something of which you have been guilty

The truth is that you may very well have been unconsciously participating in subtle forms of oppression without realizing it. Often our privilege is so deeply ingrained that we don’t always recognize when we are abusing it; before you decide whether or not you’re fully innocent of any wrongdoing, it’s worth taking the time to check in with yourself and see if you’re being totally honest.

3. Use this as a learning opportunity, and an opportunity to educate others

Whether or not you are guilty of involvement in some kind of oppression (and, I mean, spoiler alert: you probably are), any marginalized person relating their lived experience should be something you take seriously. Rather than just dismissing what they’re saying as something that you would never, ever, ever do, use what they are telling you as a chance to further educate yourself on the dynamics of oppression. Not only that, but use your privilege to amplify their voice – share their post, retweet their message, reblog it on your Tumblr. Instead of crying that not all ____ are like that, use your actions to show that you, personally, are not like that.

Whether or not you intend to cause harm, you, as a privileged person, have almost certainly engaged in some form of oppression or marginalization. Our culture has taught you that your skin colour or gender or sexual orientation mean that your thoughts and feelings are more valuable than those of other groups, and that is some social programming that takes a lot of hard work to undo. But if you want to consider yourself to be anti-oppression – if, instead of just saying that you’re not racist or homophobic or a misogynist, you actually want to actively not be any of those things – you need to put in the time to try to dismantle the fucked up outlook that your privilege has given you. Otherwise, you have absolutely no place in any kind of social justice movement.

And if you really want others to believe that not all men/white people/cis people/straight people/able-bodied people are total assholes, then instead of whining about how good you actually are, you need to prove it.

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On Race and Feminism

3 Mar

In the online fallout of The Onion’s vile tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, one fact has become abundantly, dismayingly clear:

White feminists have a hard time talking about race.

And we have a hard time talking about the fact that we have a hard time talking about race.

Jessica Luther has a fantastic post up over on Shakesville about the lack of white feminists decrying what happened to Quvenzhané. And while I think that what she wrote is perfect and spot on and everyone should go read it right now, what I find truly fascinating is the weird backlash that she’s received from other white feminists.

It was the same backlash I saw on Twitter the other day when @graceishuman called out white feminists for not defending Quvenzhané.

That backlash? A whole bunch of white feminists explaining why they, personally, chose not to write about it. And I’m sure that they had some spectacularly good reasons (I’m not even being sarcastic), but that’s not what this about. Not by a long shot.

I have actually never seen so many people miss the point of something all at the same time.

What this is about is the lack of intersectionality in feminism. Specifically, it’s about the fact the women of colour do not feel that they are represented or heard within the feminist movement. As Kirsten West Savali wrote for Clutch, it can feel like the feminist movement encourages women of colour to,

” … shrug off our Blackness for the greater feminist good; the end result being a contemporary plantation tableau defined by Ole Miss and Mammie slaying the patriarchal dragon while the issues of racism and classism are hidden behind the veil of  “progress.”  And while this scenario is about as feel-good as The Help, expanding white privilege — feminist or otherwise — is not equality.”

So how the fuck did it ever get to this?

Is it because we (white feminists) feel that racism is an entirely separate issue from feminism? 

Most white feminists that I know would answer that no, of course it’s not, in the same way that homophobia, fatphobia and transphobia are not separate issues either. They would readily admit that women of colour experience misogyny in ways that white women do not. They would say that of course they care about racism.

But these same women, in their own writing, mainly stick to topics that specifically affect them or women like them. They very rarely address issues that are faced only (or mostly) by women of colour. They almost never talk about racism within the feminist movement. Which is funny, considering the racist history of our movement; shouldn’t this be something that we still talk about, all the time?

Is it because we worry that we’ll be co-opting women of colour when we speak out against something like what happened to Quvenzhané? Is it because we’re worried about making a misstep, about somehow accidentally being racist in our fight against racism? 

I would wager that the answer to this is yes, yes and yes. I’ve heard this same argument from several women as explanation of why they didn’t speak out against The Onion, or why they primarily focussed on the misogynist aspect of The Onion’s tweet and not the racist aspect. White feminists mentioned again and a again that they felt that women of colour should take the lead in this discussion, the rationalization being that white women speaking for others’ experiences was, in itself, a racist act.

And yeah, I guess if you’re a white feminist speaking for women of colour, that’s racist, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t call out racism when you see it. Like, fuck, I don’t want men speaking for me, but I sure as hell do want them to stand up against sexism. We complain so often about having to educate men with regards to feminism, and yet we (white feminists) do so little to educate ourselves when it comes to racial issues.

We make comments like, Well, I don’t even know what to call them, like do you say black or Black or women of colour or Women of Colour or minority or non-white or what? I don’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing.

We make comments like, They can write about the issues they face, and I can write about the issues I face. What’s wrong with that?

We make comments like, I thought we were all in this together.

