Sunday, July 29, 2007

it ain't privilege, it's injustice

to pick up where the north star left off with what some have called our "scathing critique of white Leftist culture"...

a particular phenomenon in the immensely white Leftist circles at yale is a rhetorical and ideological obssession with the notion of White Privilege.

it is not uncommon to hear a white liberal campus organizer at yale say something along the lines of, "we white students at yale walk around enjoying a great deal of privilege because of the color of our skin - it is because of this privilege that we must work to uplift the citizens of new haven."

within the veins of the activist community at yale that even venture to contemplate issues of race, the ability to acknowledge and discuss White Privilege is considered a great testament to one's radicalism.

however, the fact that most white students at yale (or in this nation) do not think critically about the relationship between their whiteness and social power does not mean that those white, self-professed progressives who recognize their social and economic privilege have accomplished anything more than a certain degree of honesty about history.

news to the aforementioned self-congratulatory white Leftists:

the much-beloved term "White Privilege" fails to capture the reality of racial injustice in this nation. moreover, unquestioning and incessant talk about the special position that white people inhabit in society reproduces racial divisions in progressive movements and upholds the logic of White Supremacy.

not exactly revolutionary...

“White Privilege” is a misnomer for it suggests that white people enjoy socioeconomic advantages and benefits beyond a standard level of rights and opportunity (which presumably non-white people are afforded). however, the term does not account for the exploitation and disfranchisement of people of color that is a consequence of “White Privilege.” people of color do not possess the freedoms and protections of full and actualized citizenship. the legal and social structures of this nation do not merely demonstrate partiality towards white people but also simultaneously deny people of color the most basic of human rights, such as housing, health, education, justice, peace. the corollary to what some would term “White Privilege” is “colored degradation.”

for example, if the world were organized by “White Privilege” rather than “Racism,” a police officer might be especially kind to white people while nonetheless providing people of color with legal protection, aid, fairness under the law.

and so the white Leftists who think they are down because they have got the courage to lamentably declare, “We’ve got White Privilege,” it would be more accurate and truthful to say instead, "We are beneficiaries of racism," or "We participate in a racialized system of oppression."

how much more reluctant is the race conscious white activist to admit that his “privilege” has a consequence, that his whiteness is more than merely a personal reality about his own social power but is also an agent of violence.

as a blactivist at yale, i have found it rare to emerge from an organizing conversation or meeting with a white peer without a guilt-stricken or self-righteous allusion to “White Privilege.”

the insistence of many white campus activists upon talking about their White Privilege ad nauseam re-inscribes racial stratification and therefore begs the question:

“do you articulate the reality of your whiteness in a spirit of honesty and repentance or as a means of clinging to the privilege and social order you claim to seek to destroy?”

part of the project for white activists in recognizing their “privilege” should be the rejection of it – one must repent from, rather than embody an identity that represents oppression in its representation of privilege. “White Privilege” ought not be considered permanent or inherent, as if it inescapably resides in a white activist’s skin.

there is great violence enacted on the strategy and, more importantly, the soul of a community when the reality of "White Privilege" is used as a reminder of the agency and power white activists hold and that peers of color allegedly do not and may never possess. “White Privilege” is a construction that can be drained of its power if it is rejected - rhetorically and by individual and organized collective action.

the ceaseless, widespread rhetoric of White Privilege is also often used to describe the special commission or power that white Leftists feel they have in political efforts to make change. manifest destiny has well taught us to be wary of the salvific missions of white folk. the assertion that whiteness qualifies one as best suited to make change not only disempowers and excludes people of color from the struggle to reshape their own lives but is paternalistic and supremacist in logic.

it is undoubtedly necessary that the white activist recognizes that there are social responsibilities that accompany each social position and that there are moral imperatives associated with each identity, but to believe that it is “White Privilege” which enables change corroborates rather than disrupts the notion of white power. and for all who believe that change comes from the bottom up, for all who believe in the power that resides in the folk and in the collective, and for all who believe in the grassroots, the notion of a white folks’ coalition for justice is heresy.

it is a great contradiction and injury that so much of white Leftist culture hinges upon the use of “White Privilege” as a badge, shield, or excuse. such toxic rhetoric and action naturalize and uphold the racial injustice that undermines the integration, equality, and solidarity we profess to seek.

32 comments:

XambedkarX said...

I think you hit on one of the major issues, which is that neat terms like "white privilege" come to people as a nervous tic which they think expiates the need to actually unpack the issues. "Oh you know, blah blah blah, white privilege, blah blah blah." Look, I used a buzzword, now I don't have to think about what I've said. I checked that box and earned 5 street creds.

The problem is that people believe that if they have beliefs, it makes everything ok. Oh, I was railing against the white establishment, but I'm white and well-educated... I don't want to be a hypocrite, so I'll just say that I recognize the hypocrisy, then my problematic position will disappear in a puff of logic. When David Duke admits he's a racist, it doesn't make him any less racist.

I'm struggling to think of solutions to this problem, though, Naima. I have two so far. One, people need to relax and speak only when they have something to say. Two, people need to exorcise words and phrases from their speech that seek to over-simplify complex issues. At the most basic level, saying "white privilege" in a blase manner is just disrespectful and reeks of dismissal.

