Maybe there aren’t coincidences, but it certainly seemed an odd bit of synchronicity that two non-linked (in the way of the internet link, that is) things happened nearly on top of each other during my online time wasting t’other day.
First, via Gail Simone’s twitter, came Lily Tsui’s excellent list titled “Signs You’re a Shitty White Ally.” It starts with “reverse racism” and only gets better from there. It’ll take you maybe two minutes to read it, so do yourself a favor and take that time.
Second, a friend posted a link to a Tumblr reblog of a great post calling out blackface Halloweening in 2013, Trayvon Martin gags, and the disparaging a young, African-American girl:
There’s no question that the three of them are racists, but Caitlin disgusted me by taking an unconsented picture of somebody else’s little girl, somebody else’s child, and using them as the target of racism for a facebook status. I’m including that too because how nasty do you have to be? As if the Halloween photos don’t answer that question.
Let me add that this stuff right here, EVERYBODY, is the reason you can’t darken your skin to portray a Black person. Because this is used to dehumanize us. Whether you intend to or not, you are perpetrating Blackface.
IT. IS. RACIST.
I was saddened by the fact that some of the comments on my own friend’s Facebook share turned to the title of the Tumblr which reblogged it: “White People Said What?”1 Namely, assertions that said title was in and of itself racist. This, as you may expect, reminded me of that first list about allies. I thought about trying to comment on Facebook, but I really like using way too many words for anything that could be considered a comment. On the other hand: that’s what blogs are for.
Fair-ish warning: I’m going to get things wrong here for whatever value wrong has in this kind of discussion. I’m going to make someone(s) uncomfortable, or just pissed off. I kind of feel like it’s objectively impossible for that not to happen. First: I kind of think that makes some of the point. Because second: if it were easy to make a happy-fun post and the world would instantly transform, someone already would have done it.
So, then. I can understand some of the defensiveness about that blog title. It’s uncomfortable to be lumped in with individuals who are participating in behavior you find loathsome, which makes your skin crawl and which you would never condone. I imagine it’s a bit like having people assume you’re a criminal based on the color of your skin, though only insofar as having a case of poison ivy is like contracting a flesh-eating virus.
Seriously, if the price of pointing out the kind of offensive mindset which continues to crop up, which is most virulently symptomatic of unrestrained privilege, is that I get lumped in with a few assholes, I think that’s maybe worth having the chance to call out the assholes. I’d rather get a bit of splash back in the pursuit of educating away this kind of thinking than just let it fester in order to keep my own face clean.
To put it another way: we can discuss the efficacy of argument, and putting one’s audience at ease and all, but while we’re doing that we seem to be not spending time talking about the fact there’s still blackface in 2013. Cart and horse; order matters. But that’s kind of how white privilege works, which is why we have to keep talking about it.
The American / Western default is still built from the straight, white male, and moves undeniably downward from there. When I say someone is “a normal person,” most people who are being honest, who aren’t actively attempting to subvert instincts2, picture a white man. Not because white men are more “normal” than other people, or because they’re superior, but because that’s how society is built right now. From there, you can swap out genitalia by adding a gendered pronoun to the phrase, or attach a different ethnic heritage via extra adjectives, but our current boilerplate for modifications is still White Guy.
Intervention analogies aren’t out of place here: admitting the problem has to be the first step. In this case, the problem is white privilege. And it is a long, painful slog to trying to even things out so that it isn’t, especially when otherwise open-minded thinkers and compassionate individuals are still struggling with that first step. I think part of that has to do with the splash back I mentioned before. No one, especially folks who consider themselves open-minded thinkers, wants to feel like a racist, and admitting to white privilege can totally feel like that.
But I believe admitting white privilege exists, and that you (or I, or anyone who does) benefit from it in however small an amount doesn’t instantly make you evil. You didn’t build the society you were born into any more than the people who don’t benefit from innate privilege. Also important: It doesn’t instantly-evil your parents or teachers or any other loved ones, because society is bigger than them. Bigger, by and large, than even everyone you know personally. It’s definitely older than anyone you know personally. It’s a colossal, intimidating mass of time and people with which you can’t possibly have interacted directly, but all of which feeds into our now and the atmosphere we navigate.
Which leads me to geek-metaphor as a closer:
We land the embryonic shuttle craft on a world with a toxic atmosphere. We’ve actually been lucky enough to have been genetically modified to thrive in it, however. But the technology was too expensive to use on everyone. We didn’t get it from merit but from lottery. Remember: there’s an artificial colony behind us, where a whole bunch of people who didn’t win the genetic lottery3 have to try to make due with limited survival suits and costly food processing.
Unless, that is, we get our asses in gear and sweat and toil and do the necessary cultural terraforming that will make this place just as much for them as it is for us. It might not be done in our lifetimes. And the process itself will make our adaptations less and less effective. But others are walking out in their suits and chipping away at the problem. It’s better. They can take their helmets off periodically, and there are strains of flora and fauna which don’t actively attack their intestines. But at the end of the day, they still have to go back to that city in a bottle, so there’s still plenty of work to be done, because the stars at night are completely awesome without that murky dome between us and them, and I want everyone to see them.
1. My link is to the original post, because sources, but I can’t seem to find that particular Tumblr any more. The Google cache has the latest post saying “My blogs have been fixed. I’m not deleting any of them,” but Tumblr won’t let me see it. I don’t know if that means the author subsequently removed it, or if Tumblr did, or if it’s something else of the far more benign variety.↩
2. Which we should be. Absolutely. Again: that’s part of the point. But we can’t subvert it if we keep trying to pretend it doesn’t exist in the first place. ↩
3. And in case it’s not clear: this doesn’t make the winners objectively better, just better suited for living in a single, less-than-benign environment.↩