Exploring Feminism Part 1: Whiteness and White Privilege

So: You want to be a better feminist, a better ally, or basically just more aware of social issues, and you don’t know where to start? Perfect! Here’s the series for you. I’ve put together a couple blog posts that are baby steps into a couple areas of feminism and intersectionality that I hope will help expand your horizons a little – I know that in creating them, they certainly helped expand mine!

Step one of this journey begins with examining whiteness. In my personal experience, white is considered the “default” race – as a person of color growing up, I never really saw anyone that looked like me on TV, and the Indian characters I did see were all deeply stereotypical. I’ll never forget the moment when I was watching Quantico, and as Priyanka Chopra’s character cried on my TV screen about her personal tragedy, I cried with her, because I was finally able to see someone that looked like me, dressed like me, talked like me, and that I could truly connect with in the media I consumed. I know a lot of people nowadays are familiar with the concept of privilege, and how we can have and not have privileges, but I want to focus specifically on unpacking white privilege and whiteness. I think this is something we focus a little less on, and I hope unpacking this will be a refreshing take on privilege for you! As always, I’ve brought some helpful scholars from academia and their perspectives to help me out with this!

Let’s cover some basics: whiteness is a social construct and an ideology, just like how race and gender are social constructs that we have prescribed meaning to. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact on our daily lives. Stuart Hall in 1995 wrote that ideologies can seem like a “given”, so, if whiteness feels like the norm, or like it’s a “given”, then it’s an ideology. But, the problem with whiteness as an ideology is that it’s elusive. Raka Shome writes, “whiteness always becomes something that is about someone else, about something else, but never about itself. … [Whiteness is] that sense of material and cultural entitlement that is enabled, and the sense of social agency that is produced, when we see the world constantly constructed in our image, through our needs, and through our frame of reference.” To put it simpler, whiteness is a way of describing the ideology behind white privilege – it’s an entitlement to a certain world and way of life.

This sense of whiteness as the default can be incredibly confusing for people of color, as explained by W.E.B. DuBois: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” DuBois’ double consciousness means that not only does he see the world through his own eyes, but also through the lens of how he is perceived in whiteness. People of color have to navigate through this double thinking, conscious and subconscious, on a daily basis, whereas people who are white don’t have to do that because they are considered the norm. So, white privilege isn’t just about the opportunities you’re getting in life, it’s also about how much easier or harder it is for you to navigate your daily life because of this constant consciousness (or lack of, if you’re white).

So how do we deal with this? How do we check our white privilege and see how deep it goes? And ultimately, if you’re white, what do you do about it? Robert Jensen, in his book “The Heart of Whiteness” talks about white fear and white guilt, and I think these are two aspects to whiteness and white privilege that we don’t often think about. First, he talks about guilt. White people say they often feel guilty about slavery, but guilt implies responsibility. It’s impossible to be responsible for something that happened before you were born. But, he says, by focusing on guilt in this abstract way and centering it on something that happened before their birth means that they don’t have to feel guilty about specific cases, which is a convenient way to avoid accountability. Also, this abstract guilt means they don’t have to take action, because it makes them feel paralysed and like there’s nothing they can do.

White readers, do you feel so guilty about white privilege that you can’t seem to do anything about it? If so, you’re stuck in some pretty abstract guilt. Instead, Jensen says, you should feel guilty for the racist acts you’ve committed in your lifetime, and your failures to do all you can to resist white supremacy and work against it, and feeling enough guilt to make sure you won’t repeat those mistakes. This makes your guilt actionable – you can work to reduce your guilt, rather than be overwhelmed by it.

Next, Jensen talks about white fear. The first two fears of white people are the fear of facing the reality that some of what white people have is unearned, and that if racial equality suddenly happened, that white people would lose what they have and the things they own. This redistribution of wealth would absolutely be a good thing, but when your life is comfortable, having to give that up can be scary for white people.

Third, he says, white people fear a world in which non-white people may gain significant power. I think this is perhaps one of the easiest fears of whiteness to spot – for example, Donald Trump and his infamous wall with Mexico is a blatant example of how white people fear “they” are all going to keep “coming here and taking our jobs”. Amidst all of this, subconsciously, there’s also a fear that non-white people might treat white people just as badly as they have been treated for so many years.

Lastly, Jensen says white people fear being “seen through” by non-white people. We all carry some traces of racism – maybe it’s from our upbringing or the stereotypes we’ve heard. White people fear that despite their antiracist vocabulary, that they might say the wrong thing, make a mistake and reveal some accidental inner racism and be exposed as a fraud. In response to this, Jensen suggests that you recognise that fear publicly, and let it go.