Naima said...

xambedkarx, thank you so much for your comment. you capture a lot of what i was trying to communicate with my post. i think your description of how people use the buzzword of "white privilege" is wholly accurate (as if they can check the "i recognize my white privilege box" and earn five street creds).

i agree that the rhetoric of "white privilege" is easy and incomplete - although it casts the illusion that it's not. this goes back to the point i was trying to make about how simplistically someone can say, "i've got white privilege" without recognizing what the broader consequences of such a social identity are for others.

i think we'll have to keep struggling for solutions to this problem, irrespective of race, and share what we come up with in the conversations we have inside and outside of our communities. we've got to be bold and critical and committed enough to call each other out when we fall into this trap and also to be accountable when we do ourselves.

and we can always brainstorm on the north star - we're here to change things after all. :)

Anonymous said...

I find your analysis discomforting as it doesn't address your concerns with white privilege as an idea, but rather expresses your disdain for those who may honestly just be trying to figure out how to act around blactivists such as yourself who seek to attack them no matter what point of view they take besides literally saying, "Hey, yeah, so white people are terrible, horrible, in every possible way and we shouldn't speak pretty much ever because what the hell, we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't."

Your negative criticism of white progressives in general is alarming and it is very much akin to what I see at my school, as well. There is literally nothing a white guy can do that will satisfy you. Just like how we all wish not to be judged by the color of your skin in a conservative society, they are judged in a progressive sphere for their whiteness.

For one thing, you don't speak of creating an equal footing between blacks and whites by negating identity period. You only call upon the whites to repent for their white injustice. By literally saying, "I am the beneficiary of racism" what you are asking them to do is appeal to some seemingly objective, disinterested point (God, society, whatever) and have that objective point knock them down a figurative peg.

The problem with this is that it doesn't encourage equality between blacks and whites, but instead encourages perpetual hostility, which each beseeching the objective point to knock the other down a peg.

You can't defeat privilege by appealing over the head of those you wish to confront. Nor can you defeat privilege by categorizing all whites as having advantages blacks do not have. As Patricia Hill Collins suggested, there is a matrix of oppression to consider and if we point to a social group and say, "Hey, you, repent," we could play the finger pointing game from now until eternity. Rich blacks pointing to poor whites arguing over who has more privilege. Poor blacks and poor Hispanics arguing over who is more oppressed.

This isn't how to start a revolution, finger pointing over who has more privilege than whom.

And aggressively attacking whites may seem cathartic (and it is) but it's not going to gain allies for equality.

There's a point where we really need to talk to one another and not blame each other for past cultural injustices. This is not to say that we don't need to point out violence as it happens or that these injustices aren't significant, but the focus should not be on the past, but on the future. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get your pound of flesh from that rich suburban white kid from New York for hundreds of years of racism. It just doesn't work that way and whatever flesh you do manage to extract from the poor kid, it's not going to create an ally for racial equity--it's going to alienate him from the cause altogether. I've seen it happen far too many times to think otherwise.

And that's what I think is the biggest problem with white privilege discussion today. The entire concept, I agree, is quite fucked up. But for a different set of reasons.

Josh said...

(Anonymous, I do not know that you are white but I am replying as if you were to make my language less complex. Sorry, if you are not!)

Anonymous, please see the violence of your own words.

First of all, this whole post is about the term white privilege. Language invokes its speakers, so it's a bit foolish to try and divorce the two. With issues like these, it is important to name and call out who your audience is because, as you know, no one wants to be the white "progressive" kid who is still racist. Therefore, you need to address the intended audience: white kids who use the term white privilege. This way no one gets wrongly categorized or sincerely opts out of a critique they simply do not want to hear.

You, as a reader, have a choice to accept Naima's critique as a spiteful attack on everything white (although she specifies EXACTLY who she is speaking to: white kids who use the term white privilege; NOT ALL WHITE PROGRESSIVES as you suggest) or a bridge for understanding. I think we see which option you chose from your comment. Please reconsider your decision when reading my comment. Thanks.

I understand that you are frustrated, however, fueling the fire by exaggerating Naima's critique does not help your case in any way. When non-whites critique aspects of the white community, there is no need to think they hate everything white. The same is true for a white organization that criticizes a black hip hop artist (ignoring problematic trends and generalizations done in this arena, of course). The fact, though, that I have to include that last sentence to prove I don't hate everything white tells me a lot about your racial politics.

You do not trust me.
You do not think I want to establish a fair and equal coalition.
You think I merely want to embarrass you.

These are my thoughts, my guesses.

We do not call for anyone to be judged for their whiteness. Instead, we are disappointed that so many white progressives fall into the same problematic trends. There is a difference.

This can be seen when you say Naima does not speak of creating an equal footing by negating identity.

The goal is not to negate identity, as you suggest.

It is to respect the different identities we possess, including whiteness. The thought that Naima's critique of whites who invoke white privilege (again, NOT whiteness) demands her to write the fact that she supports the rights of all humans regardless of color is ridiculous. There is nothing in this post that makes me think Naima is somehow looking to limit the voices of people belonging to any identity.

It's interesting that you say acknowledging racism "knocks [whites] down a figurative peg." I actually don't disagree with you here. I think the goal Naima points out here (explicitly and implicitly) is that we should strive to be at the same level. I would bet that Naima thinks acknowledging gender inequality, homophobia, and bigotry directed at religions all "knocks one down a peg"...towards a more progressive society.

