Wednesday, May 14, 2014

snow white

This is something I've been putting off talking about because I was afraid I was going to look stupid or do it wrong, somehow. But then I remembered that passively protecting my image is maybe not my highest ideal, and maybe I can handle looking stupid or doing something wrong. 

I was inspired by a pal of mine on Facebook this morning. There's a post that's been circulating on the Internet, written by a playwright here in Seattle, called "Walking While Fat and Female — Or, Why I Don't Care Not All Men are Like That" , which is a good and important read, so go for it if you haven't run across it. And I see lots of women sharing it, but not so many men, except my pal. This is how he prefaced the link:

There are times when I'm embarrassed to be male. Not because I've given or received the abuse Courtney Meaker describes so simply and eloquently here, but because that abuse just isn't part of my life, and that privilege is an embarrassment for our entire culture.

And when a guy piped up and said he was tired of the collective shaming that men endure, my friend replied like so, "Really? Because it's easy to avoid that collective shaming. If I didn't want to think about any of this, I wouldn't have to. No one forces me to read these articles, women don't force me talk about it, there are no consequences if I ignore it. What are you tired of?" 

The conversation went on, and my friend did a damn good job addressing what he saw as a responsibility on behalf of men to actively contribute to the dismantling of this unfair privilege and the oppression that keeps it in place. And it meant a lot to me to see a man take this on publicly, and see him not only accept the discomfort that comes with recognizing his privilege, but take a stand and gracefully deal with the pushback that followed. 

In that kind of discussion, I get the narrative privilege of being among the oppressed, since I'm a woman. When it's just talking time, nobody wants to wear the oppressor suit. (Out in the world, in real time, being the oppressor is the comparative jam.) But if we switch up the discussion, and turn our attention to white privilege, then that's my suit to wear.

I've been alive for nearly 45 years on this earth, and if there's one thing I've given minimal thought to during that time, it's the privilege I experience just by virtue of being white. And hey! That's part of this dreamy loot bag of prizes I get for my skin color. Like my friend said above, I don't have to think about it if I don't want to. I can organize my day so it never comes up. And, in fact, I've been doing just that. I live on the white end of a very segregated city that feels whiter than it really is. My friends, with very few exceptions, are white. My family is white. I mostly read books and watch movies and television shows about well-to-do white people. It's how I've been doing it, and I never thought to sweat it. Soaking myself in all that whiteness just feels familiar and cozy and unchallenging, and nobody can accuse me of spending a lot of my entertainment hours challenging myself. I'm somebody who can spend three hours in the bathtub replenishing the hot water with my big toe.

Last summer, a Twitter hashtag begun by a woman named Mikki Kendall—who tweets under the handle @Karnythia—woke me up from my long slumber. The hashtag was #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, which has a long backstory that you can google if you're curious, but at its heart was frustration and disappointment with mainstream white feminism. The hashtag took off, with women of color venting about their experiences, and white women jumping on in various ways: to defend themselves, to chide, to offer support, etc. 

The hashtag caught my attention when somebody I follow started responding to Martha Plimpton, who thought that the conversation was divisive, and then she and Karnythia got into it, and anyway, ANYWAY, the upshot, for me, was the realization that I had spent basically zero time in my life listening to women of color—particularly Black women—and learning about what it's like to live in a culture that doubly disrespects and devalues you.

Embarrassing. Not just a little embarrassing, either, but cold-water-in-the-face embarrassing. I'm a grown woman who professes to care about people, and the attention I'd given to race was the passing, get-upset-at-the-news-when-it's-in-my-face-and-then-change-the-channel kind. It didn't stick with me all day, it didn't linger in my mind, it didn't wake me up at night.

But something happened. You hear the phrase "hashtag activism", and it sounds tepid and half-assed, but you have to acknowledge social media for giving a microphone to whomever feels like picking it up. A shard of democracy remains there. And what is a hashtag besides words? Nobody ever started a social and cultural fire without them. For the first time, at age 44, I woke the fuck up and started seeking out Black women's voices. Better late than never, I guess. Around the same time as the #Solidarity hashtag, someone started a #SmartBlackWomenOfTwitter hashtag, and I went on a follow-binge. (This is the part where I worry about doing this wrong, but fuck it, this is how I did it, and I'm open to correction/suggestion.) I listened to conversations that were outside my white world, I went and read blogs written by Black women about their experience in white society. I questioned if this was okay to do, like if this was quietly invasive, somehow, but this seemed like a place to start, and I hoped that if I just lurked and stayed in listening mode, I would be doing more good than harm. 