For a group of people who are so hell-bent on (rightfully) pointing out male privilege, we sure as hell don’t like to be reminded of our white privilege, do we?

Which brings me to my next point …

Is it because we don’t want to admit that, as white women, while we do face a lot of overt and insidiously subtle misogyny in our day-to-day life, we face less barriers than women of colour do?

Privilege is comfortable. Privilege is easy. Privilege is invisible and difficult to quantify, facts that make us comfortable ignoring the fact that we benefit from it.

Privilege lead to write a post the other day that I felt was clever and insightful but, as others pointed out, was in several ways flawed and problematic.

I have a lot of privilege, white privilege, cis-privilege, thin-privilege, but it’s easier for me to talk about the privilege that I don’t have. I suspect that the same is true for many other women.

Being reminded of privilege makes people defensive – especially when those same people are complaining about the oppression that they face as women. There’s a tendency within feminism to want to gloss over racial issues and say, Well, first let’s fight against the problems that ALL women face, and THEN we can talk about racism, and I think that feels okay to a lot of us because in a fucked up way it feels like equality. In reality, though, it’s not equality at all – it’s asking women of colour to do work that will especially benefit white women, and then having those white women turn around and refuse to address the additional challenges faced by non-white women.

I think that another issue at play is that it can be hard to view yourself as both the oppressed and the oppressor. But the fact is that we do participate in the oppression of others, and our reluctance to examine that is pretty fucked up. Like, white feminists are perfectly articulate about how privilege works when they’re talking about male privilege, but they seem to plead ignorance pretty quickly when they’re reminded of the privilege that’s associated with their skin tone.

So what do we do about all of this?

Well, first of all, we fucking sit up and pay attention when women of colour tell us that they feel that we dropped the ball on this one. Because you know what?

A) They know what they’re talking about, and

B) They’re right

And then, after we admit that we fucked up, we talk about it. We talk about race until we’re blue in the face. Because pretending that this isn’t happening isn’t doing anyone any favours, and continuing to ignore the racial issues within the feminist movement is only going to serve to further divide us.

Finally, we need to change how things are structured in order to see real equality. We need to give more platforms to women of colour. We need to be more willing to listen to what they have to say. We need to be willing to be called out on our racism. Most of all, though, we need to let women of colour lead the way and let THEM tell us what they want and need in order to do that.

Because reaching down and giving a boost to someone who has less privilege than you do is what real fucking equality looks like.

And to those of you who aren’t interested in doing that, I would ask that you please stop using the word equality. You’re not interested in equality; you’re only interested in benefitting yourself.

I don’t want to just benefit myself. I want my actions to benefit everyone. And right now, I especially want my actions to benefit this kid:

Quvenzhane-wallis-beasts

Deconstructing Racism And Privilege

18 Oct

Before we start, let me be really upfront about a few things.

First of all, I am not an expert on racism; I haven’t studied it extensively, and what I’m about to write here is mostly based on a few smart books/articles, conversations with friends, and stuff that I’ve read online. Oh, and feelings. I have a lot of feelings about racism.

Second of all, I’m white. I mean, like, really white. I have the complexion of an anemic Swede. So obviously I don’t fully understand racism and its impact because I will never personally experience it directed towards me. Everything that I’m writing here is offered as the perspective of someone who lives in the land of white privilege.

So with that baseline in place, I want to talk a bit about racism in general and some of the fallout from The Gap’s Manifest Destiny debacle in particular (sidebar: isn’t debacle a great word? let’s all agree to use it more often). I’ve been reading some of the comments left on my blog, on my Facebook page, on BlogHer and on this piece in The Guardian, and many of them are, well, troubling. To put it mildly.

Here’s a small sampling of some of the comments:

“Oh for pity’s sake, must everything be offensive? Political Correctness gone wild.”

“WHAT aboriginal community in the U.S. ? This belief in the U.S. is dead. The only complainers are the very few who were conquered. Conquering is not new to any culture. If the Native Americans weren’t so busy trying to conquer each other, they might have been able to keep more of their land. It seems every culture grew from conquering over a culture for whatever reasons they had. The system is world wide. Just because we finally gave it a name doesn’t mean we alone own it.”

“OMG, and the shirt is black too, with white text. We must read everything into this!”

What I find truly annoying it that creating a fuss over this sort of trivial nonsense only makes it that much harder to battle genuine racism … Instead of fighting actual racists, they find it easier to make normal people, without racists tendencies, to tread on eggshells around minorities.

I think this is absolutely ridiculous that natives feel entitled to stick their nose into everyone’s business because it ‘hurts their feelings’.

We get it, we took your land and you feel a deep entitlement to free education, no taxes and who knows what else. But you know what… throughout history people have been stealing land from other people. You need to stop drawing pity to your people and move forward like the rest of the world.

You are just a bunch of entitled greedy leeches that like to cry out and draw attention to yourselves.”