Ah, but the disagreement starts back up again in your next paragraph. If "appealing over the head" means laying down a truth that might be difficult to grapple with, then send the planes over! As a man, I needed that gender equality plane to fly over me, sadly, multiple times before I realized how easily I can contribute to patriarchy because of the inequalities perpetuated (then made normative) by other men.

However, I reject the distance you create in your "over the head" metaphor and I perpetuate in my own plane metaphor. We actually both received direct appeals to realize the errors of our ways. We simply ignored them point-blank. If we do choose a distance metaphor, it is the result of us not stretching. You can easily reach the point Naima made and the one I am hopefully making. Please do so.

As Naima rejected in her post, I also reject any notion of magical or biological privilege in white skin. Therefore, we agree that all whites don't have advantages over all blacks...in an isolated hypothetical example.

Unfortunately, things like the 1790 civilization law, which made immigration a white skin privilege, as well as the WWII housing subsidies available widely to whites and scarcely to non-whites (to name just a few biggies) built a reality where white racists in the past have judged your white skin better than my black skin.

This is where Naima's argument needs to break through and scream at anyone who wants to shout with equal strength, "THEN I REJECT MY WHITE PRIVILEGE!" It is exactly this plea that advances the same logic their racist white ancestor used: white skin AS THE privilege. Instead, they must fully acknowledge the injustices their "privilege" is built upon. It's not a skin color, it's a system of injustices based on a false notion of skin supremacy.

I have to humbly propose that there shouldn't be long battles over this fact and that you, in fact, are creating a battleground where there ought to be a round table of discussion. One I hope we're both sitting around right now.

"There's a point where we really need to talk to one another and not blame each other for past cultural injustices."

Was Naima not talking to you?
Am I not talking to you?
Are we invisible? Do our mouths only release hateful indictments of white culture when we try to critique anything involving white people?

Past cultural injustices dictate the present reality, NOT our future. But for you to become a successful ally to me, you have to acknowledge your place in this narrative just as I do. It's not a better place or a worse place than mine. Merely a different one. Otherwise, our interracial coalition will allow your skin to mean something different than mine for non-historical reasons. And I can't deal with that because the same logic would be implanted in all the allies we would win together.

A logic that says your skin inherently earns a privilege that mine never could even attempt to have.

This critique, however, does not own a skin. The thing that frustrates you and that you think might give power to one race over another is yours to fully own and inhabit. It would simply come from a white mouth. Nothing else should be different.

Right?

If someone, even you, is not ready to be my ally because he or she cannot accept the past and present that their circumstance (including race) bestows upon them, then I have to wave goodbye and assume your pride would always drive you more than the battle against injustice ever would as you are not only denying my perspective but the perspective of many of the people you would be helping.

Identities with horrible pasts cannot be

POOF!

negated.

They must be carefully dealt with within our coalition continually, so we can champion our coalition not as a partnership that erased race and real racial consequences as a factor for us (yet imposes this colorless dialogue on our other allies who might still be dealing with racial issues), but instead fosters a coalition that acts as a living and breathing model for racial reconciliation and justice.

That's my vision.

Naima said...

anonymous, if you think the goal of blactivism is to attack white people no matter what point of view they take, then i think you and the north star are operating with different understandings of the word.

i think that honesty is one way that we begin to move towards equality between black PEOPLE and white PEOPLE. what kind of equality will ever exist if every time white peers say/do something racist, i smile and nod and think, "well, if we're going to ever stand on equal footing, i can't go talking to this person like a human being, like a peer, and discuss all of the behaviors and language that are currently standing in the way of our progress! i’ll just be the quiet colored girl in the corner, so thankful this person has learned SOMETHING in school and ALSO believes there is such a thing as racism."

if we believe systems of oppression are truly pervasive, do we not believe some of the penchants of injustice will manifest in ourselves? is it not our duty as folk with PROFESSED commitments to social justice and racial equality to challenge and improve each other and ourselves as we seek to challenge and improve the world?

"This isn't how to start a revolution, finger pointing over who has more privilege than whom."

i am calling on white activists to CEASE creating so many degrees of separation from their allies of color, by clinging rhetorically and behaviorally to their "white privilege."

as for this post being an aggressive attacks against white people in general please refer to the first four paragraphs of my post. "white Leftist culture," "immensely white Leftist circles at yale," "white liberal campus organizer at yale," "veins of the activist community at yale." my post definitely does have broad implications but i speak from much of my personal experience doing campus organizing and activism at school with white liberals i have been/ am/ and will be friends with.

my entire post is about moving forward - it seems that you think "aggressively attacking whites" as i have allegedly done in this post is a step back, being controlled by "past cultural injustices." my post argues that those white individuals who allow their identities to be subsumed with the sense of guilt and sense of privilege associated with "past cultural injustices," and thus understand themselves solely in these terms, are holding us back - and should acknowledge the truths of the past and the present and make the choices necessary to CHANGE those realities.

well said josh.

kahve said...

Naima, thanks for making a thoughtful distinction between 'privilege' and 'racism'. I think it hit home for me because I'm one of those white campus progressives that does talk about white privilege a lot! I think you're right that it's more honest to talk not just about white privilege but about non-white oppression - or about both together.