Do you see yourself or the people around you in any of these ideas about white guilt and fear? If so, great! It’s okay to feel guilty and scared, but you also need to do something about it, and Jensen has a helpful suggestion for that too: people of color need you to channel your guilt and fear into productive anger. Jensen says you need to get angry, stay angry, but don’t let it swallow you info self-righteousness. Let your passion for justice fuel your work but don’t let it overlook your own flaws and failures. Recognise your white privilege, your guilt, and your fears, but work to improve the world you live in.

I’d love to hear from you – what surprised you in this post? What resonated? Do you feel like this helps you make a little more sense of how whiteness and white privilege works, and also what to do about it? Let me know!

 

References

DuBois, W. (1994). The Souls of Black Folk (pp. 7-15). Dover Publications.

Hall, S. (1995). The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies in the Media. In G. Dines & J. Humez, Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Critical Reader (pp. 18-22). Thousand Oaks: Sage Press.

Jensen, R. (2005). The Heart of Whiteness (pp. 45-65). San Francisco: City Lights Publishing.

Shome, R. (2000). Outing whiteness. Critical Studies In Media Communication, 17(3), 366-371. doi: 10.1080/15295030009388402

An Open Letter to A White Gay Man

Dear White Gay Male,

Hi.

We took a class together that talked about racism. In that class, we also learned about intersectionality.

Your intersection: A white, openly gay male.

My intersection: A South Asian woman, appearing straight and boring. I’m actually closeted in many regards. If you knew what I got up to at dungeon parties, I am sure your head would spin, but I’m not here to talk about what I get up to.

I want you to know how proud I am of you for wanting to learn how various races are portayed and discussed, but I think you may have also missed a couple important points, so I’d like to emphasize them:

Being gay does not lessen your white privilege.

Being part of the LGBTQ community is indeed a place where there are huge challenges and oppression, but intersectionality is not the Oppression Olympics. One person’s oppression does not cancel out their privilege. Just because you are part of one oppressed community, does not mean you can speak over another.

This class was all about teaching us to consider our intersection and where we have privilege. But you didn’t do that when it came to putting what we were learning in class to practice.

We had a moment in the midst of a class discussion where in the middle of my sentence you cut me off and patronizingly told me you were not arguing with me. Your tone indicated you wanted me to calm down. The class laughed, and I smiled with them, but I want you to understand how incredibly tone deaf and hurtful this action was. In a class on race, intersections, and a whole semester spent unpacking privilege, I was stunned into silence at your audacity. You, a white male, patronised me, a South Asian woman in a class on racism and intersectionality. Let’s just stop and think about for a moment, how convenient it was for you to not realize that you are male, and white, and to forget how your race and gender plays out in your interactions with people – in particular, when speaking to a woman of color. My, what privilege you must carry that makes it so convenient for you to forget your own intersection so that you can shut me down in such a socially humiliating way!

Check yourself, dudebro. Just because you are gay, does not lessen your whiteness, your maleness, your ability to take up space, time, and your ability to have an opinion. That you can exist openly as a gay while male and not be in the closet and shadows as I am is a sign of your privilege. Many South Asian people cannot come out to their family as, well, anything. So think about how privileged you are, even within your own community.

The next time you open your mouth, perhaps you should consider if there is a voice that you are instead better able to amplify. Or, better yet, shut your mouth and listen. Listen to people of color and what we are saying, don’t shut them down.

Intersectionality, to me, is a bit like examining your own racial consciousness. It means being aware of when and where you are privileged and powerful, and when you are not. It’s okay to be a part of a community that is lower on the intersectional privilege grid – and your other intersections mean you can safely speak for your community! This is your privilege doing good things! But it also means being aware of whom you are hurting, who you are stepping on, when you speak.

What you did that day was small, but so are most racist and sexist things (and being gay and taking a class on rscism doesn’t excuse you from racist and sexist behavior). Most sexism and racism is implicit, not explicit. They are small drops into the bucket, until our buckets of tolerance start to overflow with anger and hurt.

Your momentary flippant action was a deep cut in a place where such behavior shouldn’t have happened. It has weighed on me, causing me a wholly unreasonable amount of anger and frustration. But this, I guess, is what happens when people get tired of dealing with microagressions and shit like this.

I hope someday you realize the gravity of your actions and think before you speak to a woman or person of color like that again. I hope you learn the lessons this class was trying to teach.

Til then, may you wave your flag at Pride, but also pause to remember upon whose backs the Pride parades began, and their intersections too.

Sincerely,

Irene Leonis