10 Things White Privilege Has Done for Me in 10 Days

WhitePrivilege

Some of the things I write most about are racism, sexism, misogynoir, and inequality in American media and pop culture, specifically the underrepresentation of women of color in the aforementioned. The reasons why are many and complicated. Almost all of my closest friendships throughout my life have been and continue to be with black and brown women, and I have been a sounding board for their pain and disenfranchisement since I was very young. I went to Columbia College Chicago, my friends struggled to find art (literature and film) where they were not only represented, but represented in nuanced and thoughtful ways that went deeper than tokenism. As a white woman, I often stood by feeling helpless, attempting to educate white people (family, classmates, Facebook) about white privilege and the consequences of underrepresentation, both for the self-esteem of children of color and for the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies. I’m a writer, so awhile back I took to blogging as a means of communicating some of these ideas, hoping to use my white privilege to reach people and change some minds.

But something has been bugging me lately, and I haven’t been quite sure what it is, until last week when a blog I wrote about the movie Lucy reached something like 230k people and the emails started pouring in. Not all of it was “hate mail” (although some of it certainly was): a lot of it was people of color writing to say, “Cool blog. I’ve been saying this for years and no one listens.”

That’s when it hit me, and it should have hit me a lot sooner, but this white privilege shit can really make you an idiot sometimes: by talking about these issues and finding an audience, I am exercising white privilege, and while I do believe that writing about the lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood and media can have a positive effect, it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time talking about the problems with the white supremacist system we live in, but not as much time talking about the ways in which I operate in that system. I try to keep my privilege in check—I’m not always successful—but since last week, I have been actively monitoring my daily life and watching the ways in which that privilege has benefited me when it comes to the blogging and writing that I do. So here it is, 10 ways in 10 days. (Note: There are definitely more than 10, and they obviously extend beyond my writing. See Peggy MctIntosh’s work for a better and more extensive list.)

1. People read my blog about Lucy.

Re-stating this one for all the folks who skipped the intro. I wrote a blog about being tired of seeing white faces on the big screen, dissecting the movie Lucy, and (white) people actually read it. I am not saying anything new in this blog that people of color haven’t already said a thousand times, since before I was born. And this is not to say that white people never read work by non-white people. But the emails I received from white folks saying “Wow, you really opened my eyes!” is telling.

2. Even though I take issue with the underrepresentation of people of color, representation of myself is not a problem.

Despite my anger about Hollywood, media, and popular fiction (including young adult fiction) erasing black and brown protagonists, it doesn’t mean that I am not still represented everywhere. This is one I have found I need to be really careful with, as being a guest in a community isn’t the same as being part of that community. The fact that I write about underrepresentation of people of color doesn’t mean that I am underrepresented: I turn on the TV and I see white women with skin and hair like mine. I go the movie theater and I am bombarded with men and women who look like me, not relegated to the role of servant, slave, or token. (I’m looking at you, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and well, pretty much every movie ever. See this great infographic by Lee and Low Publishers about the diversity gap in sci-fi and fantasy films.)

3. Some white people think I’m brave and cool.

I have gotten emails from white folks telling me that they admire me, etc. and that what I’m doing is important. Although I appreciate these emails, I can’t help but wonder if they are sending the same emails to women like @TheTrudz and @FeministaJones, black women who daily do far more important work than I and receive 100x as much hate mail. They are brave and brilliant. And so, so cool.

4. White people don’t see me as an outsider.

Granted, I’ve gotten quite a bit of nasty email and I have not even bothered to read the comments on the last several blogs I’ve written. (Sorry, folks: self-care.) But my criticism of Hollywood (and white people) does not hurt me on a grand scale, nor does anyone assume I speak for the entire white race. No one is reading my blogs and saying, “She’s just angry because she’s a [insert marginalized group here]. That’s how they all think.” I’m given the benefit of validity because I’m white.

5. No one thinks I’m selfish.

When people of color write about issues (in whatever arena or industry) that affect people of color, they are often labeled as self-seeking or only interested in causes that affect them, rather than being seen as valid providers of lived experience. So while people may read my blogs and say I’m a dick or that I’m missing major aspects of the way racism operates—both of which might be true—it generally doesn’t include the idea that I’m only in it for myself.

6. I can make punctuation and grammatical mistakes without people chalking it up to my race.

Hey, I make typos. We all do. But when people who are reading work by people of color and looking for a reason to discredit them, punctuation and grammar are often attacked as a way of undermining the argument. I can spell “platypus” like “plattapuss,” and people will say, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb.” Not, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb because she’s [insert marginalized group here].”

7. I can reply angrily to nasty comments without people chalking it up to my race.

This is an extension of #6 but it deserves its own, because it’s something that I see women of color struggle with a lot, both in life and online/in social media. A troll leaves a nasty comment or sends a viciously racist tweet, and the woman in question will respond with something snappy, and the troll will then go on to say, “See, angry black woman. What do you expect?” I, on the other hand, can reply with all the nastiness in the world, and while my womanhood will likely be attacked (“bitch,” “cunt,” etc.), my race will not.