As for the anonymous commenter, it's an interesting post. S/he says "there is literally nothing a white guy can do to satisfy you". This comes up again and again - what do people of color want? How can we make them like us?

Those of us with white guilt reflexively look to non-whites for absolution. I still find myself doing that sometimes after thinking about this issue for years. It's an ironic aspect of white privilege - that white folks are looking for some kind of reward for giving that privilege up, and have a hard time accepting that renouncing racism is simply justice, not something that earns you some special reward. In other words, it's not about "satisfying" people of color enough that they all want to be your friend. It's about speaking the truth because it's right, even if it gets you no reward.

The other thing in the anonymous post that stuck out at me was the idea that equality comes from "negating identity". For me, this is a poignant point, because I think one of the ways that racism harms white people is by substituting racial privileges for an ability to celebrate their own cultural difference. Racism _becomes_ identity, or at least heavily colors it, for a lot of white people. Asking them to give it up thus feels like they have to give up their identities. Thus it sounds logical to demand that people of color give up their identities too in order to create 'equality' - an even trade, right?

But when you look a little closer, this line of thinking is another example of whites asking people of color to give them something in return for renouncing racism. Just like it's bad parenting to give a kid a present in return for not behaving badly, it's foolish for white folks to expect something in return for renouncing oppression. The challenge, then, is to disentangle identity from whiteness. A big project, but a lot more worthwhile than suggesting that we should "negate" our identities.

Just my 2c. Thanks all for the good conversations!

MadameB said...

This post reminds me of another example of anguage covering up for sloppy thinking.
I remember years ago reading some of Mary Daly's feminist analysis. She took issue with statements like "Women are oppressed." She thought such statements were half of a thought as they mentioned only the object of opression without naming the agent. Women are oppressed by whom? This allows people to mention sexism and feel good abou themselves without thinkng too hard about how it works and who benifits from it.
In the same sense many statements about white privlege are half thoughts, but ommitting this time the half about who is oppressed and how.

Camille said...

Anonymous:

1. There is literally nothing a white guy can do that will satisfy you.

Actually, you can be a strong and sincere ally in actively combating racism. And you can do it because you strongly and sincerely know you should, not to "satisfy" me.

2. There's a point where we really need to talk to one another and not blame each other for past cultural injustices.

I don't remember the last time I said, "Boy, that racism/sexism/classism/homophobia stuff sure did suck...way back in the day." Those are things that are still around. It doesn't help anyone to pretend they aren't. They'll start to become "past injustices" when you get yer butt working on point # 1.

kameelah said...

Excellent points Naima!

Reposted with commentary:
http://kameelahwrites.blogspot.com/2007/08/safe-terms-euphemisms-distracting.html
http://blackademics.org/2007/08/04/safe-terms-euphemisms-distracting-discursive-projects-white-privilege-whats-in-a-name/
http://www.blacklooks.org/2007/08/safe_terms_euphemisms_distracting_discursive_projects_white_privilege_whats_in_a_name.html

Camille said...

Actually though, there is one way to think of it as genuinely a privilege, which I have a feeling you won't agree with. So we start with the assumption that everyone is held down and subordinated by the existence of the State--even people who we think of as oppressors, because even they can never be powerful enough to surmount the state itself or move beyond it in any way. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all their -ism friends are tools of the state to disenfranchise people who could otherwise form alliances, to stratify us into social and economic classes, and to keep us complacent (or at least hopeless) and within boundaries.

Then, some people have the privilege of being less put down by the state. Some of us carry the weight of a bag full of oppressions, and some have the privilege of carrying fewer, allowing them to dominate some other disenfranchised groups of people. It's a privilege in terms of that's what you're given, because you will never ever grab enough to move out of the confines of the state's hold on you. Thus straight people are given some allowances over queer people, men are given some allowances over women & kids, and so on.

Like if we were all given balloons with different amounts of helium, and they carried us up higher than other people, depending on how much helium there was in each--but we're inside a snow-globe. If we're all at different heights inside the snow-globe, we're simply stuck, but if we can find ways to start leveling out our balloon-floating, maybe all of us together can bust the snow-globe walls.

Theoretical anarchist bullshit? Maybe. I was reading a little Malatesta. BUT, also a framework in which privilege could actually mean what it says.

Laura said...

Naima's post makes us look more closely at the term "white privilege" to dig up the metaphor that it hides. If we don't take the time to analyze the words we're using carefully, in discussions of racism, sexism, art, politics, then we won't uncover the conceptual metaphors by which we unconsciously live. Language shapes our reality in ways we aren't even aware (see George Lakoff, "Metaphors we live by" and "Moral Politics"). I loved madameb's note on "women are oppressed."

But while I think it is necessary to analyze this term out of context to track its linguistic roots and larger implications, as Naima does, it is problematic to then plunk it back into context and say that white yale kids are using it as a hitch to avoid thinking about the real problem or actively doing something to solve it. You can't blame them for not thinking critically about their conceptual metaphors--that's the point, that there are hidden worlds that words have built up in our unconscious minds, influencing how we think and act. Hence anonymous's reaction of feeling attacked: no one, and no yalie in particular, likes to be accused of not thinking below the surface, or using language carelessly. The post may have been better to stop at a linguistic meditation on "white privilege," finding fault with the term itself, rather than with its white users.

