26 August 2009

Some thoughts on white privilege

I've been encountering the term 'white privilege' a lot lately. I've thought about white privilege at length over the years. It has determined the course of my life. But some things in the conversations I've had about it lately are really starting to irritate me. And there's a couple of things I've wanted to say about it that I haven't said. So I'm saying them now.

White privilege is both a theory and an experience. And I understand the experience. But it shits me to see the theory bandied around by people who haven't really thought it out, and are using it to prove how hip they are, how they're down with this kind of thing, how they may be white but they understand, man. This, to me, isn't much different from showcasing your token black friend as an example of how non-racist you are. And it's starting to be used as yet another elitist, hippier-than-thou catchphrase. That really bugs me. Drop the phrase white privilege into a conversation along with the tofu you ate last night and your bicycle, and you've succeeded in identifying yourself with one kind of people, the good white guys, a member of the tribe Wannabe. You've instantly distanced yourselves from those other kind of white people, you know, the ones who don't understand how privileged they are, and probably eat meat and drive SUV's too. The ones you wouldn't see at Burning Man.

The fact that you can do this, that you can distance yourself and create space where you can deride people who don't fit into your group by saying things like hey mate, your privilege is hanging out, you might want to do something about that - the fact that you can do this, is a sign of your white privilege.

I learned this many years ago. I was in a relationship with a man of Middle Eastern appearance. I was also a hippie. While I wanted to wear flowing hippie clothing and a headscarf, my boyfriend would beg me to put some jeans on for once. I was dealing with the Orientalism of the people around me, while I was challenging the bigotry and illuminating the privilege we encountered every day. The irony was that while everyone assumed he was making me wear the veil, he really wanted me to look like everyone else does here, so that I wouldn't draw attention to his race. He had learned that without white privilege, the safest solution is to blend in as best you can. When in Rome, he always did what the Romans did. This was hard for me to understand at first. Being able to reject the dominant culture and its norms with minimal backlash was a privilege I had, that he didn't.

I see so many hippies who take pieces of other cultures, who smoke a hookah in public or wear a bindi dot and think that by doing so they are identifying with minority groups. Well, you're not. You're mocking them. You're letting your privilege hang out. You might want to do something about that.

I eventually had to reject the headscarf. It was many years after I split up with that guy. In fact it was in September, 2001. I had begun to fear for my safety after receiving abuse and threats when I walked down the street while wearing a headscarf.

Now we come to the other thing I want to say about privilege. You may want to tell me that I had the privilege of taking off that headscarf, since I am not a Muslim, since I am white.

If you say that, I will get angry.

Because this is what I really want to say about white privilege.

Be very, very careful about what you call a privilege around me. If you are white, and white privilege is a new concept to you, and you want to talk about it with other white people, don't start a conversation with me by assuming that I've never thought about white privilege, and that I don't already know what you have just learned. Don't start a conversation with me assuming that all white people are the same, think the same, and have the same background as you, unless you want me to call you a racist.

Because it's quite possible that I am not the same as you.

I'll tell you a bit of a story. Many years ago (as so many of my stories begin), I was in a bar, talking to an Aboriginal man. We were talking about our lives, and he pointed out the similarities between us. Unlike me, he had been adopted. But like me, he had lost his culture.

He had been told that this was a privilege afforded to him by his light skin tone. He had the privilege of growing up in a house, speaking English. He had the privilege of better education, better nutrition, a better future. He had been given access to white privilege, because he looked white. He was told to be grateful for having white privilege, because thanks to it he was better off than those Aboriginal people who were blacker and stayed on the missions. And was he grateful for that? Was he happy about it? Fuck no. Because that privilege had not been given for nothing. It had been given as part of a bargain that he didn't agree to - you can have white privilege, if you give up your language, if you give up your culture, if you give up your land.

Some fucking privilege. Try telling the Stolen Generations now that they are privileged, and see how far you get.

What that man recognised in me, was that I had been given white privilege in the same shitty exchange that he and so many people were given it during the assimilation years. I, like him, had not been given the choice, and like him, would not have accepted the exchange if I had.

My family made that choice, a generation before I was born. And they were grateful for their white privilege. My aunt told me how she would pray to God every day, thanking him for giving her pale skin and light brown hair so she could blend in, and not get beaten like the Greeks and Italians. They made the choice to change their names, to not teach their children their language, to let their culture die so that their children would be safe, would have easy access to the privilege that they themselves struggled to achieve as new migrants. The assimilation policy succeeded in my family. As a result of their choices, I have 'white privilege'. I also could not speak to my grandmother because I didn't know her language. My family's culture died with her, because they were forced to choose between their culture and their safety.

Don't fucking tell me this is a privilege.

Doing so shows a gross misunderstanding and distortion of the term privilege. White privilege is what enabled my family to come to Australia during the time of the White Australia Policy. But being forced to deny and destroy your culture in exchange for your safety is not a fucking privilege, whether you are Aboriginal or European. So find another word for it. Tragedy, perhaps.

Like the Indigenous people of this land, my family is slowly learning to find pride in our origins, to be proud of our cultural heritage instead of hiding it. I am grasping at the shreds that remain of our culture, clutching those shreds tight because they are all I have to link me with my grandmother, with my past.

Am I lucky that my family are white and therefore had the option of blending in? In some respects yes, of course, what a stupid question. I've seen how shitty people can be towards people I know who aren't white, yet grew up as Aussies. I've seen how shitty people can be towards people I know who are new migrants from the Middle East and Africa. I've seen how shitty people can be towards people I know who are Indigenous. People ain't shitty to me for the same reasons.