8. People buy my book.

I wrote a sci-fi novel for my two best friends (Hi Hope! Hi Tasha!) and so the heroine is a woman of color kicking ass in the apocalypse. People are buying it, excited about the prospect of a non-white character in this scenario. But many of them have never heard of Octavia Butler. Many of them have never heard of Nnedi Okorafor. My white privilege has made me and my work visible, and some folks wrongly think I am the first to do what I’ve done. I am not. I am not. Don’t get me wrong, I want people to buy my book. But what I cannot let happen is the erasure of women of color who have done what I’m doing first. (Note: this is not to say that I have sold even close to as many books as Nnedi Okorafor, and especially not Octavia Butler. But when we’re talking about literary traditions, the fact that some of my white readers have read my book but not theirs is telling and problematic.)

9. My writing isn’t limited by the market to tales of slavery and servitude.

Although a lot of my subject matter confronts issues of race, my white privilege is a bubble around me when it comes to my future in writing and publishing. Too many of my author and poet friends have expressed frustration about approaching agents and publishers with their books, only to be told, “Well, maybe if you centered the story around slavery or racism.” My writing isn’t required to focus on aspects of my race and cultural experience, where people of color are often asked to act as a spokesperson or historian with their work. I pitched a young adult fantasy series, and all I was told is “Cool.”

10. I can stop writing/thinking about racism and my life will not change much.

One of the things about white privilege is that it’s like a steam bath. If you get tired of fighting or exhausted from battling against racist institutions, you can sink down into the bath, relax, and let the steam cloud your vision. I can sit down and watch a movie with a whitewashed cast, turn off my brain, and enjoy images of myself reflected back to me. If I stopped thinking and writing about racism, my life wouldn’t change, aside from a few less emails in my inbox calling me a “race traitor bitch,” my life would continue unaffected. Such is white privilege. The ability to not think, to not be constantly aware of your race, its presence and absence.

This article itself is a manifestation of white privilege. I will post it online and people will probably read it, and this list will start all over again. But I think I need to keep talking about this stuff, because writing a blog about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. Writing 100 blogs about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. I hope this time that the emails I get from white readers are more than “You’re right, there is an overrepresentation of white people in Hollywood!” and venture into “You’re right, our own whiteness is at work in intricate ways.” Change starts at home, and the real place I live is in my body.

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11 thoughts on “10 Things White Privilege Has Done for Me in 10 Days

  1. Tempest Rose says:

    Ugh, even I am guilty of number 6. Although, I don’t assume it’s because of anyone’s race, I assume it’s because of their culture. I’m trying to stop that, though.

  2. Judi says:

    Under-representation of black people in the media is one thing. What really gets to me is the often one-dimensional representation of black people in media.

    I’ve found over the years that it’s people who never grew up with others of different races, ethnicities or even nationalities in their everyday social circles (e.g. family, next-door neighbours, close friends and classmates) who gain their understanding of these people from television, films, music, books, magazines and the Internet. Unfortunately, a majority of the time the representation is narrow.

    It can be annoying when people expect you to be / act / react a certain way because of what they usual see in the media, usually fiction. It tends to be the stereotypes of African-Americans that I tend to see the most, given that US media is global.

    I was born and raised in Ireland. So, I’ve had a different experience to black people in the States. However, at times, I find that some people here come to the conclusion: African-American stereotypes = African-Americans = black people”. People need to wise up to the fact that there’s no such thing as “acting black”. You can’t act a race, especially if you can find people from that race in almost every single country in the world.

    But don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to poke fun at those stereotypes. I get even greater amusement from challenging those stereotypes.

  3. dwil says:

    1. Very few White people ever commented about anything in any of the well over 1k blog posts I wrote, “opening their eyes;” that cannot be an accident.

    2. One thing many White people fail to understand is that Black people, to navigate our way through a world not made by us for us, that would, in fact, rather we no longer existed except as museum pieces, is that we often have to know White people better than they know themselves. Only through that process of knowing can we manage to wrangle ourselves into any representation of us (see Exodus). After all, do you think being an Uncle Tom or Auntie Tomette comes naturally?

    3. The only time something Black writers pen is termed “brave” or “cool” is when we leave White people an out to feel okay about White privilege and excuse their racism. Or, when their White editor(s) push their work because it conforms to White standards of relying heavily on statistics (which, as anyone who’s taken a university stat class knows, number are absolutely the easiest way to twist an argument in your favor), and when White people who act as speakers for Black people are prominently quoted within a given piece.

    4. We used to be the “Exotic Other” and in the days of mags like, Ramparts, sometimes listened to. Today, we are —– “Pests,” unless we present ourselves as non-threatening to White reader and viewerships (ever notice that the vast majority of Black, male television “pundits” either natively possess, or have manufactured a distinctly feminized countenance – from voice to mannerisms, e.g Jonathan Capehart, Toure?).

