Thursday, May 02, 2013

Oh Sh*t...I'm Racist.

So, intersectional feminism for the win. I've recently felt...called to start doing some anti-racism work both within myself and within the city I live in. Now, when I started (ie, when I picked up a ginormous training manual and supplemental readings for Dismantling Racism training from one of the women in my church who has done a lot more work on this issue), I thought, "Oh, f'sho, this'll be easy...after all, I'm totally not racist."

Yeah, except no.

Then I read Peggy McIntosh's ovaric (it's a feminist equivalent of seminal--deal) article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and it Changed. My. Freaking. Life. Reading it was like having Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem spin-kick down the door to my soul. It draws parallels between feminist work (uncovering and combating male privilege), with which I am intimately familiar, and anti-racist work (uncovering and combating white privilege), with which I am less so. I'd heard the term 'white privilege' before, of course, but I'd never thought deeply about it.

 See, I'm conscious of the fact that being white in the USA in 2013 still confers advantages on me that people of color don't enjoy, not least the fact that I don't have to think about race if I don't want to. After all, I'm white, what is regarded in the USA as the 'default' race in much the same way as male is thought of as the 'default' gender. It renders my race invisible to me: I don't have to self-identify specifically as white because in the majority of spaces in which I find myself, I am read as a person, or a woman--not specifically as a white woman. This is not something that can be said for people of color. To quote a bit from McIntosh's article, I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group. Privilege accrues in big ways--there are still parts of the Deep South I wouldn't like to drive through if I were African-American, and there are few people of color in corporate offices and Congress. It shows up in small ways, too: Band-Aids match my skin well, I can get my hair cut anywhere, and most grocery stores have the food of my people (being Midwestern, the quintessential Food of My People is casserole).

To use a minor example, the beginning of the Dismantling Racism training manual is taken up by a bunch of articles on the history of slavery and racism in the colonial Episcopal Church. I'll be honest; modern history is not my super-favorite thing. My period of historical interest starts in about the year 400 CE and goes backwards to about 12000 BCE. Babylon, Sumer, the Indus River Valley, ancient India and Egypt and Greece; that's my jam. My mind started to wander as I read about this convocation and that historic church and this congregational schism. "I could just skip this," I thought. And then it occurred to me that I know a ton about colonial history from the white point of view--even from the white Episcopalian point of view, because that was part of the inquirer's class I took before I was confirmed in the Church--but absolutely jack about the role of people of color during that period.

 Growing up, I didn't have the option of not learning White History, or White Church History, because they weren't called that. They were called History, period, shut up and learn them. And so, I chastised myself, it would be kind of shitty to have spent all that time learning about Samuel Seabury and Philander Chase (yes, his name was Philander and he was a priest--shame on you for laughing), and then decide that, now that I had a choice, I didn't want to read about Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Absalom Jones, BTW, was a total badass who was not only the first African-American ordained to the priesthood but who also founded his own parish, bought his own and his wife's freedom from slavery, and petitioned Congress for the amendment of the Fugitive Slave Act.

What's been most helpful, for me, is to draw parallels between male privilege and white privilege--to basically swap the words out in my head when I'm thinking of situations. Then I try to think and act in ways, as a member of the dominant 'racial' group (the fallacy of race as anything but socially constructed is a topic for a whole different post) that I wish men would act in response to male privilege and racism. The metaphor/comparison doesn't hold in every case, but it makes it easier for me to wrap my head around, at least at this early stage while I'm still learning.

For instance.
At the VERY least, I wish dudes would acknowledge that sexism and male privilege still exist. There IS a legit, for-real, problem. It's not just women imagining things while on their monthlies. Men still get paid more than women. Men are still more likely to be hired for high-paying/prestigious jobs than women. The vast majority of elected officials are men. Yet, there are still people who insist that we live in a 'post-feminist' world, and that sexism is no longer an issue (tell that to the residency director who asked me, during my interview, if I planned to have kids. I thought about saying I'd probably have my wife do it...). People say these things out of ignorance at best and assholery at worst. Similarly...
People of color are paid less than whites. Whites are more likely to be hired for high-paying/prestigious jobs. The vast majority of elected officials are white. Trying to decry the existence of white privilege (eg, white people who bitch about affirmative action; I have a relative who once said, in complete and utter seriousness, "These days white men are the most oppressed people around"), or saying something Pollyannish-but-idiotic like "We have a Black President now, so racism must be dead!" is ridiculous.

There is a phenomenon known in (mostly third-wave) feminist groups as mansplaining. It's when a man steps into a women's space to tell them "what's really going on," with a condescending, patronizing attitude and the assumption that everyone must want to hear his opinion. Having been thus enlightened, he imagines, the women will then go and get his words tattooed on their eyelids, or pre-order their gravestones with his words as epitaph. I especially hate when dudes mansplain feminist issues to me, or tell me how I should feel. Guess what? Not every conversation is about you. I understand that you have grown up in a society that taught you everyone waits for your proclamations with baited breath just because you have a penis. That is male privilege.
Similarly, (often well-meaning) white people whitesplain. We've been raised to believe our words have more inherent worth--that everyone wants to hear them--just because we're kind of melanin-deficient. It's our job to minister to the melanized. Guess what? Not every conversation is about us, white people. Especially when discussing racial issues, we should listen at least twice as much as we talk. STFU sometimes is what I'm trying to say here.

I wish feminist guys would call their friends out when they say or do sexist stuff. Your pal harasses some woman? Tell him it's not cool. He uses the word 'sluts' or 'bitches' to describe women? Nip that ish in the bud.
Thus, we white folk have to call each other out on racist bullshit, even--maybe especially--if it's not meant maliciously. We need to be aware. Friends don't let friends fall into frothy-mouthed jingoistic frenzies over "illegal immigration". Friends don't let friends listen to Rush Limbaugh, or tell racist jokes, or say that Cuba Gooding Jr. is 'so articulate' (mostly because he's not. I've never forgiven him for Snow Dogs). Hell, I have to call MYSELF out sometimes--when I automatically assume the African-American teenager on the Metro with two kids is a teen mom rather than babysitting younger siblings, or when a young Black man comes into the ER with a gunshot wound and I assume he's part of a gang. I have to stop and say, "Dammit, brain, knock it off," because living in the US for twenty-odd years has filled my brain with prejudices and racist attitudes (though I'd say this is probably also true for...well, everyone else).

We have to be the change we want to see. Yeah, I realize that is a major contender for the gold in the Trite Slogan Olympics. It's also true.


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