Naima writes, "it is a great contradiction and injury that so much of white Leftist culture hinges upon the use of “White Privilege” as a badge, shield, or excuse."

Is that really how it's being used, for the most part, as a badge, shield, and excuse? I think that's step 2 of this analysis--recording a chunk of conversation and looking at how the term is actually being used.

I'm reminded of the word "articulate," and a friend who told me, "Well, I'm not thinking in a racist way when I use it, so it's okay." But this is the point: to uncover the unconscious reasons we use certain words on a societal scale. This is why Naima's analysis is so valuable. The friend also asked me, angrily, "Am I supposed to just cut that word out of my vocabulary?" No... and yes, it seems to me, and I'm interested to hear what Naima thinks about appropriate ways to continue using "white privilege." Like the "s/he" problem, while it takes more time to accommodate the inadequacies of English language, and while it is exhausting to avoid cliches and idioms and come up with original, critical expressions of your ideas, the effort will perhaps lead us to a more productive way of communicating. So next time, Naima, your white activist friends talk about white privilege, I hope you stop them for a linguistics detour.

Obviously just words cannot solve racial injustice, and throwing around "white privilege" doesn't absolve anyone from the responsibility to take action. But the cool thing about language is its fluidity--let's just come up with a new term, right now.

Tom said...

Camille, I'm new at this stuff, and trying to learn.

I thought your last comment was what white privilege meant. If you're white, then "the fix is in." The privilege might be usable to fight for something better, but an individual can't really turn it off.

The other part, individual behavioral problems like a tendency to talk over other people, set the terms of debate, get paternalistic ... that stuff is "white" but I can't believe that any individual is stuck with those behaviors. That is personal, in-your-face domination, not "the system," and it needs to be unlearned.

I've wondered whether always talking about white privilege is just annoying, in the same way that if I were "allied" with a very wealthy person, I might get tired of hearing about her money.

I'm really trying to learn, not debate.

sky said...

I'm suspicious of a critique based on how words can reduce a complex issue. Words have power, and should be used--especially to reference complex issues. For example, 'oppression' references a very complex phenomenon (though not superbly; the agency is ambiguous, e.g. 'black oppression,' 'Soviet oppression' is clear only by the context).

However, to expand on the post's reference to agency, I think the main issue is the responsibility/opportunity that using the term 'White privilege' implies--especially in a progressive context.

"[How can I use my/our] white privilege ..." summons ways of exploiting an injustice, whereas
"[How do we stop] black/racist oppression..." (no less pithy) brings the words that do not depend on the system to dismantle.

Within a Yale context, perhaps 'Yale privilege' is the relevant invocation--for certain privileges may be worth exploiting without fear of reinforcing what we want to destroy. I imagine Yale students can provide privileged contacts, attention, funds, and smarts for progressive ends...

(Perhaps the privileges afforded to Yale students is worth dismantling, too, but presumably, if you're attending Yale, that may be a lower priority :-)

My real point/question is whether the terms we use, in some sense, must invoke means consistent with our ends.

PS Given the other comments, it seems I should identify myself as white, if only to provide future data for pattern analysis ;-)

Camille said...

More thoughts on how to approach the subject: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. It's far from a perfect essay, but it's a good start to looking at privilege in positive and negative lights.

Josh said...

Camille, I think your claim about privilege is correct within that state model. But that's entirely the reason why we need to talk about it differently. It locks us into that oppressive worldview of magical skin.

A higher balloon is a privilege within the oppressive State system. Still, it is not enough to say I reject what the State gives me. Then, privilege becomes simply a matter of taste and polite refusals. You must say that this "privilege" is not a privilege for anyone, black, white, or yellow. This is best done, imo, by tying what has been thought of as privilege to injustices that truly perpetuate what we now known as common identity "privileges."

We've got to show that unbalanced balloon structure as something that hurts ALL of us and makes us ALL less human thanks to the -isms our society puts in place.

The way I have seen white privilege used and the way Naima describes it have almost always added helium to white people's balloons making them still not unified with others thanks to the perpetuation of magical skin.

To me, the language of white privilege ties us to a bigoted State when I want to be set free from it.

Josh said...

Laura,

Let's take a look at these quotes.

"I loved madameb's note on "women are oppressed.

But while I think it is necessary to analyze this term out of context to track its linguistic roots and larger implications, as Naima does, it is problematic to then plunk it back into context and say that white yale kids are using it as a hitch to avoid thinking about the real problem or actively doing something to solve it."

I think Mademb's point and Naima's are the same.

White privilege is an abused term.

Who abuses it?

Many white activist circles use it in this way...

I think it is important to know the groups that abuse the word and the way in which it is abused by them.

I think if we do not identify that, then we fall into a longstanding trend of "protecting" a group of white people, which I think is an extremely unhelpful thing to everyone involved as well as being a problematic historical trend.

Anonymous did not respect Naima or her argument for reasons that, I believe, were obviously more longstanding than Naima's words. To me, that is the type of behavior we would assuage with a hollow explanation of a term we know to be used by many white activists. I think it hides poor qualities instead of confronting them. Sometimes, you need to see the vile spew released from racism or any other -ism before you can fully address it. Otherwise, we get the common "oh, that's not me" excuse. This is allowed by not keeping people accountable through a loving critique of their actions.

