02 April 2010

Barely touching the surface of white privilege

I spend a lot of time talking about my subordinated identities (being a woman, specifically, but among a few others), and very little time talking about my privileged or dominate identities. This is one of the biggest fails of the current feminist movement from my perspective (which is of course colored by my experiences as a white, middle class, non-Christian, US born, pansexual, college educated women) because I spend so much time working on unpacking my [very few] subordinated identities that I don't take the time to unpack what comes with my [many] dominant identities. If I ever anticipate change, perhaps the way to do so is not by working on changing the minds of those with dominant identities, but rather by making an effort to work on my own dominant identities. On the same token, I don't expect that all men will suddenly understand how their gender identity oppresses other genders, and I suppose I'll have to continue learning and educating about gender oppression while also learning about my dominant identities and about all the ways those identities impact others without my knowledge.

For example! I am white. This is no secret, but I lived the majority of my life paying nearly no attention to the fact that I am white and receiving any number of privileges based on that uncontrollable piece of my identity. I went through elementary, middle, and high school in a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood where I was never questioned by authority figures based on the color of my skin, assumed to be stealing because of the color of my skin, or regarded as unworthy by teachers and classmates if I made a mistake. While I was dealing with other issues I'm certain, I never dealt with race in the same ways as people of color. Daily, however, my perceived racial/ethnic identity gave me endless advantages over the other students of color at my schools. Teachers probably paid more attention to me and heaped on words of encouragement when I did something only mediocre (which may have also been because I was a girl), invited me to join clubs and groups and honors societies, and pushed me to reach higher and do better. The point is that I was never forced to be aware of my whiteness, and in turn benefited from it daily without knowing it.

I think this is an enormous error on the part of white people. I was raised to believe that everybody is the same, everybody deserves my friendship or caring or love. Unfortunately, the world outside of my home wasn't so encouraging of those relations, and I wasn't ever pushed to defy those expectations that I found at school, work, and play. I can, in fact, remember my first friend who identified as a person of color. She was great and one of my best friends, but we as a pair had almost no other mutual friends. We spent time together at school, during lunch, and in classes, but we went our separate ways once the bell rang. I rarely called her at home because I was intimidated by my lack of knowledge about her family, and then she moved away for her father's work and we've hardly spoken since. I think that, in my community, it didn't seem acceptable to be friends outside of a school setting, and neither of us pushed that limit. I could attribute the characteristics of our friendship to other things, like maybe we were involved with different activities after school, or we didn't have any way to get to and from each other's houses. Of course, those same things stood in the way of my time with white friends too, but I found a way to make that work. It would be interesting to know now if my friend actually saw it at that point as an issue of white versus non-white. I've become increasingly more aware that people of color are often raised with the knowledge from family members that they are not the "same" as the white kids. So maybe she knew that our friendship was a little taboo, even in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even if she didn't, looking back, we might both be able to pinpoint that as one of the reasons for our friendship demise.

It should really be a conversation all along that white people benefit in this society, often by no fault of their own, but at the expense of people of color, and that we should be aware of. I see trouble when those who are subordinated get to spend so much of their time recognizing and experiencing that position in society, while those who (intentionally or not) continue to enforce societal norms around power and privilege don't spend any time at all pondering their role in that. It seems inappropriate that those in the dominant role not consider how to make positive changes and leave that work to those who are subordinated because of the attitude that it doesn't really affect them. I would say that white privilege affects everybody, holding everybody to absurd stereotypes that don't make any sense when applied to entire groups. That is only one of the reasons that one might consider paying more attention to their whiteness. On top of that, folks who care about others might be interested in how their unintentional actions impact the lives of others. I don't love the idea that because I had no control over the color of my skin that I now get to ignore injustices or ignore my own role in those injustices. It seems unfair that people of color get to think about it day in and day out while I ignore the ways I am oppressive.

The idea of whiteness is really REALLY big and I don't think I could write a dissertation and cover all of the points of research and thought about this. Hopefully I'll delve into this more at another point. In the meantime, you should probably read White Like Me by Tim Wise. He does a brilliant job, I think, of putting this issue into words and stories that make the issue relevant to people who've never thought about it before [ahem, white people].


  1. nice post! i really like the part where you talk about your friendship with the girl of color. such a powerful example of unexamined dynamics and a sad reminder of ways that white privilege hurts us white people too, albeit in very different ways....

  2. Thank you for reminding me to examine my own whiteness