Monday, March 28, 2005

white privilege

So, I've been having something of a bad race day, today. It's hard to articulate how you feel as a person of colour about being a person of colour, especially to people who have no idea what it's like to be a person of colour. It got me thinking today about white priviledge. See, the thing is, as much as you might resent, even occasionally despise white culture for its unabashed ignorance or majority take on minority issues, there really isn't any way you can blame a white person for his or her issues. I made the analogy in my Skinny White Bitches post of a person raised in perpetual darkness never having any concept of light, and the same is true for those privileged enough to be white. When it comes right down to it, being white means you have almost no framework to understand that which most minorities deal with every day. The concept of a slur having inherent pain, for example, is almost meaningless, because, unless you're Jewish or Irish, a white person has no context with which to understand the kind of pain it can evoke. A.S., the white undergrad in the lab, is a moderate conservative who takes the extremely typical white privilege line on most minority issues: the only people who can be racist are malicious red-neck hicks from the Deep South who wear funny, funny bedsheets, drag people behind trucks and use the n-word as freely as humanly possible. A.S. gets upset at his Asian friend who once expressed to him that he felt apprehensive walking into a room full of whites, and that they were always judging him; A.S. preferred to think that his friend was being paranoid and that it was even racist or discriminatory to automatically assume the room was judging him. See, here's the problem: I immediately understood what the friend was saying, having experienced it enough times myself. A.S. and I spent a few hours discussing the issue and we soon realized that on nearly all race issues, he and I disagreed. A.S. felt racism was nearly dead, that he himself was never guilty of prejudicial thought, and there was nothing wrong with a slur or two as long as he never meant any harmful intent. To me, while I enjoyed the exercise in thought, I found it surprising, if not downright shocking, that I was engaging in a discussion that one might consider to be 'Racial Identity 101'. I had to try to convince him that everyone discriminates based upon race, including white people, that his friend was only being human in being apprehensive, that there was little or no basis for some of A.S.' existing racial stereotypes, and the negative consequences of racial stereotyping. I can't blame A.S., I can't even get mad at him. Hell, I'm happy he was willing to talk about his opinions and it really helped me break the ice with him. But, at the same time, I was deeply resentful of his white priviledge, that he could walk around in absolute racial ignorance all his life, and only had to think about race issues when forced to. I wake up every morning being a person of colour -- this doesn't wash off -- and I am treated as an Asian American woman, from who will open a door for me to who will treat me nicely and who will condescend to me. Everyone who sees me immediately assumes certain things about me -- I think I blogged a long time ago about the one incident with the woman who didn't even know me, asking if I could translate a visa application into Chinese for her. Besides the fact that I couldn't do it, it was an extremely not-so-subtle reminder that when it comes right down to it, I'm not seen as just a person, I'm seen as an Asian American person. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing (I am proud of being Asian American), it is exhausting to always feel disconnected from the rest of America, always a little different, and especially today, always feeling like I have to represent a community and be aware of how race affects me and everyone else. It made me wonder, what would it like, I wonder, to walk a day in a white person's shoes? What do white people take for granted that I take for granted having to think about? What would it be like to not have people try to mentally label me when they meet me? What would it be like to have my race/ethnicity be meaningless? What would it be like to not have people make assumptions about me based upon what they saw on TV? What would it be like to not have what famous people who share my skin tone dictate the experiences in my day-to-day life? What would it be like to have every month be for my heritage? What would it be like to have every history book be written for my people? What would it be like to walk into a room and find myself in the majority (and not have it be a 'cultural event')? What would it be like to not have a community history of pain, oppression and suffering, and to have subtle reminders of how low on the social ladder I stand because of the colour of my skin thrust upon me by the well-meaning but ignorant? What would it be like to not even have to care about the concept of a racial community? What would it be like to know that I really can be all that I can be based only upon my skills? What would it like to not have to be an ambassador to whiteness, but bask in the bliss of ignorance? What would it be like to not even have to know or care about a term like 'white privilege'? But then again, what would it be like to always be considered the oppressor? The majority? The bad guy? The person the minorities assume doesn't need to know what a term like 'white privilege' means? Margaret Cho posed a similar question on her blog. She is probably far more articulate than me, right now. PS - This post was not meant to sound like an apologist rant. Bottom line: I don't care what your intentions are. If you live in this world, you should know better than to say or do some things to people of colour. Even if you genuinely want to offer a black man a piece of watermelon, you should know better than to do it. PPS - I still love you, Special K, white privilege and all. Never meant to snap at you.


Blogger phillyjay said...

I guess from his perspective as a white male most racism is dead.It's still alive to me, sometimes in subtle ways.Maybe he's comparing the way things were years ago to today.At least he didn't completely dismiss you.

I don't blame white people for this feeling.People have different experiences.Sort of like me being a straight guy.It would be hard for me to truly understand what it's like being on the other side (homosexual)and I do take my straightness for granted a lot when I really think about it.This could of easily allow me to dismiss or overlook gay issues since it's not my 'problem'.

I always wondered how white people would react if they were suddenly a small minority IN AMERICA in every way.I mean a minority in tv, movies, government, everything, with little to no political or economical power/influence.Gotta ask that some time.

3/28/2005 05:20:00 PM  
Blogger Karlos said...

I love you too, Jenn, even if I'm snarky.

3/28/2005 11:31:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

Everyone has bad race days, even if they don't always want to admit them.

I disagree with one thing in your post Jenn. I blame White people. I blame White people for their arrogant 'rubbing in your Black face" take on race relations in this country -- "I don't have to care because I'm White” is an easy way to get smacked in my opinion.

America is now the same as it's always been: a multiethnic, multiracial, multicultural society. No group is invisible here. White people who refuse to interact with race concerns for whatever reasons deserve scorn, because they would rather ignore their fellow citizens’ political issues than make the overall system include benefits for all people.

That's not cool.

But other than that, I couldn't imagine being White anymore than I could imagine being female, or gay, or Christian, or British. I know that I've never wanted to be any of those things. I'm just me. I'd rather keep that. Besides, it's not always peaches and cream for White people.

If you’re White, you are always told to be blond and thin and Christian and smart and beautiful and useful and noble and blue-eyed and meek and honorable. Think of the pressure! Whenever you're not 'of Nazareth' in your behavior, you've always gotta find some unsuspecting Black guy to blame your problems on. Hey, it’s not that easy! Sometimes, there aren't enough of us to go around.

3/29/2005 12:25:00 PM  

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