Challenging White Privilege

25 Jul

So you’ve heard the phrase white privilege (possibly with the words ‘check your’ or ‘thank Christ for’ preceding it), and you’re wondering what’s going on and why those kids keep egging your house.

I’m here to help you, but you should know from the start that my goal will be to encourage you to challenge white privilege. So if you’d rather stay blissfully ignorant, stop reading right now. Here’s a short film to keep you entertained while the grown ups are talking.

Okay, now first, let me clarify something.

I’m speaking to white people here. Why? Because in many places, just being a person of colour is in itself a challenge to white privilege. What do I mean by that? Did you know that in some parts of Mississippi the police have added ‘driving while black’ to their official list of misdemeanors? Of course, they haven’t, but for a moment, you wondered. The experience of people of colour is different than white people’s in many arenas of life. If you want to know more about what their lives are like, you really shouldn’t be asking me. Instead, you could try listening to them. Here are some you could listen to right now.

So it’s whitey to whom I’m writing. I don’t intend to blame you for slavery or call you a racist. Acknowledging white privilege is not a slur on your character, any more than it is on mine (and we all know that my character is entirely slur-proof, unless my promiscuity is the topic and quite frankly you should praising, not criticising, me for that). Nor does it mean that everything about your life is perfect and carefree. I’m sure it’s not. Lastly, it doesn’t mean that you’ve not experienced inequality yourself. You probably have, because sadly, there’s plenty of bigotry to go round (I’ll address how to destroy the patriarchy and win the class war in future posts).

White privilege is just a fact. If you look at the historical context of either of my home countries, you’ll see that being white has had quite a few benefits. Or maybe you don’t see that. Let me show you what I mean.

I come from a wealthy, white family. We got that way because my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was involved in what was, in retrospect, a somewhat dodgy deal involving China and a shitload of opium, through a contact he had made in college. He died a very, very rich man, which meant my great-great-great-great grandfather was a very, very rich son of, let’s call him what he was, a dead drug dealer. That grandfather fattened his bank book through his work as a physician. His son, thanks to his inheritance, trained in Europe as a pianist and once played for the President, and his son was able to travel as an archeologist and dug up something which he earned him big dollars. Basically, my whole family has done pretty damn well for itself money-wise; even when they’ve been failures (my great-great grandfather’s young adult sci-fi novel went nowhere fast), they’ve been frugal failures, and as a result, I’ve never been without a penny or two in my pocketbook.

Why does this matter? Well, besides being an interesting historical tale, thank you, it matters because hundreds of Whitt-Wellingtons have reaped the benefits of one man’s successful networking during his college years. Years in which the great-great-great-great-great grandfathers of African Americans were slaves, and thus unable to set up shop with a classmate who had ties to the Chinese opium market.

Now, stop yourself for a moment if you’re thinking, Agatha, my white family has never had the financial benefits of yours. I appreciate that. Many haven’t. Yet I’m guessing that your white family has done a variety of things that, at the time, your black neighbours’ families were not able to do. Those freedoms have their consequences, and many of those consequences have meant good things for your family or for your community, either directly or indirectly.

And if the benefits of those freedoms are still being felt today, it makes sense that the lack of those freedoms still has repercussions. You don’t have to feel personally responsible for that. But you do kinda gotta acknowledge it.

And we also can’t pretend inequality is a thing of the past. When I drive through a town in America and a cop pulls my car over, I don’t worry the event will end with my being dead. I don’t. Because, although I’ve been pulled over a few times, I’ve never once been shot dead — not even the time I was holding Truman Capote’s gun in my lap (long story, remind me to tell you another time). I have received one $20 ticket and zero police bullets.

So white privilege exists. What should we do about it?

If you’re really interested in making substantial change to the current system, perhaps you should be reaching out to more appropriate and less sarcastic sources. There are plenty to choose from. Visit your local library, check out some websites, and get involved in political action.

However, if you’re looking for some starter suggestions delivered simply by a charming international mover-and-shaker, you’ve come to the right place.

There are three easy instructions: think, decide, own. Let’s break those steps down a little.

Think
This guideline should come as no surprise to regular readers; there’s very little in life that wouldn’t benefit from thinking carefully first (Russian Roulette is one exception: with that, always go with your gut). Consider the situation in which you find yourself and think about what role white privilege may have played in getting you there. Sometimes its impact is large (you are able to vote despite not having your ID on you); sometimes its impact is negligent (you’ve tripped over a crack in the pavement). Think carefully, and beyond that precise moment in time.

Decide
If white privilege hasn’t played a role in your current quandary, your decision is probably quite simple. Brush yourself off, get up, and pay more attention as you walk down the street. If white privilege is involved, though, you have an important choice to make. One reason white privilege still exists is because white people benefit from it. Are you going to play even a small role in perpetuating inequality? I can’t tell you what to do in any situation (however, I don’t recommend that you ever voluntarily try to get shot by police, just to prove a point). Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself.

Own
Whatever you decide, own that decision. If you make a choice that feels like a bit of sacrifice, it’s okay to feel good about yourself (but for fuck’s sake, don’t post on Facebook trying to prove how woke you are). If you make a choice that takes advantage of white privilege, own that, too. Even if someone challenges you. Own it. Promise yourself you’ll keep thinking and questioning.

Let’s look at a few practice scenarios:

  1. You and a black man exit a store simultaneously as an alarm goes off. The clerk stops the black man but waves you away. Do you walk off?
  2. You are a white woman who has thoughts about Beyoncé’s twins that you’re sure the world needs to hear. Do you write a blog post?
  3. You’re at a business event where a colleague makes a racist comment you do not agree with. How do you respond?

What did you think about? If you’d really been in these situations, would have been able to own whatever decisions you made?

Please do not misinterpret my confident tone and excellent taste in eyeglass frames as evidence that I have perfected the three step programme. There are times when I don’t think enough until it’s too late, and there are times when I regret my decisions. However, I do try and you can, too.

Making it all the way to the end of this post is a good start, but let’s face it, it ain’t your good deed for the week. It’d probably wise now to continue learning and thinking and challenging.

It’s all right if you need to eat something first. Are you hungry? You look hungry. I worry about you, you know. Eat first.  And then go from there.

 

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