Tag Archives: whiteness

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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Hollywood and the Shaping of Perceptions of Racism

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It is a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. Martin Gilens wrote a book some time ago, for example: Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty, which explores the role of media in the shaping of myth and misconception of welfare policy. And what about the shaping of misconception of racism? We all know Fox News has a nice handle on that, as far as “news” media goes. But what about pop culture? Hollywood? How do the films we flock to theaters to see shape our world? I can think of more than a few examples, as I’m sure any thinking person can. But one in particular comes to mind: films about slavery and the way they shape perceptions of racism in white audiences. Namely the idea that racism is a thing of the past and only existed on Southern plantations a long, long time ago.

Since the release of 12 Years a Slave I’ve had many conversations about films that are about slavery. The conversations that stand out to me the most are the ones where the consensus is, “Why do all the films in Hollywood that feature black people have to be about slavery?” and my own undying question about the underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, “Why does a film need to be about the subjugation of black people in order for it to have more than a one solitary black character?” And also, “Why did so many more white people go to see 12 Years than Best Man Holiday?”

While films like 12 Years a Slave are extremely important in understanding the past and the effect it has on the present, they have an interesting effect on white audiences whose ideas of racism are of the “post-racial” or “colorblind” variety: the effect is almost one of relief. When I left the theater of 12 Years a Slave, the kind of words I heard from the lips of the other white people leaving were things like, “God, it was just so bad back then.” And even things like, “Those people were horrible. Fuck those slave owners.” So, in a sense, relief. “It was so bad back then” translates as “Things are so much better now,” and “Those people were horrible” translates as “We don’t do that anymore.”

And they’re right. Things are better now. White people don’t own slaves in the United States. But this cousin of relief presents, to me, a sort of cognitive dissonance about the reality of racism in America. When white audiences see movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and indeed, when the vast majority of mainstream films featuring black people are movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and not films like Best Man Holiday, their perception of racism (and even blackness) is shaped in a way that lacks a wider context and an awareness of present-day racism. This is what racism looks like, white audiences come to believe: chains and lynchings and the American South. And while they’re not wrong, that understanding is stunted.

In a way, films like 12 Years a Slave, even with its horror and brutality, serve as a comfort to white people seeking to feel a distance between the monster that is racism and the life they lead in 2013. “Progress!” we congratulate ourselves, proud that America has overcome its brutishly violent history. “We used to be horrible people that owned other human beings and now we don’t! We’re a post-racial society now! Go America!” But if we’re talking about reality, the reality of racism in 2013, a reality that generally doesn’t make it to the silver screen, we have to talk about things like environmental racism and structural racism in our systems of education, employment, criminal justice, and more. We have to talk about Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and we have to talk about Oscar Grant and Renisha McBride. We have to talk about what racism looks like now and not let ourselves off the hook with the tired mantra of “But we’ve come so far!”

12 Years a Slave was an incredible film. I think everyone should see it. But I encourage people with skin like mine to not watch it with the idea that the work is done. The fact that white people no longer legally own, rape, and murder black bodies is not a sign of progress we should congratulate ourselves on: our standards should be higher. Widen your scope. Racism looks like this. And this. And this. And this. Don’t allow Hollywood’s narrow line of vision to trick you into believing that violent racism is just something that happened in the 1800’s and looks like the horrific lava of lashes on a black human being’s back while everyone stands around wearing corsets and smoking pipes. It looks like Charlotte police shooting Jonathan Ferrell to death after he was in a car accident and asked for help. It looks like Riley Incognito calling Warring Sapp the N-word. It looks like Trayon Christian being arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s because the NYPD didn’t think he could afford it on his own. It looks like celebrities and well-known magazines showcasing blackface in 2013 and every year before that.

In a nation where so many white people have their “one black friend” and little personal contact with people who don’t look like them—yes, segregation is still “a thing:” New York City had the same level of racial segregation in 2012 as it did in 1910.—it is easy for these audiences to consume movies like The Help and 12 Years (especially given the fact that there are so few alternatives when it comes to mainstream movies featuring black people and their lives) and think “This was racism. I don’t know any black people here in 2013, but I do know that slavery isn’t around anymore. So that’s that!” And—slam—close the book. But that’s not all. That’s not the end, fellow white folks. Why did you watch The Help but not Do the Right Thing? Why 12 Years a Slave and not Boyz in the Hood? Is it because one talks about racism in the past where you’re comfortable with it, and the other talks about issues affecting black people right here and right now? Spoiler alert: they’re the same thing. The racism you see in 12 Years has mutated and transformed and grown tentacles and developed camouflage, but it’s right here with us. Right here with you. We’d be foolish to ignore it; foolish to watch the story of Solomon Northup and think that his suffering was not inherited, that the ugliness of the system that enslaved him doesn’t still linger.