Lastly, the fault is not with them; rather, it is with their language and the casual use of it in many white activist circles. Like anyone, they along with their (hopefully, more diverse) circles can change for the better.

Camille said...

part of the project for white activists in recognizing their “privilege” should be the rejection of it – one must repent from, rather than embody an identity that represents oppression in its representation of privilege. “White Privilege” ought not be considered permanent or inherent, as if it inescapably resides in a white activist’s skin.


This is an amazing statement that speaks volumes to me.

I might, perhaps, come back later with more words to say, but for now I am reading, absorbing, thinking...

Thanks for your words.

Naima said...

hi everyone. i've recently read a collection of essays that deal with issues related to gender, sexuality, race, and class. many of the essays deal with the notion of white privilege (as well as things like class privilege, the privilege that comes with higher education, etc.). the essays explore the significance and implications of the term far beyond the meaning/use i begin to delineate in this post.

the collection is called COLONIZE THIS!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. it's edited by daisy hernandez and bushra rehman with a foreword by cherrie moraga. it's put out seal press and was recommended to me by bjb star, camille.

READ IT.

peace everyone.

Anonymous said...

Laura:

I don't know if you're still reading this, but I wonder if you (or perhaps someone else) could explain this comment:

I'm reminded of the word "articulate," and a friend who told me, "Well, I'm not thinking in a racist way when I use it, so it's okay." But this is the point: to uncover the unconscious reasons we use certain words on a societal scale. This is why Naima's analysis is so valuable.

I've looked up "articulate" on M-W and I'm still mystified and genuinely curious. What racist overtones does "articulate" have? (M-W defines it as "intelligible" and says it comes from a Latin word meaning "jointed.")

Claire said...

This discussion about “White Privilege” reminds me of another I had a while ago about the phrase “There but for the Grace of God go I”.

how much more reluctant is the race conscious white activist to admit that his “privilege” has a consequence, that his whiteness is more than merely a personal reality about his own social power but is also an agent of violence.

Naima, this is the very heart of the issue for me. None of us wants to believe that we perpetuate the machinery of oppression.

and so the white Leftists who think they are down because they have got the courage to lamentably declare, “We’ve got White Privilege,” it would be more accurate and truthful to say instead, "We are beneficiaries of racism," or "We participate in a racialized system of oppression."

I would go a little further here, because to “benefit from racism” and to “participate in a racialized system of oppression” is to be…well, a racist.

part of the project for white activists in recognizing their “privilege” should be the rejection of it – one must repent from, rather than embody an identity that represents oppression in its representation of privilege.

Someone once told me, “You folks like to be working on the problem, but you don’t really want to solve it.” I think this is a fairly true generality, although this reality is pretty buried in our consciousnesses. And many of us may not fully understand what it means to reject an identity of white privilege. So we must keep on talking with one another.

As a man, I needed that gender equality plane to fly over me, sadly, multiple times before I realized how easily I can contribute to patriarchy because of the inequalities perpetuated (then made normative) by other men.

Josh, thank you for this thought, because I believe it can provide another window to understanding this issue. I expect my husband to remain vigilant at all times to the dynamics of misogyny. And although he sometimes takes a bunch of sh*t for his stance, he gets no extra credit from me. He’s just doing what’s right.

Camille said...

I've looked up "articulate" on M-W and I'm still mystified and genuinely curious. What racist overtones does "articulate" have?

Anonymous: "Articulate" is a word that's often used when you don't expect that person to be capable of stringing words together. It ends up becoming a euphemism when applied to people of color for "you are speaking English in a way I'm willing to understand" or "you talk like you could be white." Like when a white person encounters a black person, expecting them to only slur and use non-standard grammar; when the white person is willing to understand the black person, saying something like "Oh, you're so articulate" shows that they weren't expecting them to be. As a word on its own it's not racist, but it's got a history of being condescending.

Anonymous said...

In criticizing white Leftists' use of the phrase "white privilege," which I hadn't considered but seems quite important, I wonder if it might be helpful to distinguish between different kinds of privilege/ways in which whites benefit from opression. That is, in many situations white people can (and therefore should) refuse to take advantage of injustices that work in their benefit. Yet there are things that, as a white person, I can't directly control. I'm less likely to get pulled over because of the way I look, for example. And I had a host of privileges growing up that were in part class and in part race privilege. I hear what you are saying, Camille, but I'm not sure what it would mean to renounce the privilege I experience as the recipient of the long end of the violent stick of institutional racism. I can fight against it, work to undermine it, try not to be the kind of person who most benefits from it. I can reject paternalism and try to listen in my personal, professional, and activist life. I can try not to take advantage of opportunities in which some sort of exploitation is obvious or evident. But I can't somehow purge myself of history, of the institutions I am a part of. But maybe I'm misunderstanding your point? I've just put Colonize This! on hold--maybe it'll help me understand your point better. Another really excellent book that's made me re-think a lot of things is The Color of Violence, a really smart and angry anthology put out by Inicite! Women of Color Against Violence.

