Having been deeply disturbed by the politics in my home country recently, (and by recently, I mean a lot more than recently but it’s all been publicly nightmare-ish lately.) In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I wanted to address an issue I think is important: privilege.
I think a fair few people in my generation were raised to “not see colour”, and by doing that we were not racist and we were being “good” people. But I think it’s more important and more helpful to the world to acknowledge that racism, no matter how unintended, occurs in most and that doesn’t make you a bad person. In many ways, the colour of my skin affords me a position of privilege in America which makes me the benefiter of a racist system.
A really, really basic example, would be if Sam and I had driving-aged children in America, I wouldn’t be actively afraid for their lives like a woman of colour might be for her children. Or if I was feeling threatened, I would feel safe to approach the police without any danger to myself. Or I can turn on a TV and watch a plethora of tv shows about people of my race. Not everyone has that privilege.
Privilege isn’t solely based on race, and this is where intersectionality comes into it. There are many factors that go into it and you can be extremely privileged in one way, and lack it in others. Class, citizenship, sexual orientation, gender and health are all other factors that affect your privilege. I think it’s especially hard for lower income white people to acknowledge their sense of privilege. I think it partially stems from a feeling of protectivety around accomplishments and work. (A basic fear that because you are born with something that you haven’t “earned” it).
I found this quote from Bustle particularly helpful: “White privilege doesn’t entail that you’ve necessarily lived a life of luxury and serenity — that would more accurately be a conversation about class privilege. White privilege, rather, is about the benefits and boosts, obvious and opaque, that society affords you simply as a function of your whiteness.”
I never really talk about it, but I grew up very poor in a low income region of the US in a single parent family (my mom was a hero who always worked multiple jobs to try to give my brother and me the best). Acknowledging my white privilege is not downplaying my mom’s hard work or any economic disadvantage that we had growing up; it’s just adding another piece to the puzzle.
But working hard and an intrinsic level of “earning” things are different. If you work hard you don’t want to be told that things are automatically easier for you because of something out of your control. But that’s not what intersectionality is getting at. It isn’t confirming or denying that you work hard, or that your work is valued. It’s just a way of explaining the impact of how people move through the world and the way discrimination works in society.
As a white person, when you first try to grapple with your privilege you’ll probably feel guilty or resentful. But it’s not your fault that you were born with into one position or another, but it is up to you to acknowledge how the system benefits you.
It is totally normal to feel really uncomfortable as you confront this.
So once you start confronting your privilege where do you go from there?
There are plenty of ways to learn about your privilege and to confront it: If someone tells you that you are being racist, or you’re benefiting from a racial structure instead of arguing back or #notallwhitewomen-ing the situation, just listen. By hearing someone’s experience and then responding by saying “not me” or “not my family” you are centring the issue around yourself and your feelings which isn’t helpful. Or if you respond to #blacklivesmatter with #alllivesmatter you are either wilfully missing the point.
Of course, all lives matter. But we are discussing a particular set of lives at the moment. Here’s an analogy I heard on the news once an it really stuck with me (I’m so sorry I can’t quote and attribute it correctly – it was awhile ago and I can’t find it): when you raise money and awareness during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, you aren’t saying other types of cancer don’t matter. You’re just saying that this is the one that we are talking about right now.
Followers on social media will know that I loved the Women’s March. But I also think it’s important to acknowledge the very valid critiques that women of colour had about it. White feminism is especially guilty of framing issues entirely around ourselves and our own narrative. Personally, I don’t want to be gaining women’s equality whilst ignoring the needs of women of colour. Here’s an example: in the US, we use a white woman’s earnings vs a man’s earnings as the standard when discussing wage inequality. We often quote a standard of 82% pay gap for white women. But why aren’t we starting with focusing on the pay gap for other ethnicities? Latina women have a 58% pay gap, for example. (Citation) If we start with the lowest earners and work our way up, we can better help everyone achieve equality.
There’s a quote making the rounds on social media that explains privilege by pointing out that many people are opposed to taking down statues of (traitorous to the United States) Confederates as it erases history, but the same groups don’t bat an eye when it comes to bulldozing through sacred Native American land to build a pipeline. (Read this article by a member of the Cowlitz tribe to hear more on this exercise in privilege.)
As a white woman, it’s not my job to make up for all the historical wrongdoings in the world. However, it is my job to help change the course and hold myself accountable for my own mistakes based in privilege.
If you can donate to charities that are helping in the wake of Charlottesville here are a few that you can start with:
Stop Hate Project (connects victims of hatred to legal services)
Life After Hate (a group that works to rehabilitate and bring people out of supremacist movements. Obama and the Department for Homeland Security granted them $400,000, which the Trump administration immediately cut. Funding goes to a far-right counter radicalization program)