On race, privilege, and experiences…

Thinking Cat (1)

I’ve put my thinking cat on..

There’s been a lot said and written about when George Zimmerman shot Trevon Martin in Sanford, FL — the general idea is that Zimmerman was on some kind of neighborhood watch, saw Martin, decided he was somehow suspicious, followed him, and ended up shooting and killing him. The details are still in dispute, even though Zimmerman was acquitted.  This isn’t a post about the details — or the gun laws that seem to encourage this behavior.

As a result, there has been a lot written about racism in this country — how non-Caucasian folks have a different experience in this society than Caucasian folks.  That’s not what this post is about.. many people who are much more qualified have written plenty on it.

This is a post about experiences and privilege.

I’m a chunky, 44-year old woman of mostly northern-European and Scandinavian heritage.. I have fair skin, blue eyes and my hair was blonde before it went mostly gray.  I’m a northerner with a good education and a good job.  I grew up in, and live in, the suburbs of a major metropolitan area.  Because of these factors, I have a set of experiences that inform my background assumptions about the way the world works.  I cannot escape those background assumptions.  I can’t see the world from another point of view — really SEE it, experience it — like an uneducated person, a southerner, a thin person, an unemployed person or a non-Caucasian.  I just can’t.

Because of my race, I have white privilege — I just do.  I can’t avoid it because I can’t change my skin and eye color.  It’s impossible — and, frankly, rather than escape it, I wish everyone else could have the same experiences as I do as a Caucasian person.  If they did, then it would cease to be white privilege and I’d be quite happy about that.

The thing about white privilege is that it isn’t as if, when I was born, I got some kind of magical pass to economic and social success.  I didn’t — what I got was the opportunity to live in a world in which I wasn’t feared and mis-trusted because of my skin.  It has happened, I suppose — but it isn’t a factor in my daily life or in the daily life of people with the same skin color as me.

One of the many benefits of my education and position as a college professor is that I have a wide swatch of knowledge about the world and many friends who have even more knowledge about the world.  They have done lots of reading and thinking about topics like white privilege.

The other benefit is that I have a wide variety of friends and acquaintances who aren’t Caucasian — and they tell their stories.  Many of the stories have similar features — but each is also unique in a way — so that it’s not a safe assumption that EVERYONE in a particular racial group has had those experiences — On the other hand, it’s pretty clear to me, by listening to the stories, that a significant majority have had similar experiences.  That needs to be respected.

In discussion of white privilege some (usually Caucasian) folks go to one of four responses:

  • Person X says they didn’t have that bad stuff happen, so it’s about something else..
  • The _________ community has a problem with gangs/violence/etc.. so what can we do if they won’t fix themselves.
  • I had to work for everything I have — I don’t have white privilege.
  • I don’t see color.  I’m not a racist, therefore I don’t have white privilege.

The first three are obviously specious —  Person X may not realize they’ve been discriminated against, may not have noticed the way their group is treated differently etc.. This kind of blindness seems to be something like a blind spot when it comes to privilege.  That may be how they choose to get on down the road, it may be that they ACTUALLY haven’t had those experiences etc — but isolated examples don’t do anything to contradict the experiences of a wide range of folks who have had them.

As for the “___________ community has problems” bit — of course they do, every community has problems.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve a level of respect and compassion, nor does it mean that those of us who are concerned about equality shouldn’t do what we can do from the inside or outside to make things better.  It just doesn’t.

And — the oldie but goodie — I worked for everything I have… the thing is, yes you did — you worked within the set of rules, written and unwritten, the society  has created for you and folks similar to you.  You made good and bad decisions on your own.  You got rewards and punishments on your own etc.. and, shockingly, the same is exactly true for non-Caucasians.  The thing is, the rules are different for you — perhaps a bit more lenient, you probably had a few more chances at things because of your skin.  You had a greater chance of going to a good school, having parents who had good educations etc — it’s not a sure thing, just like some black folks (some call it the Oprah response) aren’t poor and probably aren’t currently being discriminated against because of their color — BUT, and this is a big one, the chances are pretty good that your skin has something to do with where you stand today.

I’m really irked, tho — by “I don’t see color” — umm… that’s about the most white privileged statement that I can think of — really.  ONLY someone who has the fortunate situation of not being discriminated against can say that.  It’s simply the case that we have differences among us.  Those differences make us who we are.  Those differences create an amazing quilt of experience, knowledge, and wisdom that would be completely lost if all the ‘colors’ ran together.

I’d rather hear people say that they don’t make judgments about anybody based on skin.  I’d rather have them say that they try to treat each person as an individual whose collected experiences have informed their view of the world, and that they try to access and respect that world view.  I’d rather hear them say that they want to live in a world in which their children are judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character… (BTW, that last bit is an MLK, Jr. paraphrase — it’s not original).

I wouldn’t want anybody to try to wash away my northern-European/Scandinavian heritage.  It’s part of who I am.  It’s why I get sunburned easily, it’s probably why I’m relatively slow to anger, it’s why I look the way I do — and it’s why the world reacts to me as it does.  It’s a big part of me, and for you not to “see color” means that you don’t see a big part of me.  I suspect it’s the same way for non-Caucasian folks as well… but, I’ll let them tell their stories and I’ll listen, think, reflect, and act on that knowledge.

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