I am glad to have run across Naima's post, and to have the chance to absorb her critique; I know exactly the use of the phrase she's referring to. It seems like an unfortunate perversion of what for some was the original intent of the phrase, at least as I understood it (which was to highlight the structural ways in which whites participate in and benefit from racism that are beyond their control. In that sense, yes, we are racists, in the same way that all Yale students are classists in that we benefit, whatever our initial class background, from the class privilege conferred upon us by our Yale educations). Instead, if I understand Naima's point correctly, the use of the phrase on the Yale campus reinscribes rather than seeks to undermine the foundations of white privilege by pointing to the white speaker as uniquely qualified to act (and even speak) for the "underprivileged" New Haven resident who is, Naima suggests, precisely a victim of *violence* that the white speaker both benefits from and, in her words and actions, perpetuates.

I understand the vital importance of speaking up about this business. I wonder if anyone knows of any good strategies for calling people out or challenging them in a way that is non-confrontational in the moment? By no means do I want to suggest that it's Naima's job to speak up to white folks about this. But I know that for me, I get the angriest and saddest about hurtful (classist, homophobic, racist) things that I don't speak up about. And yet I feel totally discouraged getting into fights. But sometimes I've had luck saying things that contradict what the person has just said whose speech is hurtful, or that contradicts the subtext of that speech, while pretending to agree with them. Usually, the person agrees with me without thinking, and then realizes the contradiction but doesn't mention it. I don't know how others feel about that. . .

In any case, thanks to everyone for the opportunity to participate in this blog, and for their thoughtful comments.

-Hypatia

EqualityNerd said...

Thanks for this discussion; it's really made me (a White ally) think.

One question I have relates to the history of the term "white privilege." (A point Hypatia alludes to above.) I had thought the term's original purpose was to remind White people that racism was not just about "bad things happening to non-White people" -- racism is also about the good things that happen to White people, undeservedly, simply because they are categorized as White (i.e., merit, shmerit).

Why was this necessary? Because it is all too easy, as a White person in this culture, to think that racism is something that other, bad people do, and to commit to fighting racism only because you want to "help the victims." (As in, perhaps, the conveniently-located downtrodden peoples of New Haven...) How do we counteract such patronizing, ignorant nonsense? By reminding ourselves, as White people, that racism (and racial prejudice, and unconscious cognitive bias against non-Whites) is our problem -- that we, personally, benefit from it, and we, personally, need to bring an end to it.

But clearly, the term "white privilege" is not serving that purpose anymore, if it ever did. Are there better terms we could be using? Maybe so. But given the perversion that has already occurred with "white privilege," I suspect that words can never be the solution; in the end, it is always attitudes and actions that matter, regardless of the words that cloak them.

Anonymous said...

Camille: Thanks very much. I appreciate the explanation.

michelle said...

First of all, I am so glad to see this analysis!! I'm really disgusted by how white people engaging in "white privilege" talk functions to reproduce racism/white supremacy.

One place where I diverge from it is on the usefulness of "repentance" in actually changing the reproduction of racism by white leftists/activists. You wrote:

do you articulate the reality of your whiteness in a spirit of honesty and repentance or as a means of clinging to the privilege and social order you claim to seek to destroy?”

part of the project for white activists in recognizing their “privilege” should be the rejection of it – one must repent from, rather than embody an identity that represents oppression in its representation of privilege. “White Privilege” ought not be considered permanent or inherent, as if it inescapably resides in a white activist’s skin.


IMO, the thing about even mention of repentance for white people is that it links into Christian theology -- right at the intersection of white supremacy & Christianity -- and through that implicitly makes the work about white people seeking some sort of individual salvation.

And that project is endlessly self-involved, keeps white subjectivity firmly at the center, and thus doesn't prioritize acting against the system of oppression.

It also sucks resources, because the "white person (or specific group/organization) seeking salvation project" tends to be endless and relentless in its drain on attention, energy etc.

IMO the cultural system that white people are insiders in is based partly on deception/hypocrisy at its core.

IN that, a lot of what appears to be "anti-racist" talk and action by white people is actually reproduction of racism in new mutations (this can happen regardless of whether white people "mean to" do it or are even conscious of doing it somtimes).

My feeling is that actions (including how people talk and move, what we say, what we do, the whole range) ... actions speak.

Actions say a lot of things that white activists don't want other people to notice, but actions speak.

I feel like when white people get concerned with repentance (implicitly salvation) this gets into concern with appearing to repent, which leads to white activists putting pressure on others around them to agree with the projected appearance, and thus a new mutation of reproducing racism.

Or, maybe, in other words and way fewer of them: IMO "honesty" and "repentance" don't go together in the white cultural/behavior system.

futurebird said...

I think that this post makes a few good points. But, frankl,y the difference between a person who can talk about white privilege and one who can't is pretty big, even if it is just being used as a buzz word.

When I hear people who do the buzz-word thing, I think "hey it's a start" I think the vast majority of white people fail to see how they could possibly play a role in the perpetuation of racism and tend to get all bent out of shape if the idea even comes up.

I think some of the time anti-racist people are subject to harsher criticism, because harsh criticism is possible when you are having a dialogue and people will listen, but some of the time I think we're splitting hairs.

If we could reach the point where white privilege was a commonly acknowledged idea I think it change the tone of the debate on all levels and it'd mean a lot of progress.

Jo said...