I think that a lot of these responses are knee-jerk reactions that come from a place of fear. We see something like the Manifest Destiny tee, and we don’t see a problem with it. Then someone tells us that it’s racist, and our reaction falls into one of the following categories:

1. We accept that it’s racist, and work to understand the how and why of it

2. We deny that it’s racist, and then defend that denial

I think that a lot of people choose the latter because accepting that the t-shirt is racist, and knowing that they didn’t initially understand why, means that they are racist. And they’re not racist! They have friends who are people of colour! They would never do/say/think anything racist! So, logically, if they are not racist, then the shirt must not be, either.

For those of you who are afraid of being racist, I’m going to tell you something that will maybe sort of let you off the hook:

If you are white, you are racist.

To be clear, for the purposes of this post I’m defining racism as prejudice plus power. In the western world, in this specific time in history, only white people can be racist. People of colour can certainly be prejudiced against those of other ethnicities, but they can’t be racist because they don’t have the societal power to enforce those prejudices.

Look, it’s not your fault that you’re racist; you’re probably a really nice person and yes, I do believe you when you tell me that you have friends of many different ethnicities. You grew up in a world where you were immersed in white privilege, and that privilege was constantly being reinforced by your education, the media and society in general. You didn’t ask for that privilege; it was handed to you whether you wanted it or not. Given these circumstances, you can’t help being racist.

But believe me when I tell you that you are racist. I am racist. We need to acknowledge and accept this before we move forward.

That fact being established, I want to be really clear on something: it is not for white people to say what is and isn’t racist. It’s not our place to roll our eyes and say, Really, do I have to be offended by everything now?

I’m not saying that there is never any overreaction when it comes to racial issues. What I am saying is, if a person of colour tells you that something is racist, give them the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t understand why it’s racist, ask them to help you understand. If the explanation makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why it makes you uncomfortable.

And for the record, I would rather overreact to something than under-react to it. I would prefer to be labeled hysterical than labeled an apologist. I would rather be hated for being outspoken than look back on a a terrible event and feel like I could have done something if only I’d had the courage to open my mouth.

So remember earlier, when I told you that I was sort of letting you off the hook? Well, here’s the part where it turns out that I’m not letting you off the hook at all. Yes, you are a good person. No, you can’t help being racist. What matters now is what you do with this information; what matters is whether or not you remain blind to the fact that you are subject to prejudices against people of colour, or whether you accept it and say, okay, what do I do now?

To say stuff like, “… creating a fuss over this sort of trivial nonsense only makes it that much harder to battle genuine racism”, is to remain wilfully blind to your own racism. It’s to see racism as a series of overtly cruel acts perpetrated by other people, and not as an inherent part of the invisible systems we all participate in that benefit white people.

To make comments to the effect that what was done to the Aboriginal peoples in North America is ancient history, and that “conquering” is just a normal part of civilization, is to remain wilfully ignorant to the truth of what happened, and how it’s still happening today.

To say that we live in a society where political correctness has gone overboard and to dismiss the cries of racism from people of colour as a gross overreaction is to assert that it is, in fact, up to white people to decide what is and isn’t racist. It’s saying that people of colour aren’t smart enough to know what true racism is, or that all they want is our pity or our land or our money. It’s perpetuating the idea that only white people know what is best, and it’s insinuating that it would be wrong or even dangerous to have people of colour in positions of power where their poor judgment and conniving ways could have a disastrous effect on everyone.

Okay. What do we do now?

I’m going to say something that might seem really scary, but here it is:

Let people of colour have a voice. Seriously listen to what they have to say. When what they say frightens and confuses you, don’t shut them out. Keep listening. Be willing to work with them; be willing to have them tell you that you’re wrong. Spend every moment of every day fighting against your prejudices. When you want to leave a comment like the ones above on an online article, take a moment before you hit the reply button and think, what am I really saying here?

It’s hard, I know. Many (most?) of us grew up in an era where overt racism was very much frowned upon, but the underlying racist structure of society was never talked about. We grew up with books and television shows and movies that were racist, although we didn’t know that at the time, and it can be difficult to cherish the memories of those things while at the same time admitting that they were problematic. We grew up knowing that racism was so wrong, which means admitting that we’re racist makes us feel like monsters.

The hardest thing of all is accepting that society has to change, because why would we want to change things when everything is set up to benefit us? What motivation is there to have anything be different from the way it is?

Well, for one thing, I want Theo to grow up in a better world than I did; I don’t want him to have to have the same prejudices I do. I want to stop feeling guilty just because my skin is white. I want to look at someone and see who they are, instead of first noticing their race.

Most of all, I want to live in a world where everyone is equal. Yes, I know that people will always be born into different socioeconomic circumstances; yes, I understand that some people will always have to struggle more than others just to achieve the same thing. But that struggle should never, ever be tied to a person’s skin colour. A person should not be set up to fail from the very beginning just because they’re not white.

And if you don’t understand that, then I don’t know what to say.