As we get ready for the premiere (July 22) of the new documentary "White People" by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas, we wanted to take some time to check in with how you (our lovely readers) are feeling. We noticed that a lot of you found our recent posts "9 Ways To Use Your White Privilege For Good" and "What Do Band-Aids, Bras And Bilbo Baggins Have To Do With White Privilege?" a little troubling -- you thought they were racist.
We know these conversations can be really hard to have: They involve taking a critical look at not only our lives, but the society we live in and the power structures that have been in place since way before we were born.
It's okay to be frustrated and confused when you hear some of the more critical comments about the ways whiteness impacts people of color, but it really helps to keep an open mind and understand that these are not attacks on you as a human being, but on a culture of inequality (one that we unfortunately all experience.) And, if you hear these ideas out, do a little reflecting and take some time to hear the stories of people who encounter racism every day, you may start to see that talking about privilege helps everyone take steps toward a better future. We promise.
Here's a few reasons it's not racist to talk about white privilege:
First off: Let's get technical.
This is the word-y part, sorry, but terminology does help to clear things up sometimes: "Racism" doesn't just describe a member of one race saying something bad about another race. It's a little more complicated than that. When you talk about racism, it always involves different power structures -- in this case, power structures that benefit white people -- and it involves using race as a means of holding on to that power. Conversations about inequality are sometimes framed as "[insert group of people here] are treated bad and it stinks," without mentioning that the ways they are treated are often tied directly to systems that benefit another group of people. If you leave that last part out, it's significantly harder to get real about what the problem is and where it's coming from.
That's the thing about racism: It's not necessarily a thing you do, it's a system you're born into (and a system you can choose to criticize and reject.) Sure, people of color can be prejudiced against white people, but it's not the same thing as racism (their prejudices aren't written into the legal system.)
Likewise: talking critically about privilege, micro-aggressions and everyday symbols of racial bias are not racist (or even prejudiced, necessarily) because they are addressing the things about our culture that still reinforce (centuries old) inequality.
It doesn't mean your life is easy.
Privilege is not the same as saying that you're rich or spoiled or never had to work for anything. Instead, it's referring to certain things about you that our society rewards (like your gender, skin color, physical abilities or sexual orientation) in small but impactful ways. Having some privileges doesn't mean you have never been hurt by inequality, but that doesn't invalidate the experiences of another person who lacks those same privileges.
Yes, you might've had a hard life -- but if you're white, your race is not one of the things that influenced your hardships (classism on the other hand? Let a rip.) Talking about privilege just helps put a name to the problems that could otherwise fly under the radar because most privileged people don't even notice that their privileges exist (it's just always been a part of their experiences.)
Most people have some kind of privilege (and they're all very different.)
Not everyone has the same privileges and it's never a contest to see who has it worse. There is no point system to privilege or oppression — they are just realities that, once acknowledged, can hopefully help us move toward some productive change.
Some examples: Thinking hard about why we consider Band-Aids or bras that match white skin tones "flesh-colored" can springboard us into thinking more critically about whose flesh companies are designing things for and whether we think that's right. Then, maybe, we can create companies that design and create for every kind of flesh. Thinking about why certain fantasy novels are written with all-white characters can inspire new writers to create and shore more diverse stories. These are small, but ultimately really cool ways to challenge the lame idea that white is the default race, right?
No one wants you to feel guilty.
No one is saying you should feel guilty about the color of your skin (that'd be hella hypocritical.) Typically, when people of color make comments about whiteness or white people (sometimes via jokes, like in this week's episode of "Decoded") it's meant to get you thinking about some of the smaller ways that privilege exists on the periphery of your life. Because, more often than not, white privilege exists in so many tiny corners of our society without ever being questioned.
You're not expected to apologize for looking the way you do or being who you are; it's just supposed to make you think about how other people interact with the same world you do. If we can all have just a little more empathy, we can put ourselves in a better position to make things fair for real.
And that's something we can all get behind, right?
For More Information About Whiteness and White Privilege, Check Out Look Different.