But I think the whole concept of white privilege is a white American construct that some people try and fit into every situation, because they think that the white American discourse is applicable to every situation *cough*Americanprivilege*cough*. Like any theory, it sounds like a load of bollocks when wielded by clumsy people who don't know what they're talking about; and like any theory, it sometimes falls down when you get it into the real world - or, the world outside the USA. Maybe there, things ARE that simple. But the cultural mix in Australia is different to the USA. The cultural mix around the world is different to that in the USA. And often I hear American theories applied to situations where, well, they don't quite fit.

Privilege is a useful concept, but I've seen people get stuck on the word 'white' at the front. Privilege is afforded to those who wield the power. In the States as in Ausralia, that's whites. In Japan, that's Japanese, and my white friends are in a minority group who are scrutinised, ostracised and forced to be on their best behaviour because they look different. In Iran, it's Shi'ite Muslims. Around the world, it's men. Able bodied people. Heterosexuals. In some places brown people have privilege over other brown people. White people have privilege over other white people. It's not always clear who's Caucasian and who's not. In Australia, many threads of privilege intertwine. Privilege is a theory that's extremely useful; but constantly reducing it to one facet, white privilege, is to assume that everywhere in the world, the white/black discourse is the only one. And what I'm hearing there is I'm American white and my privilege is the only one that matters in the world, because the American discourse whiteness is the only thing that matters to me.

That doesn't mean white privilege doesn't exist in Australia, or that the concept is invalid. The concept is very valid, and needs to be talked about and fleshed out more. We desperately need a lot more discourse in Australia on the various aspects of privilege, and in particular white privilege. But privilege is a complex multi-faceted issue. My aunt thanked God she wasn't Greek; my ex-boyfriend found life easier when he pretended he was (hell, nowadays in Australia it's far safer to be called a Wog than a filthy Arab). So I'm not saying don't talk about white privilege. I'm saying if you want to have a dialogue with me about it, just be very careful that you don't fall into the old trap of not thinking about what you're saying, or assuming that everyone whom you classify as white is the same as you. Australia is a broad mix of migrants. A refugee from the Nazis who lives down south is not the same as a fourth-generation cane farmer who lives up north, any more than either of them are the same as a fair-skinned Persian migrant or fair-skinned Koori. They do not come from the same culture. They have not had the same experiences in life. Not all white people are the same, just as not all black people are the same.

Oh yeah, that headscarf I mentioned? It's part of my family's cultural and religious identity. I gave up part of my identity to protect my safety. Muslim women from the Middle East could do that too. But they shouldn't have to - and neither should I, regardless of my skin colour.


Stinkypaw said...

Interesting subject, well written and so hard to talk about... Nobody is the same and this no matter if we have the same skin colour or not.

It's weird, but this is manking me realise how little I care about skin colour... I care about people and what they go/went tru. Strange. I'll be thinking about this for a while now.

cinnamon girl said...

Probably not the best place to come to the topic - me going off about converstions you didn't even hear. Oh well, that's what this blog's for. ;-)

I've always felt the same as you - that what really matters is people, not skin colour. I used to wonder if maybe that was somehow hard-wired - some people are racist and some aren't. All I really care about is how people treat me, and I don't give a shit what colour they are.

Then I realised that was a gross oversimplification of the matter (I was quite young when I began to think about this). I do think personality type has some role to play... but as well as that, and probably much more important than that, I think being able to see a person as more important that (or somehow separate from) their skin colour is - well- a privilege.

Not just a white privilege, but a privilege of growing up and living in a time of peace, and in a place where people generally are pretty decent to you, where you have no obvious enemies that can be identified by the way they look, and who will identify you by the way you look. I have another post or two to write about this.

This is what really made me think about it. I grew up in a time of peace surrounded by people who looked like me and treated me ok. I thought, 'the people around me treat people ok'. If you had asked me whether I knew anyone who was racist, I would have said no. But it was only when I had a Middle Eastern boyfriend that I realised one of the reasons people treated me ok was that I was white. People I had thought were reasonable, nice, decent people came out with the most outrageously ignorant and bigoted bullshit when I was with him. But I never would have realised they were bigoted and ignorant if I wasn't with him. Because I was white. I had the privilege of not seeing this ugly side of the people I know. If I was nice to them, they were nice to me. But although my boyfriend was just as nice to them, they treated him different, had different expectations of him and came to different conclusions about his motives because of his looks. And I was left afterwards with the revised knowledge that 'the people around me treat white people ok'. That's quite a different kettle of fish. I can no longer say I don't know any one who is racist, even though their racism isn't on display any more (because they are once again surrounded by white people).

And I guess that's where the personality thing comes in. I studied things like schema theory at uni because I'm interested in that kind of thing, and I like to challenge my own assumptions and question the things I wasn't taught to question. When faced with a schema saying 'all Middle Easterners are filthy Arabs who wear dishcloths on their heads and beat their women', some people go, 'well, that's what they are.' Other people go, 'hang on, are they actually all Arabs? What religion are they? Why do they wear dishcloths on their heads? Is it even a dishcloth? How is them beating their wives different to all the men here who beat their wives?'

Why some people ask these question and some people don't, I don't know. I'm interested in culture; some people aren't. But I do know this: being able to choose whether or not to be interested in politics or culture is a privilege held by those who are comfortable. People who are at the bottom of the heap have to think about these things whether they are interested or not.

There is a great quote from the author Douglas Adams which explains this kind of privilege beautifully (he's talking about a robot and a horse, but same thing):

"{Horses} have always understood a great deal more than they let on. It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever."

Stinkypaw said...

That quote sums it up pretty well, so very true.

I've been surprised by comments people would make about someone just because of their names, and such. I just hate that level of ignorance and bigottery. That is THE question, why some people do and others don't... I don't think we'll ever know.