I wonder if white America as a whole will ever be able to empathize with present-day struggle. Looking back with sympathy and indignation is easier than looking around, isn’t it? I just wonder what are we looking toward.

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One White Woman Looking At Another White Woman

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I have been angry for days. For those of you who follow me on Twitter or know me personally, this comes as no surprise. But this has not been my usual anger––the daily anger that is generally bubbling under the surface as a result of reading the news, reading comments by trolls, witnessing and experiencing microaggressions, battling internet racists, etc.––but a tight wire in my heart that has been clanging since the verdict was read, since 5 white and 1 Hispanic woman in Florida found George Zimmerman not guilty after he stalked and murdered a boy of seventeen.

I watched every second of the trial. I seethed at Don West. I cringed at the 911 tapes. I cheered for Rachel Jeantel. And the whole time I felt my hope struggling with my pessimism, heard myself say “These bastards will probably let him walk,” while being conscious that I was saying this in an effort not to get my hopes too high. But they were high. Even in the face of grossly unjust convictions like Marissa Alexander’s, I thought, “There’s just no way. They can’t. Not this time.”

But they did. They let him walk, and are even giving him the gun back, the one he used to take the life of an innocent black boy. A bloody souvenir.

In the days since, I have engaged in vicious debates, some with people I formerly respected. One in particular stands out in my mind: a white man told me that we shouldn’t be angry at the jury or vilify them: we should be angry at the laws that “forced their hand” to acquit. Out of all the debates I’ve had, this is the one that irks me the most.

Yes, the laws need to be changed. Stand Your Ground needs to be smashed. But you know what else needs to be smashed? The racist ideologies that cling to the hearts of white Americans, proven by the fact that Don West could enter a trial with the strategy of “Scare the white ladies with tales of a big bad black thug” and succeed; proven by the fact that Trayvon Martin, in death, was on trial for his own murder; proven by the fact that white Zimmerman defenders have said over and over that Trayvon should have identified himself (Freedom Papers?); proven by the fact that despite our teaching our children to run away from suspicious adults who might mean them harm, Trayvon Martin was somehow wrong wrong wrong for trying to protect his own life.

During the trial, there was speculation that the jury would convict because all of them were mothers. Although white, it was said, these women have children of their own and would see through Zimmerman’s elaborate circus of lies in the pursuit of justice for a child. Those speculations were wrong. I have quoted a poem by Ai many times in my ongoing fight for equality, and I’ll do so again here:

 

“what can I say, except that I’ve heard

the poor have no children, just small people”

 

This is how these jurors—and, indeed, much of White America—see black Americans. How could this jury of 6 non-black women see Trayvon Martin as a child, when to their eyes he was a man? And not just a man: a black man. A dangerous man. A threat. A pestilence. A thug.

Last night I listened to Juror B37 during her CNN interview, her face in shadow, while she said “them” and “they” and “sorry” and “Georgie.” I listened to her implications of Rachel Jeantel’s inferiority and her disgraceful deference for George Zimmerman. And I wanted to scream. Cry. Break things. I wanted to burn the world down. She essentially admitted that he committed manslaughter, but that “his heart was in the right place.” In these words I heard her complicity with the murder of black children in Florida and everywhere. However terrible Zimmerman’s actions, his heart was in the right place. Why? Because a black child is dead. And how could that be wrong?

This is what we’re up against. By we I mean everyone who believes that justice was not carried out; who believes that black children matter; who believes black lives matter; who believes as long as people like Juror B37 exist, our work is not done.

There are many problems with this case, with Florida, with the United States, with this world that puts blackness on par with ugliness, danger, and ignorance. But of those problems, which one glares at me, twanging the wire in my heart? Whiteness. Whiteness and its lack of empathy, its refusal to take responsibility, its ego. Its inability to see a black boy as a black boy, to equate that black boy and his marijuana with your own white son and the pot you know is in his backpack. Whiteness and its refusal to sit down, shut up, listen, help. Whiteness and its blindness; its stuffy, raging defenses and finger-pointing. Whiteness and those—like B37—who wield it as a shield, then, behind that shield, attempt to write books and profit off a death that you blocked justice for.

We shouldn’t be angry at the jury? I am angry. I am one white woman looking at another white woman, who—along with her peers—saw a black child’s death laid out before her and chose to turn her back. I am not turning my back. Not on Trayvon. Not on Michael Griffith. Not on Marissa Alexander. Not on Jordan Davis. Not on Emmett Till. I empathize. I organize. I’m angry.

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