Confronting Privilege in the New Year: “when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice”

A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.

Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:

What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.

Throughout 2015, I have been cataloguing the overwhelming evidence of white privilege and racism, but I am discouraged about both the abundance of that evidence and the ineffectiveness of presenting it to those clinging fervently to their white denial.

Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.

This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.

And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.

We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.

Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”

Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:

Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]

White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:

Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.

We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

On Nerd Entitlement, Laurie Penny

Hello from the same side, Robin James

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Confronting Privilege to Teach about Privilege

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

White Denial

High Cost of White Denial (Updated)

 

7 comments

  1. Charlotte rovelstad

    I am wondering if it isn’t the common INABILITY to see patterns that explain intolerance? Surely if one pays attention it is clear that racism is built into the system but because people don’t connect the dots they can remain ignorant. Just a thought……..

  2. 0neart

    I am white. I am perpetually perplexed by the way members of my own race/culture react to any statement about their privilege as though their license to breathe is in danger of being revoked unless they can refute it and get their ‘accuser’ to take it back. It’s mind-boggling, frightening, and depressing to sit in a room full of people who are supposed to be my peers who think that they have a right to have that room be “a safe space” which is apparently a code for “a space in which no one challenges any of my ideas about myself or the world, because challenge is too scary.” I keep trying to find ways to ask, “When did ‘scary’ become ‘threatening’? When did ‘safe’ start to mean ‘comfortable’?”

    No. It is not comfortable to be white and be confronted with the fact of institutionalized privilege and prejudice of which you are an unwitting part because you live and breathe in a country which privileges you before you even think to ask. It is extremely uncomfortable. So what? It is a productive discomfort, and that is what I want most in the world. The more we learn that we can tolerate discomfort, the closer we get to being able to advocate for change.

    I’m sorry you’re running into so much denial. I’m sorry I am, too. I’m sorry there’s so much denial out there to run into.

  3. Vapopya

    I live in Southern Afrika, and to talk with some specificity, Namibia. We (blacks) were colonised then separated and discriminated against by the system of ‘apartheid’ which sought to treat whites as a ‘special race.’

    When you talk about white priviledge I understand exactly what you are referring to because we have gone through, still are going through that racial crucible. I ,also, have to be upfront with the fact that not white people are against racial, egalitarian and social justice.

    At independence, laws against all types of discrimination and racial prejudice were enacted but still white some people continue to perpetuate their supremacist ideas and systemic racial prejudice. In my country, schools and residential areas are still divided along racial lines because when black people started buying houses in formerly white suburbs it prompted whites to sell their houses and move to more expensive areas.

    Ditto when legislation declared separate education illegall, white people moved their children to more expensive schools and tweaked admission criteria so as to dissuade blacks from registering their children in what they perceived to be their exclusive white schools. They were even expressing anti-social views that the admission of black children in their schools will ‘dumb down’ their children.
    Many white people in Afrika think black people are not equal to them on a human level and mental abilities, that they are only good as labourers, domestic help or farm hands and cannot compete with them academically.
    White priviledge has become so entrenched such that some blacks actually believe that white people are innately intelligent than them to a level where a black person with, say, 3 university degrees lecturing in university feels and is treated as less intelligent than a fellow white lecturer with one degree equal to one of theirs.

    So white priviledge is that insidious, huge, invisible part of the iceberg.

  4. Vapopya

    I live in Southern Afrika, and to talk with some specificity, Namibia. We (blacks) were colonised then separated and discriminated against by the system of ‘apartheid’ which sought to treat whites as a ‘special race.’

    When you talk about white priviledge I understand exactly what you are referring to because we have gone through, still are going through that racial crucible. I ,also, have to be upfront with the fact that not all white people are against racial, egalitarian and social justice.

    At independence, laws against all types of discrimination and racial prejudice were enacted but still white some people continue to perpetuate their supremacist ideas and systemic racial prejudice. In my country, schools and residential areas are still divided along racial lines because when black people started buying houses in formerly white suburbs it prompted whites to sell their houses and move to more expensive areas.

    Ditto when legislation declared separate education illegall, white people moved their children to more expensive schools and tweaked admission criteria so as to dissuade blacks from registering their children in what they perceived to be their exclusive white schools. They were even expressing anti-social views that the admission of black children in their schools will ‘dumb down’ their children.
    Many white people in Afrika think black people are not equal to them on a human level and mental abilities, that they are only good as labourers, domestic help or farm hands and cannot compete with them academically.
    White priviledge has become so entrenched such that some blacks actually believe that white people are innately intelligent than them to a level where a black person with, say, 3 university degrees lecturing in university feels and is treated as less intelligent than a fellow white lecturer with one degree equal to one of theirs.

    So white priviledge is that insidious, huge, invisible part of the iceberg.

  5. Jean

    Appreciate this thoughtful post. It is sad and of course arrogant not to look one’s own privilege. White privilege is a huge invisible part of iceberg.

    WE also need to look at privilege from different angles. There is no question, if I went to live in China, my privilege of having been born and raised in Canada, will be stamped all over me in my behaviour, self-expression and expectations of that society there.

  6. emilyjamessite

    I think my own experiences in the last year have made me reflect on privilege whereas others are not encouraged to or even forced to consider such issues. I value the experiences I have had that have made me look at reality and not allowed denial of these issues.

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