9.19.2012

the privilege of denial



I remember doing what's called a Privilege Walk during my freshman year of college. There was a group of us and we stood in a line and we were given instructions. You had to take steps forward or steps back depending on how you answered certain questions. Are most people in power the same gender as you? Race as you? Are you the first in your family to go to college? Do most people on TV and the covers of magazines have the same skin tone as you? Stuff like that. And I'm sure you can see where this is going.

I did this exercise several times with several different groups of people. At the end of the exercise, the white males were always in the front. Guess who was always in the back? Me. And the only other non-white person because I went to private Christian college and when you're a minority at private Christian college you're REALLY a minority.

So there I was. In the back. With the only other non-white person in the group. Being a woman AND an ethnic minority was not the winning combination in this exercise. And it was embarrassing. 

But you know who always complained about the exercise? The white males. Because even though I was the one who was in the back because people who look like me are not represented in politics, leadership, entertainment or even the college I was attending, somehow it was even more embarrassing for these young, white men to come to terms with their own privilege.

And I get it. Being confronted with the realities of one's privilege is a really difficult thing. I've had to go through the process of identifying and reconciling my own privilege. Because despite what the Privilege Walk would imply, I have privilege too. I am American. By simply being born in this country (which I had absolutely no control over) I am one of the most privileged people on the planet. Does that mean I feel guilty about being an American? No. Aware of my privilege? Yes. Aware of how that privilege affects others around the globe, whether or not I intentionally mean to affect them? Yes. Absolutely. 

One of my favorite bloggers, Dianna Anderson, is currently writing a series on her site about understanding privilege.


"Privilege is an advantage I have but am not always aware of. It is something inherent to my self that has the ability to affect how easy or difficult my life is."

Based on this understanding, although it can be a challenging journey to understand your privilege, simply having privilege is not a bad thing. It's not something you control. You can't help it if you were born a certain way! But it's still an important thing to acknowledge, as Dianna points out:  

"Understanding our implicit privileges and the ways they cloud our thinking is vital for a discussion in social justice to actually get anywhere."

Understanding privilege is vital for a discussion on social justice, huh? Well then imagine my surprise in discovering that a supposed leader in the multiracial advocacy movement has not yet come to terms with her own privilege. The woman (who happens to be white) heading the organization Project RACE is mad that people keep tossing around the phrase "white privilege" and yesterday she wrote an entire post about it on the organization's official blog, which is both peculiar and unprofessional. I'd like the share the highlights of said post, but you can read the entire thing here. The opening line of her post is the following statement:

"I’m sick of hearing people infer that if you are white, you are somehow privileged. Mitt Romney is, but that’s just one guy..."

I'm perplexed by her "argument." It's like she's saying, "Just because Mitt Romney is privileged doesn't mean every white person is!" White privilege is not synonymous for "extremely wealthy." She is already missing the point and it's only the first sentence of her post.

This woman then goes on to claim that she has trouble even finding a definition of White Privilege. Correction: She has trouble finding a definition she likes. Even though she finds a fairly solid definition on Wikipedia, she ignores that definition and focuses on the one she finds on....drum roll please...Urban Dictionary. And what does the completely unbiased, not at all prejudiced and completely enlightened Urban Dictionary definition have to say?

[White privilege is] The racist idea that simply being white benefits people in some unexplainable way, and that discriminating against white people is not only okay, but enlightened and necessary. The excuse some extremists use to justify pretty much any level of racism, as long as it is coming from people of color.

Oh, awesome. Glad this advocate on behalf of multiracial people is getting her information from reliable sources. 

She then goes on to discuss how she came across a dissertation topic that perplexed her.

"The working title of the dissertation is White Mothers’ Advocacy for their Biracial Sons and Daughters in US Schools: Colliding with White Privilege. Huh? She went on to explain that the study is to explore the ways in which white privilege impacts us white mothers while we are in the school setting with our multiracial kids.

What in the world is this woman talking about? No white mother I ever knew who advocated for her children ever needed strategies to deal with white privilege. It doesn’t matter if we are single, non-single, biological, or adoptive mothers, we are advocating for our multiracial children, not worrying about how white privilege, if there is such a thing, is impacting us." 
"If there is such a thing." Hm. Right.

Being a parent to a multiracial child when you yourself are not a racial minority actually sounds like a fascinating topic for a dissertation. And if there was ever a time when a white person should seriously come to terms with their privilege it would be when raising a non-white child! 

So after reassuring us that she is "advocating for our multiracial children, not worrying about how white privilege, if there is such a thing, is impacting us," she continues by dismissing the landmark essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. She also attempts to discrediting some more scholars about their studies on race relations in this country based on...well, absolutely nothing except probably that Urban Dictionary definition. She winds down her post with the following statement.

If the goal of some of the academics is to make us white folks feel discriminated against, maybe it’s working, but that’s different from making us feel guilty for being white. No one will ever make me feel guilty about being a white woman leader in the multiracial advocacy movement.
 
There are so many things. First, to imply that a discussion of white privilege is somehow "discrimination" against white people is not only ludicrous but highly offensive. Second, to imply that some of the most important scholars on race relations in this country are making up white privilege to just pick on white people is equally as ludicrous and offensive. 

Acknowledging white privilege does not mean you need to feel guilty about being white. Having privilege doesn't mean your life is a piece of cake or that you don't have struggles or that you didn't earn anything you have. Having privilege doesn't negate the hard work and sacrifice of your family or your ancestors. Having privilege doesn't mean that you can't advocate on behalf of those who have less privilege.  

And I feel bad if this person has felt like people have questioned her leadership of a multiracial advocacy organization because she's white. That is wrong. 

However.  

She cannot claim to be the voice of racial minorities without acknowledging the ways she (as a white person) benefits from the system that makes multiracial advocacy necessary in the first place. As a biracial person, it is completely unacceptable to me that someone who claims to be an advocate for the multiracial community would openly proclaim that she not only doesn't believe that white privilege even exists but that it is not a necessary part of the conversation in multiracial advocacy. This is the comment this woman wrote back to me when I challenged her about her position:
We can easily have a discussion of multiracial advocacy without a conversation on white privilege if some academic and academic librarians would let it go.
This was part of my response:
The fact that you can deny white privilege is actually the most incriminating evidence of the fact that you have it. You may be able to dismiss it, but for racial minorities we live with the realities of white privilege every day.
Like I stated earlier, I've had to come face to face with my own privilege. And sometimes it's been painful. And sometimes it's easier to get defensive and brush it off. Because I can. Because I have the privilege to do so. But that's not the right thing to do. I've openly and honestly shared about I believe that black/white biracial women need to understand and recognize our own Light-Skinned privilege if we are going to be true advocates for issues concerning black women. Because I agree with Dianna when she says that understanding privilege is a crucial and necessary part of social justice.

I'm sure that this woman has done wonderful things for the multiracial community. I'm sure she loves her multiracial son and wants him to be considered equal in society. I'm sure that she probably doesn't realize the harm she is doing by promoting denial of white privilege and belittling those who would dare to challenge her.

And I'm also sure, with every biracial bone in my body, that I don't want her speaking for me.

Photobucket