The Harm In Thinking You’re Not Racist
Some common themes in the comments sections of posts that discuss racism have really gotten under my skin. Perhaps this response will help challenge an unhelpful lens for someone to help them become a better ally. Hopefully these words will spur on conversation that helps me grow as well.
Conversation about racism has come front-and-centre within communities and in houses of government. Thank goodness it has, as race-based issues can be a matter of life and death. With the visibility of these issues have come the commentators who attempt to play the “lets just all get along” cards or the “I’m oppressed too so I can comment on the experience of people of colour” cards. Trying to play this hand is embarrassing at best and violent at worst.
I am a white, ethnically European, cisgender, queer, woman. YES I experience misogyny and homophobia on a regular basis. NO that does not locate me in a position that allows me to then comment as “the fellow oppressed” when it comes to racial oppression and racism.
Because despite having personal experience with forms of oppression in my own life (as many people do in some way), my oppression DOES NOT act as an antidote to the effects of my privilege. It does not relieve me of the life-long and intrinsic benefits I’ve experienced because of my visible whiteness (and let’s not for one second pretend that the cultural erasure by visible or perceived whiteness in ethnic minorities — say, a First Nations person who is read as white — is the same experience as the overt racism that visible people of colour face. They are separate experiences so we mustn’t use our experience of oppression or erasure to discredit or entitle us to the experience of someone else’s).
Not for one second am I going to attempt to pretend I am not racist. Every day of my life I strive to be aware of my racial privilege, how my whiteness impacts my perception of the world and my assumptions and interactions with those around me. I try to catch the insidious racist thoughts that were trained into me by my colonising culture — the thoughts “good people” who “aren’t racist” experience all the time.
This SHOULD make us uncomfortable! So uncomfortable that we want to say “Don’t let a word have power over you! Let’s all get along!” so that we can shift the responsibility onto the oppressed rather than having to face the deeply ingrained racism that is woven into each of us as a product of a racist society. If we cannot, as “well-meaning white people” (or others who experience versions of this privilege) confront this in ourselves we will never be part of the solution.
I am editing this piece to add this back-and-forth response to this piece which I consider to augment the message. I will quote the commentator and include my responses here —
Privilege is one of those circular concepts that comes around to bite itself in the tail. By recognizing the struggles of other people, you also have to recognize that those struggles are not about you. Making them about you distracts from those struggles and the journeys of people trying to overcome them. Because of this, whether you have privilege or not is irrelevant. It makes no difference to the person facing the barrier. All that is true in their reality is that the barrier exists. Instead of dwelling on your personal privilege, you would be better of to dwell on ways to help them overcome the barrier. Does’t matter if your understanding of the problem is in perfect. A good idea can come from any direction.
RW: While I understand the point you’re endeavouring to make here, I take exception to the suggestion that I am making it about me or dwelling on my personal privilege in such a way as to divert attention from those who are experiencing the struggle. I would argue that the fact of my privilege is far from irrelevant to matters of racism. In fact, that very line of reasoning falls squarely into some of the many well-worded analyses in this article about ‘white fragility’. I do agree that dissections of privilege can risk becoming a conversation whose focus strays from the cause, but the reality of someone’s racial barrier does not exist in a bubble. We cannot extricate the deconstruction of racism from the acknowledgment and discussion of white privilege and to suggest that we can demonstrates the damaging expectation that exists in white culture that we should be spared discomfort, confrontation, and responsibility in matters of race. I am not seeking reassurance or pitty or kudos when I lay out my understanding of how I intersect with racism. There is no “good idea”, no solution, when whiteness is not critically evaluated by white people.
“We cannot extricate the deconstruction of racism from the acknowledgment and discussion of white privilege and to suggest that we can demonstrates the damaging expectation that exists in white culture that we should be spared discomfort, confrontation and responsibility in matters of race.”
This really brings it home to me. Where is the discomfort in talking about how great your life is? Raise awareness of genuine issues.
Making people feel bad about themselves does not inspire people toward moral action. Making them empathize with the struggles of others does.
But since you advocate for white discomfort, I challenge you to a spiritual exercise. Post a list of ten barriers that people of color face. I am only guessing but, if you’re anywhere near the average, I don’t think you’ll be able to do it from off the cuff. I think you’ll have to do some research. In doing that research, you will confront the limits of how much you know and broaden your horizons. That is what white people should do with their privilege.
RW: The discomfort does not reside, for me at least, in “talking about how great (my) life is”. It’s not a question of having a great life as an isolated concept. It’s a matter of having to face the fact that my life is riddled with race-specific privileges, to which I have access over other people because of the colour of my skin and my ethnic heritage.
It isn’t “making people feel bad about themselves” nor is it about addressing privilege rather than having people empathise with the struggle of others. For white people, because of cultural dominance, not deconstructing and understanding privilege leaves us in the familiar position of approaching it as a “them problem” which can only fail because we are the primary houses of insidious systemic racism. Again, the article linked above speaks to all of this thoroughly.
Please do not attempt to reduce my point to the idea that I “advocate for white discomfort”. I advocate for people (myself included) to be aware that the inherent discomfort in the exercise of examining ones privilege should not be a barrier to making the ongoing effort to do so.
Let’s keep talking.
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