Friday, September 28, 2012

Ally School III: Privilege, Theory and Action

Responding on Facebook, Lisa Chavez said.
[I]t is not terribly productive in a discussion about race, especially when people of color may be talking about racism they have encountered, for white people to suddenly disrupt the conversation and start to talk about how difficult it is to be white and how horrible it is to be called a racist.  Often, no one has actually called anyone racist, but as referred to acts or speech that were racist, but someone has taken the conversation, somehow, as a label.   Then the conversation is effectively derailed.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen this happen in person and online.  It is often the point were the person of color--or put in any other person who is marginalized and is trying to discuss marginalization and privilege--checks out of the conversation.   I was speaking of this out of years of frustration at the ways these conversations go, rather than commenting on anything as an educational tool, which is why I think Kenaz approach here--showing people how not to appear racist--is so important.
For most white people, "racist" is a grievous insult.  Racism is seen as a horrible and a hurtful thing. And so when white people hear people of color -- especially people of color they like -- talking about racism, they feel insecure.  They want to reassure their friends (and themselves) that they aren't like Those People.  And when they don't get that affirmation, they start to feel that maybe the conversation is personal and they are being targeted.  This means they have to defend themselves, and thus yet another discussion goes tits-up...

This is a problem, but it's also a window for opportunity and a teachable moment for white people who find themselves in this situation.  Unless you have been specifically called out, don't assume the conversation is aimed at you.  If you are guilty of some of the behaviors they mention, make a note. You now know that at least some people find those acts or words troubling.  An apology and acknowledgement might be in order, depending on the discussion: if so, make it brief.  (Hijacking a thread for self-flagellation and confession is less offensive than hijacking it to declare everyone politically correct race pimps and feminazis, but it's still hijacking).

If you are not guilty, then you're not part of the problem and there's no reason for justifications.  It's wonderful that your coven has three Mexicans, a Jew, two blacks and a paraplegic in its membership rolls. But that has nothing to do with the experience of Pagans of color who have encountered racism elsewhere in the community.  Bringing it into the discussion does nothing toward finding potential solutions or acknowledging their problems.  At best it's a distraction: at worst it will be seen as a way of minimizing or denying their experience.
Luckily, much of the anti-racist material I have read and tend to use, does not in fact fall into the "original sin" form or racism, though it does ask everyone to examine ways in which they are privileged and not.  That is also an important conversation (and another one that often gets derailed as people elide their lack of privilege in one area with privilege in another).  These ideas are very important for people who want to be real allies, and again, this goes beyond race and encompasses a lot of areas in which one can be an ally to someone else.
Looking back, I should have been more clear.  I don't know if it is the material which is the problem so much as the way it is treated. (I'm going to go into this in more detail later).  And I agree completely that it's worthwhile to talk about privilege. But I've also seen so many discussions on privilege degenerate into "Oppression Bingo," wherein people sought to list the various ways in which they weren't privileged instead of addressing the ways they were.

A lot of white people don't get privilege -- by its very nature it's invisible to the people who have it, so that's hardly surprising. It's an important idea, but for most white people it's an abstraction.  And before I get into theory, no matter how important, I wanted to introduce some practice.  You don't have to understand privilege to know that it's rude to ask random Haitians if they practice Vodou or to touch a black woman's hair just because you're curious about the texture.  (Besides, there are already plenty of excellent pieces on the subject: I particularly like Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack").

Responding to my earlier post, whatsername (Jaded Hippy?) said:
I get where you're coming from with this post as a whole but this part concerns me: "Instead of arguing about who is or is not a bigot, I'd rather spend some time teaching people how not to look like bigots." One of the major issues I've personally had with trying to talk with other white people about racism (or with men about sexism, etc.) is a MAJOR preoccupation with how they APPEAR TO OTHERS, instead of paying attention to the actual affect of their actions/words. And this comes up a lot in particular in my neck of the woods (SF Bay Area), where people seem to think the worst thing in the world is that they have been called, or their action has been called, racist. It's like the stain to their reputation or something is worse than the fact that they did something fucked up to someone else, like a whole middle-class/upper-class thing about what counts is the surface/how one is perceived to be and not what's actually going on inside.
I think it'd be obvious what a skewed sense of priorities this is, but these same people often use a lot of social justice language to cover up the fact that they simply have NOT interrogated their Whiteness or their internalized racist attitudes and that because they're aren't part of the Klan and because they can talk some talk about social justice, they believe they haven't internalized ANY white supremacy from the white supremacist world around them.
I have seen this among many liberals on both coasts, although it does seem to be particularly endemic to the Bay Area.  They read the right books, attend the right workshops, give lip service to the right causes, and say all the right words about privilege, oppression and racism.  Yet in their daily lives they still treat  every person of color they meet as an exotic other, a potential criminal or the hired help.  They are concerned that their peers see them as not-racist: they're far less worried about how people of color outside their circle feel.

Because I've written a few books on Haitian Vodou and African spirituality, I meet a lot of white people who are genuinely interested in African and Spanish Caribbean culture.  Sure, they have unchallenged prejudices they should address but by and large their hearts are in the right place.  They don't want to be hurtful, offensive or clueless: they really do care about what people of color think of them.  Instead of teaching them the lingo which would make them appear sufficiently enlightened to other white liberals, I wanted to give them some pointers on actions which might be seen as hurtful or offensive despite their best intentions.