Pew released a new report on how both black Americans and white Americans view racial inequality and it only serves to validate generally held ideas about white privilege. To summarize, the report demonstrates that not only do white Americans underestimate the level of inequality felt by black Americans, but that black Americans are not especially hopeful for any change (about 43% believe it will likely never happen) versus white Americans (about 11% believe the same).You can read the full report here.
But as a white woman, what right do I have to talk about this? It’s an important question all of us need to ask ourselves before we dive into proselytizing about anything, let alone topics that we haven’t experienced firsthand. While I cannot speak about racial inequality from a point of experience, I can discuss my own experiences with oppression as an LGBT person.
First, let’s throw out the comfortable labels. White, Christian (especially protestant), financially stable, mentally healthy, heteronormative men are privileged while everyone else is not (or at least not as much). This privilege varies: if a person is heteronormative (gender conforming, straight, etc.), is Christian, is white, is not poor, has no diagnosed mental condition, or is male, they have some degree of this privilege. Privilege itself is very simply an advantage one group has over another. This is nothing new in human society, and white privilege specifically is a modern western societal trait that has roots in colonialism.
Society bends itself around the needs of the privileged class because said class is seen as “normal”, which translates to “acceptable”. Therefore, anything outside of this class can be seen as “abnormal” or “unacceptable.” Those outside of the privileged class often struggle for civil rights as well as obtaining financial stability. This isn’t to make excuses for people’s poor choices, but to understand where they are coming from.
The key mistake that the privileged class makes is that because it is the base mod of classes, it feels it has the right to decide on what is acceptable or not (as the only acceptable class themselves). Like it or not, the privileged class does this and is overall successful. Change itself often comes about when the oppressed class has been pushed too far and begins to push back. This, at very least, Marx got right.
Because of this, the privileged class also believes it can decide when enough freedoms have been given. This is the first problem. Consider the Civil Rights movement, which was partially successful but much still needs to be done to raise up people of color and women. The privileged class decided that there was enough protesting and activism: schools were integrated (mostly), segregation was removed (at least legally), and voting rights were protected (at least until recently). The privileged class also decided who the heroes of the movement were and who were the villains, and began to take rights over the story itself. The privileged class continues to argue that they have a right to tell other’s stories even more effectively than the people these stories are about (Crash being a perfect example).
This leads us to the second and essential problem, the privileged class doesn’t understand that everything is not about them. In fairness, society is built around making everything about them, telling their stories, and supporting what they feel comfortable with. Many examples exist demonstrating this problem, including the “All Lives Matter” countermovement and denouncing Malcolm X and the Black Panthers while elevating Martin Luther King Jr. to sainthood. Creating this extreme dichotomy between the righteous crusader and the destructive activist is likely subconscious, but nevertheless serves to uphold the privileged class.
In recent years, the fight for equality by the LGBT community has become massively successful, even more so than the very long fight for racial equality. The fight wasn’t easy and was full of disappointments, like the passing of Prop 8 in California and the removal of adoption rights in many states. Even while the marriage argument was going on, there was a common thread of demand for compromise from the privileged class: “Why do you need to call it marriage?” Well, we need to call it marriage because that’s what it is. Separate but equal is never equal, regardless of what the separation is regarding.
However, the fight for LGBT rights, as well as those most powerful in the LGBT community, fall under their own sort of privilege: white males. The whitewashed Stonewall (2015) replaced many people of color, lesbians, and transwomen with attractive white men.
While I was living in San Diego, many in the LGBT community were frustrated with Pride events: the music choice, the overt sexuality of the events, etc., specifically because the event was designed around the demands of wealthy gay men (who tended to be white). The overt sexuality in general has been a point on contention for many in the LGBT community who desire to move away from dildo flags and go-go dancers because there’s more to the community than sex, and many have families (read: children) they would like to include in the festivities. This all serves unintentionally to validate conservative beliefs that anything other than straight sex/relationships is simply perversion and deviancy.
However, rebellion is a key aspect of change. Overt sexuality in Pride festivals is a response to suppression, not unlike N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”. While in-group problems persist for all movements, the real issue here is that of the privileged class demanding for compromise specifically for their comfort. After Trayvon Martin’s murder, many suggested that black youths simply stop wearing hoodies. People complain about Mexican Americans flying the Mexican flag at protests, even though every white person I’ve ever met gives me a laundry list of the various European nations their family claims to be descended from, and many are “fine with people being gay” but just don’t want it “rubbed in their faces”.
In some ways, this is likely because these things: the NWA, the Mexican Flag, and same-sex relationships, are something that do not belong to the privileged class. If they cannot claim it for themselves, then they perceive it as some sort of challenge to their authority. It makes them uncomfortable. Discomfort is the only negative thing they have ever felt so it’s taken far more seriously than it should be. This creates even more of a segregation between those that are privileged and those are not. People shouldn’t be denied rights and protections because it makes other people nervous or feel icky. Grow up.
Prejudice is experienced by all peoples, regardless of privilege. The difference is that for the privileged class, it is often individual and never institutionalized. Certainly, as well, there are many privileged individuals that are woke and try not to contribute to the system. Christians are oppressed in the USA, they claim, but I ask by who? Christianity is really the only reason that marriage for all people was denied, even though marriage is a legal arrangement and the separation of church and state is clearly written in the constitution. It took the Supreme Court to stop that nonsense. Just as a gay couple in New York getting married doesn’t effect a local church in Tuscon, the advancement of one group of people doesn’t harm another.
Change is incremental, meaning that it happens in bursts spread out over time. Assuming that things will get better eventually without any action on part of the people who need the change is like playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun. While many things contribute to change, science and technology being an important one, it is a general shift in consciousness that really matters. Younger generations seem to care less and less about the sexual preferences of their peers, but it is in human nature to hold up the status quo.
Other human beings pointing out the oppression they experience everyday does not attack nor challenge you unless you are participating in it. Before taking things personally, it’s important to remember not to judge others, because you don’t know what they’ve experienced firsthand.
If you aren’t sure, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Does this affect me, specifically? Or am I being personally attacked?
- Does this harm me? If so, is this harm perceived or tangible?
- Are my beliefs my own at all? Have I critically thought about this?
Yes, some people just suck, hell…most people suck if you meet enough of them. More importantly, what they have done and what they will do isn’t about you. Not everything is about you. And countering with something like “All Lives Matter”, or humanism (which was already a thing!) to feminism, only removes the focus from what the issue was to begin with.
So if you are a white person, just stop being such a dick and exercise a little rationality. No one is blaming you for slavery or Stonewall, but refusing to recognize that you at least benefit from the system and others are kept down by it makes you a participant.