The swift ascent to Internet Fame is generally advanced by the very young. This is fine until the relationship
How do you manage to speak with any real authority on something you’ve been conditioned to believe doesn’t exist for most of your natural life?
This is the question I ask myself whenever I get into the weeds over discussions of white privilege. Even as someone who’s come a long way in understanding his own privilege, I’m always compelled to tread lightly upon the subject, regardless of my audience; it’s hard to feel like it’s a conversation I’m allowed to participate in, even though it is, in fact, about me. In the abstract, at least. I know enough to know that I don’t know enough about it, and to acknowledge that those who are on the receiving end of the problem speak upon the issue with much greater authority than I ever could, which insofar has been enough to keep me from stepping in it too spectacularly.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this sentiment, I should say thankfully; asking more enlightened white folks about their own experiences with privilege, particularly from the perspective of advocacy, has led to most of them defaulting to people of color for opinions on the subject. I can’t say I blame them for declining to speak with me, given the delicate nature of the issue. It’s so easy to invite criticism of from all sides in conversations about privilege, with even the most innocuous comments often degrading into ugly displays of ignorance or prejudice. It’s only in the spirit of that old axiom “if you see something, say something” that I continue forward from here, with the full realization that I’m likely going step on more than a few toes before I’m done.
There’s a concept about white privilege I’ve been grappling with for quite some time now, and it finally crystallized for me the other day during a heated debate with a couple of my peers on Facebook. We were speaking on the contrasting media narratives surrounding Richard Sherman and Justin Bieber, and the role institutional racism plays in those narratives. Not-so-coincidentally, both of the people I was debating were white, and while both of them are fairly liberal-minded individuals, they were fairly averse to the idea that racism shapes public perceptions of media personalities, a common misconception among across the spectrum of privilege. However, it wasn’t their position so much as the way they were arguing it that got me thinking about white privilege less from an ideological perspective and more from a tactical one.
American whites are a nation of emperors in no clothes, naked in the web of our privilege. We have managed to synonymize white skin with normalcy by installing ourselves as the protagonist in every almost conceivable narrative, from politics to pop culture and everything in between. Narcissistic by default and nearly to a fault, we have been conditioned since birth to automatically reflect any rejection of our privilege back upon our accuser, not only sidestepping the responsibility in benefiting from a power structure designed to preserve our superiority, but at the same time shifting the conversation back towards our own narrative, silencing dissent while reinforcing supremacy.
While this rejection by reflection manifests in a variety of ways, they all have one thing in common: taking specific, targeted conversations about race and forcing them into broader contexts that prioritize white perspectives. What’s so frustrating is how casually reflexive this action is; as a social construct, white privilege does not, cannot allow even the slightest margin of compromise, not even for a moment; to do so would bring about its destruction.
That’s the funny thing about white privilege: once people realize they have it, they generally don’t want it anymore. The realization that the Game Of Life is rigged in favor of whiteness flies in the face of egalitarianism, often transcending political affiliation. Small wonder concepts like “white guilt” exist; the desire to seek atonement for present and past transgressions – both real and imagined – can be quite powerful, as can the pejorative use of the term by those who are ignorant of their privilege against those who are not.
The organization Race Forward has just released an excellent handbook covering this very subject, with an emphasis on racial discourse in the media. They speak at length on the ways white privilege reflexively manifests to defend itself, along with offering a number of strategies on how to encourage people to become more aware of its impact upon their lives.
I think it’s important to note at this point that just because you, Dear Reader, may in fact benefit from white privilege, it does not mean that you are somehow racist, or that you don’t have your own set of nasty problems to contend when it comes to getting by in the modern world. To those of you who struggle economically and/or socially, I know your life is no picnic. To those of you who can’t talk about race without talking about class, I know you mean well. But there’s something I need all of you to understand:
You don’t have to be racist to contribute to racism as an institution.
Once you begin to acknowledge that there is a difference between individual and systemic racism, and that the two interact on myriad, significant levels, you’ll start to see that your individual behavior plays a role in the collective perceptions of people of color, and that the reactive, unconscious nature of that behavior is largely a result of social conditioning. Most importantly, you’ll come to realize that you have a choice to change that behavior: not just for your own benefit, but to the benefit of those who’s only crime is trying to convince you that racism is wicked, groupthink is dangerous, and diversity is beautiful. And really, what’s so awful about that?
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