Monday, September 3, 2012

Not My Time Machine

There's an excellent essay documenting the nature of white privilege up over on Lean Left. It's a good read; it highlights the nature of white privilege, and lays bare some important points about it.

I comment a lot on racism, but it's always on the side. I don't attack it head on, like I do misogyny or homophobia. The reason for this is that I'm also more exposed to either of those than I am towards racism; I'm mentally ill, I'm transgender, I'm an atheist, but at the end of the day, I'm still white. I can comment with knowledge on the privilege that neurotypical people put on display. I can comment on cis-privilege. I can comment on Christian privilege, and on male privilege, because my life often intersects with those on a very regular basis. I am reminded of at least one of those once a day, if not more. It's not unusual to hear someone use "insane" to describe a violent killer (I had a fight with a friend over the use of insane to describe the shooter in the Aurora situation. I explained as calmly as I could that one, you're throwing people like me under the bus by calling him "insane", thereby implying he as a mental illness. Two, you're using a short-cut; you're calling him mentally ill, but which illness does he suffer from? At what point do I become a danger to society? And three, if you want the man punished for his crimes, insane is not the word you want; legally, it means he wasn't culpable for his actions and therefore, will be committed and not put in jail. Does it surprise anyone that it didn't sink in?) I look around and I see male privilege; I deal with it every day. By dealing with male privilege, I also deal with cis-privilege, since if I ever told anyone I was transgender, I would either be dismissed with laughing or things would get ugly quick. As an atheist, I'm drowning in cross, so I can clearly see Christian privilege; there's a church on every block in my home town - we have more churches, it seems, than we do Dollar Stores. And I live in the Dollar Store capital of the mid-west. I also see class privilege - you better believe I see class privilege. As an individual who views history through a Marxist lens, I'm trained to look for class privilege.

Racism is the one thing that I do not encounter. And the fact that I don't encounter it is one of the privileges of being white. Because while I can change my gender, I can adopt a different belief system, and I can explain how my type of thinking is different from yours, the one thing I cannot do is change the color of my skin (failing some sort of skin-dye, and even then, I will still be recognizably white due to how my face looks). I listen when people talk about racism, because it's an experience that I'm not familiar with. I learn by drawing parallels and creating patterns, so I attempt to compare it to one of the other forms of privilege that I'm regularly thrust against, but it isn't the same. I can find comparisons in some cases to male-privilege (if you're not a male, your social worth is negligible). I can find comparisons in some cases to neurotypical-privilege (society views you as a danger, and something that's just waiting to snap; the media and Hollywood are totally fucking clueless about what your life is like but hey, comic relief!), and I can see a lot of comparisons in class privilege (class privilege is actually built with racism underscoring it). But while there are some comparisons, they're not the same. In fact, none of the privileges are the same; each one is a distinctive head on the hydra of social bigotry. I recognize heteronormative, cis, male, class and neurotypical privileges; those heads I know when I see them.

Racism is different. While I recognize overt racism, that's almost cheating. And I recognize that institutional racism exists, too; I know far too many friends who are PoCs. It'd be ignorant of me to not acknowledge that. Being accused of "playing the race card" pisses me off more than when someone accuses me of racism (which actually hasn't happened, but I'm pretty sure I've made statements in the past, on this blog, that have put that white privilege on full display). But unlike the others, I have never experienced it myself. I'm sure if I went to China or Japan or Korea, I'd get a face full of what it's like to be a minority and possibly understand, a little bit, about what it's like for PoCs here in the United States (possibly; I've never been to any of those places, but I'd love to go). But it still wouldn't change the fact that I would never, and can never, fully understand. I can empathize. I can listen, and I do, and I relay stories I hear, but I can't get a full, intimate understanding of them because they're not mine. These stories are told by people who's experience is shaped by a dark and nasty, nasty history.

That's the reason why I usually refrain from commenting on it. Not because it's not something that needs to be brought up and dealt with - like all types of privilege, it needs to be removed if society is to get anywhere - but because I simply do not have the experience with it. You can be a good ally, say all the right things, but at the end of the day, without some sort of first hand experience, I feel like I'm just going through the motions. When I discuss classism, I try to acknowledge there's a racial component to it, because, well, there is. In fact, the two of them are intimately related. But to say that my experiences as a poor white person align with your experiences as a poor black person is the epitome of utter cluelessness, and to display a startling lack of empathy (because, to start with, we're two different people. We can work from that point, but I acknowledge you're a person, with your own story, and your own identity, and your own views about the world first. We can work on similarities and differences from there).

I almost left a response to that article, but I stopped myself. The article really is excellent; it didn't need to get derailed in the first post.

One of the most common things you hear, mostly from clueless people, is that "race is a social construct". There's a degree of truth to this - after all, isn't it Brazil that has something like twelve races? At one time in the United States, "white" did not exist as a concept. One was of proper heritage if you were Anglo-Saxon (that is, stemming from the English part of England; not the Welsh or Scottish). The various "races" - read, nationalities and ethnicities - were classed accordingly. This is why we see things like the infamous sign: No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. When America picked up it's culture from Britain, it also picked up the wonderful anti-Irish sentiments that run (or ran) so deeply in that country. Thus, Irish were classified as little better than blacks in the grand scheme things. Notice that "little better", because that's important. That little better made all the difference between the Irish allying with the blacks to demand better treatment and the Irish looking at the blacks with suspicion, thinking that the blacks were after their positions. Anyway, my point is, once upon a time, Irish was a race. So was Greek, and so was Italian, and all of the other different ethnic groups, and they were classed according to the scale with whomever was doing the classification at the top (British doing the classification would consider the British race superior, for instance. Americans doing it would consider Americans superior, etc.) Following World War II, Irish was no longer a separate race. All of the different European races merged into one super-race that took on the homogeneity of American Culture (read, white culture) and became known as "Whites." Things were settled when Kennedy was elected. Haven't looked back sense. There's no biological evidence for race at all; it's purely social.

It's awesome that I have the privilege to say all that, isn't it? It's easy for me to sit here and type this out - it may even be true, because for the most part, it is - but it reflects my reality. I am not defined by any race in any subtle way, so by saying "race is a social structure" in a negative context, I'm not stripping myself of anything. Yet, by saying this, I do nothing except erase group identities. From a purely scientific standpoint, there is only one type of human. From a scientific stand point, there's no evidence that races exist as different classifications. That's great. It's awesome, and it reflects objective reality.

But it what it doesn't reflect is social reality. And social reality is the one that we live in every day.

So think about this next time you cite a scientific truth to dismiss race as a concept. It may be representative of objective truth, but objective truth =/= social truth. And by blithely citing this objective truth like it's acknowledged as solid fact throughout the world, you erase the experiences of thousands of people.

So, anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter. It's a really good article; go give it a read.

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