Not all of these identity attributes operate at the same time or same level; the context of any given situation indicates just how much one will be more salient than any others. Walking down the street in any part of the city, I am significantly less likely to be seen as a victim or perpetrator of robbery or sexual assault. While driving, I'm not likely to be pulled over (in 20 years of driving, this has only occurred when caught at speed-traps, when I was well over the speed limit). When applying for a job, my name doesn't raise questions or seem "foreign" or "ethnic" during the screening process. These are but a few of examples--there are plenty more.
None of this negates that I am hard-working, care about equality, or believe people are largely good. However, it notes that I was dealt a different set of circumstances in a particular place at a particular time--and historical forces shape that place and time to give me preferential treatment while others are denied the same treatment or given unfair treatment.
A "Woke" KinThere are some people out there, like me that like to think they have better awareness of privilege in American culture than the average person who benefits from an intersection of privilege such as being white, male, and middle-class (to be clear, I include myself in recognizing that I am making the assumption that I am better aware; I always have my doubts about this and should as I note below). That, of course, is a slippery slope to balance upon. The term, "woke" can often be used to describe such people. But when I think about the term "woke" and what it means, particularly for white people, I feel it gets complicated and challenging. This NY Times article captures a lot of my concern with it:
““Woke” feels a little bit like Macklemore rapping in one of his latest tracks about how his whiteness makes his rap music more acceptable to other white people. The conundrum is built in. When white people aspire to get points for consciousness, they walk right into the cross hairs between allyship and appropriation. These two concepts seem at odds with each other, but they’re inextricable. Being an ally means speaking up on behalf of others — but it often means amplifying the ally’s own voice, or centering a white person in a movement created by black activists, or celebrating a man who supports women’s rights when feminists themselves are attacked as man-haters. Wokeness has currency, but it’s all too easy to spend it.”
For those reasons above, I am skeptical of using the term woke for myself or other white people. It's more than that though. The thing that people with privilege (woke or otherwise) don't realize is that to understand systematic inequality, be aware of it and to thoughtfully consider the experiences of those who do not have the same level of privilege means regularly engaging and learning from others who have experienced it and/or studied it.
Woke is a process of staying awake, not an end destination.
Engage, Reflect, RepeatMany people of privilege have taken the time to read a book, blog post, or article, attended a workshop, or watched a video or documentary to inform themselves of the ways in which people are "othered" in our culture. I appreciate those that have done so and felt changed by it. But for me, I don't think that one-time or even the occasionally toe-tipping is enough. In a culture where so much of the system of privilege is made invisible to those who benefit from it, dominantly repeated in our discourse, and blindly ignored through the myth of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps individuals, it feels like using a single cup of water to put out a fire. It might help, but the submersion in the fire is inevitably likely to evaporate the water so quickly that it barely leaves a mark.
While I have taken courses, attended seminars, workshops, and retreats, I have also read thousands of academic, professional, and online articles about understanding this. I've watched movies, documentaries, TV shows, and online videos that address this. I've read a lot of books (check out this bookshelf for some good recommendations) to continue to inform myself. The goal for me is to regularly find ways to keep this in my view as our culture makes it extremely easy to forget.
For some, I'm sure this sounds like a lot of "work," right? Why do it? Two reasons come to mind:
1. It's not a lot of work. It's a pleasure to expand my horizon, reflect critically about my life, and the world around me. It's enriching, rewarding, and empowering to understand the roles I play in perpetuating privilege and learning ways to address and dismantle privilege. Every time I learn something new, it helps me to better understand the world and my (privileged) place in it. This helps me to better address and articulate the problems that exist as best I can. It also means that I can better enrich my relationships with others, more consciously work towards being genuinely welcoming to others, and help other people of privilege understand these things. It also helps me to better understand hostile or toxic thoughts that occur in my head (or in culture) and where they come from within our culture.
And yes, I have toxic thoughts--thoughts that undermine, devalue, and disregard others that are not based on the facts and context of a given situation but informed by the numerous messages about marginal identities that I have been exposed ot since before I could remember. Given that thoughts appear like lightning in one's head, "not thinking" isn't the issue; I can't necessarily stop these thoughts from happening. But I can recognize these thoughts and call them out in my own head as they occur and do my best to unpack them and disregard them.
