If you know enough white people, you’ve probably heard some complaint over the last few months that the situation in Ferguson isn’t about race. It makes you want to yell and rant and tear your hair out that people are oblivious to something that is so present and undeniable.
One reason for this disparity is a lack of understanding of the constant onslaught people of color deal with in this country, from microaggressions to deadly violence and everything in between. It’s a familiar dynamic to anyone who’s had an argument about racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. I won’t pretend to understand what it’s like, but I make it my business to learn, and I believe people of color when they share their experiences. Continue reading “It’s about race”
I was at a progressive political event recently and got into a conversation with a young white man who had been thrown off by a presenter’s comment about white male privilege. “I don’t discriminate against anyone,” he said (a whole other issue to examine), and he couldn’t grasp the idea that he had any special privilege. I reached into the handy invisible knapsack to gently point out some ways he probably never thought about how he and I have an easier time than people of color in this country. I told him that in my view, the point of examining privilege is not to get paralyzed by guilt, but to understand these systems so we can work to change them. I don’t know what he took away from that conversation, but hopefully like many of us he can process it over time and challenge himself to learn more. But his visible discomfort with the topic points to some of the challenges and misunderstandings about privilege and why we talk about it.
While it is crucial for us to condemn and lament egregious acts of racism, sexism and other -isms, and the tragic consequences that often result, it’s always important to look inward at the more subtle ways that we contribute to and benefit from systems of privilege and power. To that end, an author named A. Gordon has a piece at The Root entitled “A White Woman Wants to Get Rid of Her Inner George Zimmerman”:
The truth is, there is more that George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn and I have in common than makes me comfortable. Sure, I would never find myself in the same situation—I would never follow a young black man, I wouldn’t tell a carload of teenagers to turn down their music and I don’t own a gun. But just as Zimmerman relied on stereotypes of black men as dangerous, I also rely on stereotypes. I am kidding myself if I deny the fact that as a single white woman walking down an empty street at night, I wouldn’t think about crossing to the other side if I saw a black man in a hoodie coming toward me. And while I wouldn’t actually tell a carload of black teenagers to turn down their rap, I would probably roll my eyes and consciously or unconsciously make a generalization about “those kinds of kids.”
In short, George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn and I are all the products of a society that saturates us in implicit bias and trains us to rely on stereotypes—to fear, pity or dehumanize folks who are black or brown. The stereotypes of black men as dangerous or stupid impact my actions—albeit in nonlethal ways—just as they influenced the actions of Zimmerman and Dunn. By crossing a street when I see a black man at night, or rolling my eyes at a group of loud black teenagers, I also am dehumanizing someone simply because, given the color of their skin, that person fits into a certain stereotype.
When you grow up in a country with white supremacy ingrained in its past and present, it’s impossible not to be affected. I grew up in one of the whitest states in the nation, with little to base my opinions on other than what was fed to me in the culture. We can all feel good celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., (my mom…I mean I…made a paper mache bust of him for my 5th grade project), but that kind of surface-level discussion, while better than nothing, doesn’t do much to reckon with our own contributions to the system and the present day scourge of racism.
The author offers a couple of suggestions for combating biases that she recognizes “may seem frivolous,” such as changing the culture you are consuming. I want to focus on the harder work of taking these aspects of ourselves head on. That work isn’t easy, but it’s critical. As a friend said when we were discussing the piece, “you have to go to places that scare you.”
Last week’s episode of This American Life kicked off with a prologue about Ben Calhoun’s attempt to use his friend’s tactic of getting a “good guy” discount when he goes shopping. This basically amounts to saying “I’m a good guy, you’re a good guy, how about a discount?” and apparently it works for his friend 15-20% of the time.
While it was entertaining to listen to Calhoun struggle with his obvious discomfort, I found myself really wanting to hear more about the various power dynamics behind the whole concept. I immediately bristled at the entitlement behind the idea that someone would deserve a discount other people aren’t getting because he has the nerve to push for it (I’m sure most people who’ve worked in retail share my lack of surprise at the bemused response from a lot of the people he encounters).
The idea is itself gendered obviously; I’m not going to go into a store talking about what a “good guy” I am. While Calhoun doesn’t use the “you’re a good guy, I’m a good guy” line his friend recommends, it implies a brotherhood of sorts, a favor between friends that wouldn’t be accessible to most people. It’s interesting that four out of the five people he tries it on are women, and he does get a measly 5% discount from a woman at the end. But I really wanted to see how the experiment would play out with a variety of genders and races involved.
Can a young black man go to a white woman and get a “good guy” discount? What about a middle-aged woman to a young man? I can already imagine some people would come back with some women’s ability to flirt and get discounts and special treatment, but that’s exploiting a culture that objectifies women rather than an inherent entitlement and confidence people can use to make their way in the world. It reminded me of this great piece from last month about “life hacking” really being about white privilege:
A white man walked in. He surveyed the line and confidently jetted past it, over to an employee pushing a wheeled bin across the floor. He put his hand on the employee’s back. He said, “Hey buddy … can you do me a favor? I just have this one thing.”
I also just have this one thing, I thought. And, this line is for people who have one or more things, douchebag. And, you have no right to ask a “favor” that dicks over 18 people uninvolved in granting the “favor.”
I highly recommend reading how the whole thing spins out from there. We might not get to see the experiment of how this “good guy” discount would play out for lots of different people, though we all can make some educated guesses. At least I can be happy with where Calhoun lands on the concept by the end of his cringe-inducing attempt.