The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

My parents have no idea what I do for a living.  I've told them numerous times that I work in the field of Diversity & Inclusion, and my mother just shakes her head and says, "Yes, but I don't know what that means."  And the more I've tried to explain it to them, the more mysterious my career becomes.

Basically, I help organizations to become more diverse and inclusive.  "Diverse" means (yes) more people of color and more women.  But it also means, more gay people, more people with disabilities, more people from different faith communities, more transgender people, and more military veterans.  More of what you don't already have, basically.  And "Inclusive" means that you treat people well.  There are other definitions, but that's pretty much the crux of it.  Everyone might not have the same experience at work, but everyone has an equal shot.

I don't believe it's a terribly difficult concept to grasp.  Admittedly, I've been thinking about it every day for the past thirteen years, and maybe that's why - but doesn't everybody know that we live in a society wherein people who are Black, Latino, Asian, female, gay, lesbian, bi, trans, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, athiest, Sikh, Hindu, or possessed of a disability have to take a lot of shit that other people don't have to deal with?

Honestly, I think that most people "get" that there are those in this world who are unjustly disenfranchised.  What they don't get, or don't want to get, is the flip side of the coin - that people who are white, straight, Christian, or temporarily able-bodied have this thing called "privilege."

Privilege is like the untouchable third rail of the Diversity & Inclusion conversation.  Nobody wants to admit that it's there - and yet, if you think about it, it must be there.  If someone is "less than," it begs the question: less than who?  If someone is down, then by definition someone else is up.  Simple, right?  Not for some people - and by "some people," I'm usually talking about some white people.

For those who are new to the concept of white privilege, the best resource I could possibly point you to is a classic essay by Peggy McIntosh called "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."  It's a really short read, and it spells out the issue plainly and concisely.  In it, McIntosh reflects on why it was so difficult for her to get the men around her to admit that their penises entitled them to all kinds of free stuff that society made women work really hard for - and how she started to wonder if she got any free stuff that other people had to work really hard for.  And she started to make a list.  And it turned into a pretty long list.  It included things like, "I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented," and "Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability," and "I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race." And as the list got longer and longer (she stopped at 26 items, but could have clearly gone on and on and on), she realized she was onto something.

For me, the most powerful thing about McIntosh's essay isn't the laundry list of free stuff that society gives to white people, it's that she (like most white people) was completely blind to her own privilege before she made a conscious decision to focus on it.  That's the tricky thing about privilege: not only are we unaware of it, but we're encouraged to be oblivious.  And ignorance is often just as difficult to confront than out-and-out hatefulness.  Because like the proud bigot, the ignorant are fiercely protective of their ignorance.  They don't know and they don't want to know, because knowing makes a person accountable, and it's a whole lot easier to live in this world if racism (and sexism, and ableism, and heterosexism, and all the rest) is somebody else's problem.

Privilege is why we have stupid-ass words like "reverse racism."  Terms like "reverse racism" are, to put it simply, complete and utter bullshit.  It's like saying, "I can totally understand racism against them, but racism against me is totally fucked up; like, it doesn't even make any sense."  When people talk about "reverse racism," here's what usually happened: 1) members of an oppressed community have expressed resentment toward those more powerful than they, and 2) a white person within earshot gets his or her feelings hurt because after all, they never individually owned slaves (never mind that they reap the benefits of their skin privilege each and every day, as I do, often without even realizing it).

Privilege is why no one on Fox News can admit that some members of the Tea Party are clearly and abjectly racist (see this and this and this and this and this), but can freely and easily use the racist tag to describe Barack Obama.

Not only is this accusation profoundly unfair and untrue, but it illustrates the key point about privilege.  When Glenn Beck thinks that he's the victim of racism, he feels it.  But when the world conspires to make him feel more intelligent, more patriotic, more moral, and just plain better than anyone who's a shade darker than he is, he can't feel that at all.

And I get why white people cling to the belief that they are more victimized by racism than anyone else; I do.  Owning your privilege is tough.  It requires you to reflect on your entire life, and realize that you've been the beneficiary of a lot of free stuff over the years.  And we Americans would like to believe that earned all that stuff.  And you might have earned some of it; I won't take that away from you.  But I guaran-damn-tee you that if you grew up white in America, you got some of that shit for free.  You didn't earn it all.  And once you get it through your thick head that your skin color (or your penis, or your heterosexuality, or your Christianity, or your temporary status as an able-bodied person, or the HIV-negative blood coarsing through your veins, or whatever else) has given you a place of unearned privilege, it's sort of incumbent upon you to level the playing field a little, in whatever way you can, even if that's just educating yourself whenever the opportunity arises.

When I started doing diversity and social justice work, I was motivated by the oppression I felt as a gay person, and I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't really prepared to deal with my skin privilege.  And yeah, at the beginning, I did take the weight of the world onto my shoulders, and I felt a lot of guilt.  And getting through the guilt (but remaining knowledgeable and accountable) wasn't easy. You know what's easy? Playing the victim.  Playing the victim is easy, and it's actually a lot of fun, especially when you get to keep all the free stuff.

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