2. Our culture's messages reiterate the privileging of those identity attributes are strongly and repeatedly reinforced. When we live in 2017 and (white) people claim there was no racism before President Obama (yes, the article is from 2016 but this sentiment still holds true for many) or that Obama is the cause of the racial divide (the second, told to me by a white male police officer), it tells me we are still far from really understanding folks who are different from the dominant group. When we have a President in 2017 whose presidency fixates on the threat of "the other" to the point that KKK and white supremacists across the country are empowered to be increasingly hostile to non-whites, we're not really thinking about this whole thing as seriously as we should.
These misinformed views, of course, largely miss how racism have been infused into politics for generations (well, actually, centuries) and is still a prominent intentional approach by Republicans with their Southern strategy and repeated attempts to block African Americans from voting. To read the words of Lee Atwater from 1981, they resonate with how the Republicans have actively codeswitched to play upon white privilege: "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can’t say 'nigger'—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'" And none of this is to implicate that other political parties don't play with privilege in direct and indirect ways, but I'm struck by how blatant and open the Republican Party has been about it in the last 50 years.
Moving forward, for those at the intersection of privileges, it can be easy to miss things like this or dismiss non-privileged positions in our society given our rhetoric of individualism; it puts responsibility and success on the individual at the cost of realizing or recognizing the systematic forces at play.
Thus, culturally, we pretend that humans are produced in perfect uniformity as if we were spit out of an assembly line--different models (e.g. a white male, a black female, a middle class latina, etc. If a person fails, we assume the failure is a fluke, something wrong with the person, not the assembly line. We never question how we are constructed and what parts go into composing us. By contrast, it makes more sense to think about humans as building construction. We all start with blueprints, thus some universal similarity, but our success and longevity has much to do with what precedes our existence. Does the land we are being built on been made stable or environmentally sustainable? Did the people involve in the construction use the same standards, the same tools, the same resources? Is the community going to give the building the same level of support through reinvestment and upkeep? Will the building be held to the same standards and regulations by inspectors? In the building metaphor, it becomes more clear how privilege can produce 2 very different buildings from the same blueprints, but no one is likely to see the collapse of one and assume that it was just the building's fault and that other factors contributed to the collapse.
So to me, it is important to regularly re-engage with the subject matter that reminds me of how our culture values me as a building (of white, male, and middle class) and devalues other buildings (e.g. non-white non-male lives). It's not a guilt thing either. It's a matter of wanting to better understand myself, the culture that I participate and perpetuate, and the world at large. I am intentionally blinded to the systematic justice going on behind the veil and therefore must repeatedly seek it, engage with it, and use it to inform me of how to better align my values with my actions.
For those that are interested in doing similarly, there are some great suggestions that I've harvested over the years.
- Read (or listen). There are many many many great books out there (many of them in audio). Get reading/listening. Here's my full reading this that I continually add to.
- Mix up your feed. If you use social media, be sure to like/follow/link/subscribe with writers/creators/artists/publications that provide a strong lens on marginal voices along race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexualiy, gender, religious, class lines (Everyday Feminism is a good place to start given that ways they tackle intersection).
- Get in on the conversation. Join discussion forums or listservs that are actively having these discussions. Often, you can join and listen to the conversation, without having to participate until you feel you have a meaningful contribution or sincere question. Another means of doing this is to research the relevant hashtags and follow the public conversations on the topic.
- Hit the documentary circuit. There are some great documentaries out there if reading/listening are not your thing. Start with 13th on Netflix, but then check out others like the I Am Not Your Negro, The Birth of a Nation and feel free to find others--there are many.
- Look around for local organizations that represent marginalized groups and voices. I'm a big fan of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), which has groups around the nation and put out great newsletters that allow for many different opportunities to learn, engage, and advocate for marginalized voices.
- Share what you find. Some of my best discussions and opportunities arrive when I share what I've found and others benefit or challenge what I post. This opens up dialogue that is sometimes contentious (especially when a commentator is disregarding the view) but is always educative for me in understanding the roles I play in privilege. Also, please come back to this post to share what you find!
- Be willing to regularly look in the mirror. As you encounter so many of these things, there are going to be times you will try to disassociate yourself (I'm not like that; I don't do that; I'm a good person). As I said earlier, nothing about privilege negates you are a good person. You are going to encounter struggles that you have overcome, because privilege doesn't negate struggle, but rather changes the probabilities of different types of struggles and the degree to which you experience them. Don't use those struggles and challenges to avoid looking at and considering how you may have experienced privilege or seen it at play in the world around you. This is hard but it is often necessary because it means unpeeling layers of culture that have trained us not to see that privilege. Find ways of looking in that mirror by writing/journaling or talking with trusted people who also understand privilege to better parse it out.
Other recommendations? Other thoughts about what I've been talking about there?
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