Hi. I was linked to your post, Naima, from the LJ community debunkingwhite (http://community.livejournal.com/debunkingwhite/). I really liked your analysis, and I'd like to pass the link along to some of my classmates - I'm on a women's studies trip in Europe, and we (a group of entirely white women) just had an anti-racism workshop today, and I think it could be particularly helpful for some people who are just starting to explore what it means to actively confront and challenge racism in our own lives and in our selves - I hope that's okay.

I think that futurebird brings up a good point, that coming to a consciousness of white privilege can be a good starting point - but it's not enough. I think that often, "recognizing white privilege" and saying things like "I know I'm racist" are used as cop-outs - as you implied, it allows white people to earn liberal activist points without ACTUALLY
giving anything up. It also allows us to talk about racism on a broad, theoretical level without necessarily personalizing it and recognizing OUR racism and the way that we, personally, benefit from racism.

I struggle with language around race that focuses on whiteness. On the one hand, I think it is important to acknowledge whiteness and challenge it as an implicit assumption. On the other hand, it's pretty fucked up to talk about 'race issues' and only talk about whiteness. Like, really? Isn't the point that EVERYTHING else is centered around white people, and that's oppressive and problematic and racist? Isn't that what we are supposedly fighting against? So, I don't really know. On the one hand, I want to be forced (and force others) to be cognizant of my (their)whiteness and not let it remain an implicit, unacknowledged assumption. On the other hand, I don't just want to talk about white people.

I think that the term 'white privilege' is an important example of this dynamic. Talking about racism in terms of white privilege doesn't specify these dynamics as violent and oppressive to people of color to the benefit of white people. It's not just that my life is easier because of my whiteness, but that the same structures and behaviors that make my life easier and that benefit me SIMULTANEOUSLY inflict violence upon and oppress people of color. It removes responsibility from white people for racism. Yes, my whiteness is something I was born into and the advantages afforded to me are based on unearned privilege - but that doesn't mean I'm not responsible for those privileges. It not being my FAULT doesn't mean it isn't my responsibility.

I have a similar issue with the way people talk about violence against women. Saying "violence against women" doesn't name those responsible for the violence. Why don't we say "violence against women inflicted by men"?

I like the phrase, "I am a beneficiary of racism" quite a bit. It identifies the way in which I profit off of racism, and also reminds me (and others to whom I am speaking) that it is ALSO a larger structure, and that even engaging in anti-racist activism doesn't mean I no longer benefit from the same racism I am combatting. AND it re-inscribes the fact that to actually combat and challenge racism means relinquishing privileges. Being "knocked down a peg" so to speak. My life would be more difficult without racism - probably in ways that I can't even begin to fathom - and being an anti-racist activist requires making an active choice to give up comfort and ease for the sake of justice.

Also, in response to Laura:
The post may have been better to stop at a linguistic meditation on "white privilege," finding fault with the term itself, rather than with its white users.

The term doesn't exist within a vaccuum, and is problematic because of the way it is used by white activists, not simply because of its linguistics. Not talking about the white people who use it takes us out of the equation and takes the responsibility off of us - it is externalizing, when the problem is also internal. It isn't fun to be accused of not thinking critically, it isn't fun to feel attacked, but the goal of anti-racist activism shouldn't be to make white people feel good.

Anonymous said...

Looks like we white folks have taught poc's a bit to well. The racism expressed by so-called progressives is brilliant, just brilliant. How can you end racism by spouting racial hatred yourself? Oh, I know, blacks arn't capable of being racist and racism is a white word anyway. Well back to work to enjoy my white privilege!

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Rebecca Olesen said...

If they hate their 'privilege' so much, then they could drop out of Yale and quit living on Daddy's money. Otherwise, they should shut the hell up.

They are so fucking stupid, because 'whites of privilege' are a tiny percentage of the whites in the United States, with most of us growing up in shitland, where we are poor but get skipped over for college scholarships BECAUSE we're white, while black underachievers get 'the chance'.

The reason they have privilege is because of money, not skin color, and their parents or ancestors worked very hard to get that money, it didn't just materialize. They owe NO ONE for winning the luck of the draw and being born into a wealthy family, any more than I owe my college spot to a black just because he or she is black.

I had a single mom, we lived on welfare, I was the smartest kid my class in crap public school, but I was still expected to pay my full way, while a bunch of ghetto retards got scholarships for being BORN BLACK.

SCREW that. Another 'privilege' blacks apparently have is the privilege of being racist as hell, threatening and intimidating white voters violating their civil rights with no repercussions, and able to spew vicious racial slurs unrepentantly, while screeching to the stars if they even think some white guy might be racist.

What was the sportscaster fired after he said an opposing team had discovered the 'chink in his armor' and the guy was chinese? Like nobody has ever heard that term before? Turns out the fired guys wife is CHINESE, but they don't care. THAT is the kind of crap white people have to face, every word being examined for POSSIBLE racism, accusations, double standards on everything.

Just people need to start taking care of their own shit without blaming whitey or blacky for everything.

I am so SICK of hearing about race, that I just want to insert racial slurs into every conversation I have just to stir shit up and watch people act like lunatics.

Smam fam said...

Most academic scientific literature supports the notion that there is no such thing as race. Since race as it pertains to "white", "black", etc is not real, the term white privilege is a misnomer predicated on a false belief.