Sunday, May 15, 2011

So What?

A while back I explained to a grad school professor that I wanted to study white privilege.  He seemed genuinely puzzled, responding, "So you're white, you're privileged.  So what?"  In fairness to him, I think he was trying to get me to think more deeply about my research idea -- what will you do with this study of white privilege? is maybe what he meant to ask.  But at the time it felt like he was saying, "Big deal. You're white. So what? There's nothing to study here.  Think of something more important."  As I progressed in my research, looking at how whiteness expresses and reproduces itself, this same prof told me on several occasions that he felt I was "too close to it" to study whiteness objectively.  I have to admit this one confused me, especially since the person who made the comment is also white.  I'm too close to whiteness, but he's not?  Am I more white than he is?  And doesn't my being white make me the perfect "insider" to study whiteness?  Anyway, I ignored the comment and began to study the area of race, with special attention to what it means to be white in America.  Hence, this blog.

A year or so later I was presenting a session to a group of young people on the topic of (you guessed it) white privilege.  They were not impressed.  One young woman eerily echoed my grad prof's words, "So whites are privileged.  So what?  Are they supposed to wear a sign on their foreheads that says 'I'M PRIVILEGED'?"

The so what? question is a good one, but I think it often masks a different sentiment that goes like this: "I'm white, I'm privileged, okay, you've made your point. But I was born this way, I didn't ask for it.  So stop making me feel guilty!"

It's easy to feel guilty when studying the history of race in America if you're white.  Conquest, slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, housing and job discrimination...there's lots in our past to feel guilty about. In a present sense, we might feel guilty if we've been exposed to a racist comment or joke made by another white person, but failed to speak out against it.  A good friend shared this experience: she was walking her very large (but very sweet) dog around a track when she was joined by a high school class of African American female students, led by a white male teacher.  Supposedly as a joke, the teacher said to one of his students, "Watch out.  This dog doesn't like black people."  My friend was shocked.  She did the first thing she thought of, which was to smile at the student and reassure her that the dog is friendly and she was in no danger.  Later, she regretted her response.  Why hadn't she corrected the teacher?  Why hadn't she thought quickly enough to say, "Wow, I'm surprised a high school teacher would say something so blatantly racist!"  She felt guilty and complicit.

Authors Nile & Straton* explain that guilt is a common response for whites who begin to think about their position of social privilege and power. They explain that, while it may common and even natural, guilt is not really helpful, because it becomes an "emotional trap that keeps many European Americans stuck in a lack of both understanding and compassion for people of color" (2).  They suggest we "set aside" (which is not the same as deny) feeling of guilt, and instead admit the realities of historical racism, acknowledge the ways that racism currently functions, and do something about it.  In other words, become an ally in big or small ways to groups who have been marginalized historically.

What does an ally do?  The origin of the word is to bind together.  An ally binds herself to a friend, partner, affiliate, or group, and there, right there, is the so what of white privilege.  So what?  So this -- I'll speak up when I hear racism on an individual level.  I'll vote when I perceive racism on an institutional level.  I'll write a letter, a paper, a blog, a novel, a poem, a song, a dissertation.  I'll stop complaining about "reverse discrimination" when I don't get a scholarship that's meant for a "minority" student, or if I lose some other opportunity to an equally qualified person of color, recognizing that such events are not racist, they are attempts to equal the playing field in a country with a very long history of inequality.  I'll interrupt racism at the dinner table, the office, the lacrosse field, the nail salon, the track, the classroom.  Because, as Nile & Straton point out, "It is time, very simply, to get out of ourselves and get into the world" (6).

*Nile, Lauren N. and Jack C. Straton. "Beyond Guilt: How to Deal with Societal Racism." Multicultural Education, 10 (4), Summer 2003.

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