In my experience, those who privilege from a system of oppression are usually the ones who are the most uncomfortable discussing how to dismantle its workings.
I recently got into an ill-advised debate about Trayvon Martin’s case with a white acquaintance (dude I knew from ten years back). His position being that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions before “knowing all the sides” — and this was long before Zimmerman was arrested. I don’t want to re-hash the Martin debate here. The fact that it was even a debate that his murderer should be held accountable speaks volumes.
During the course of the discussion, he said, “I’m not white, I’m Jewish” (after I pointed out that his white privilege informed his views). When I hear white people disown their race, what they are really doing is attempting to erase their privilege and re-appropriate struggles that do not belong to them.
I have another white friend who asked me years ago, if I considered her “white”. Without hesitation, I nodded yes. She looked miffed as she said straight-faced, “I’m not white, I’m Spanish.” As in, from Spain. She was not, in fact, from Spain.
The power of white privilege is that even while it is readily available, whiteness can be disowned when necessary (even as privilege is not). One can demand to be seen as an individual, whenever it is suitable and convenient to do so. While people of color must speak for every brown and black person out there or risk loosing social power.
A few years ago, I was meeting some college friends for dinner. We all happened to be in the same city and, so of course, decided to meet. This particular group of us consisted of three people of color and one white woman. During the emailing back and forth and planning about dinner, venue, and time — the white woman — apropos of nothing — says this:
if this is the meeting where you guys sit around and talk about “white people” then I want no part of it and you can count me out. So let me know. I don’t want to intrude on any group thing that ya’ll have either.
A few things immediately occurs to me as I re-visit this old email after watching the video above. One is her causal policing of our conversation even before we meet or talk. And she believed that it was within the ordinary graces of daily interaction to demand that we acquiesce to her comforts. Apparently, people of color discussing the inane daily experiences of racism among ourselves was a personal affront to her. How does this happen? How does one acquire such a presumed sense of entitlement?
What makes this worse is that, I don’t believe we ever discussed white people or racism around her. Yet that didn’t matter. Reacting to her experiences by lumping us with other people of color she knew was perfectly reasonable. She never came to dinner, I never spoke to her again.
I have been obsessed with privilege lately. The benefits that we reap from oppression makes it so much easier to place the blame of the system on those who do not benefit. Struggle — then becomes the consequence of a natural and just consequences for perceived actions as opposed to something systematic, deliberate, constructed and highly beneficial — that this benefit is unequal matters very little.