    5. Yes, Black people who write about Black issues are, at best, myopic, to White readers. At worst, we are hateful curs constantly whining and playing the “race card.” (Sadly, those thing are said by us, about us, too… see #2).

    6. Ahhh yes, the Typo Nazis. “Oh my, you expect me to give the premises of your piece criticizing Western Culture some consideration and you can’t even put the “I” before the “E” in “believe” like you did in the third line of paragraph 17?! SMH – bye. Oh and spell-check is super-easy to use!”

    7. Yes, yes, the old, “Angry Black Woman, Man” trick. Remember though, today there’s also, “Look, I’m just exercising my 1st Amendment rights. If you don’t like the fact that I have that freedom, just go away – or you could just leave the U.S. altogether.”

    8. People not only don’t buy our books (unless, of course the subject matter is us overcoming some sort of fantasy, racist event, wherein we find help from White people as well as from other Black people), our book subject matter can only be used once(!) e.g.: on the desks of the “big 4” publishing houses once sat a manuscript outline for a book about how the sports media, through descriptions of Black vs. White athletes on and off the field of play, acts to further legitimize racism. The response by each pub. house? That book’s already been done, it’s called “40 Million Dollar Slaves,” which, you can guess that, even from the title, the two books deal with racism on entirely different fronts.

    9. (See the 1st portion of #8)

    10. I left a comment at a well-read Formula One auto racing blog about how in 2008 at the Spanish Gran Prix, racist taunts screamed at the only Black F1 driver in the history of the sport, Lewis Hamilton. I mentioned that no other F1 driver has to endure this type of treatment by fans. Hamilton was in only his 2nd year of F1 racing and would win the world championship that year, after losing the championship his rookie season by just one point. Someone replied that Hamilton was not the only driver to endure racist taunts. This someone informed me that White drivers from one country in Europe – let’s say, Germany, when racing in another European country, are called Nazis and Krauts, which is racism just as when Hamilton was being called, “monkey” and “nigger.” He then went on to tell me about the racism (no joke, now) between Serbs and Croats, in Northern and Southern Ireland, and how “English people like Hamilton” are racist towards the Irish.

    So, not only can White people choose to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to racism, they can claim ethnic, religious, and ideological wars BETWEEN WHITE PEOPLE, are wars based on racism!

    ——————————–

    I’m new to your writings, Ms. Cole (though I have NO idea how your works escaped my attention). It is heartening to read unflinchingly honest writing about American racism and sexism as it pertains to Black women, by a White women. I certainly know a fair number White women who may, on many levels, feel the same as you – but only a very few are willing to commit the ultimate betrayal of actually hopping the fence to ideologically consort with the enemy. Even fewer are willing to openly say to Black women and Black people, generally, that: in fact, all you fear about racism is true; here’s what we do; here’s how it works for us, and; here’s how you look in our eyes after we’ve rigged the game solely in our favor… all while holding up the mirror to White people.

    Thanks.

    -DK Wilson

  4. Thank you for writing this Olivia A. Cole. I will share it with those who may have difficulty hearing it from me.

  5. Thank you for all of your posts. You are a humble and courageous soul. You are the voice when black voices cannot be heard. Your white privilege gives you a megaphone when some of the black voices remain as whispers. I have been reading your blog for a while now and I think it is simply amazing. And I am truly saying this because you have white privilege. You could be content with the world as it is and accept the norm but you don’t. I would honestly be terrified after my first hate letter. People like you are like the abolitionists during the slave era. If it were not for the white abolitionists and the white activists there is no telling where we’d be today… Your eloquent blog posts are so much more than a rant because it is done with tact. Keep posting! It’s nice to know that someone truly understands.

  6. steelo5555 says:

    God made me a white male and I am 100 percent proud of who I am. I do not feel guilty about owning a nice home, having a beautiful wife or eating steak once a week. I do treat everybody, regardless of race fair and equal. You know what else? I do not owe black folks a goddamn thing. We all make choices in life and because somebody is black, we as white people don’t owe them a redo. I am not sure if minority groups are giving you a paycheck for writing these ridiculous blogs or if you are just insane. Perhaps you should get plastic surgery to make yourself black. Then you can truly feel sorry for black people. Im sure though that you’ll miss the sheeple reading your idiotic blogs and all the ‘white privileges’ you feel SO horrible about receiving.

  7. Number 6 is just great. I wish people understood this and how they, when you make a mistake, blame your race/ethnic origin for what you have done. It is impossiboe for them to see you as an individual.

  8. There is no such thing as White privilege. Every country was started by a race/ethnicity just for themselves. In fact Israel and Japan along with 93% of the world BAN diversity by law and are open about it. We only have any talk of White privilege because minorities are in charge of power positions and Multiculturalism here and Monpculturalism in their homeland means that they have equal power everywhere.

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