It was bracing to hear what a pain in the ass white women can be for Black women. Besides stories of outright racism, I heard a lot of weariness with the barrage of "But I'm a white woman and I don't do those things!" that Black women get. Like if you want to vent about your experience with white people, you have to always throw in a long disclaimer, "...except for Christine Adams, Molly Sims, Jennifer Christensen, Frances Niedermeyer, Corinne Davis, Tracy Smith and the other 234,758 awesome white women who would never do that, whom I'll name for you in a second after I have another sip of coffee." 

In that Facebook discussion about male privilege, my friend linked to a cartoon which makes me laugh and laugh, and is transferrable to this very thing. Here you go:

Even if I haven't personally collared a Black woman mid-complaint to impress my innocence and the innocence of many white women everywhere upon her, I've certainly had the thought, "Well, not all white women are like that. I'm not like that," which drags the conversation in my head back over to me, away from where it ought to be, which is with my fellow humans who don't get to enjoy the sweet, sweet perks I get to enjoy because of the color of my skin. And there are various things in my life which have conspired to make me feel small/unimportant/unworthy/invisible—some of them cultural, some of them personal and familial. I have some problems with self-confidence as a result of those things, and that feels pretty difficult to me sometimes. When I take a goddamn minute to think about people who have received far, far worse messages from birth, and live in a culture that makes them feel unwelcome, unprotected and dismissed every single day, my heart squeezes and it better squeeze. 

In my house I have some super flattering, totally unhelpful mirrors. The mirror in my bathroom and the mirror next to my closet...god bless them. They're liars. I love them to bits, but they're obsequious little bastards straight out of Snow White. They make my figure look adorable in ways that I regularly—and with some sadness—come to understand are not quite true. Whenever I leave my house and run across  alternative reflective surfaces, I'm all fuuuuck. Mirrors. You were not straight with me. 

White women have these cultural mirrors installed everywhere that tell them they're the fairest, best, most important of them all. You might think that's not what you're getting out there if you're white like I am, but you are. We are. And you have to work a little bit—leave the house, as it were—to get in range of a less flattering, more truthful mirror. Once I started paying attention, what I saw in this new, clearer mirror, was a privileged, coddled, comfort-loving creature. I say this with love and compassion— and not, indeed, to hate on myself—but I saw something a little grotesque. Think about The Hunger Games, if you've seen it. The people who live in the Capitol—your Stanley Tuccis and Elizabeth Bankses—are wealthy and pampered and disconnected from humanity. And they look ridiculous, like fancy, freaky space poodles. When Dave and I saw the movie, the analogy hit me: I'm one of those space poodles.  

(I come back to the idea of narrative privilege, because if we're in a Hunger Games analogy, you want to be Katniss Everdeen. You don't want to be Stanley Tucci. You don't want to be Elizabeth Banks. You want to be the cool heroine who has to struggle nobly for survival, not the glitter-covered asshole eating hors d'oeuvres and watching the destruction from the sidelines. But if I'm white, and if I'm not thinking about this, and I'm not trying to figure out what to do next, how to make it better—even if I am doing those things—that's exactly what I am until this culture changes, and I better know it. And if that's not what I want to be, then I better get my nose to the grindstone. And, shit, isn't it enough to have all the real-world privilege? What kind of jerk then demands to also have the most flattering role in the story?)

That's what I am. It's the luck of my draw, being born white, and also the result of my own long unconsciousness. I may be a lovely person in many regards, but I have a huge amount of privilege and I have done next to nothing to offset this. I'm at the beginning, the very beginning of my work. And the thing is, I'm still trying to figure out what to do, what's mine to do and what's not mine, how I can best help. 

There's a video that was going around the web a little while ago of a woman named Glozell Green, a comedian who went to Disneyland and saw a black princess there for the first time. It's beautiful and sweet and heartwrenching, and you can't watch it without falling in love with her. If you can, a) I don't fucking want to hear about it, and b) you better go set off a grenade in your heart chakra. This is it:


 All I know is that the Glozell Greens of the world, be they five or fifty, mean something to me, and I want them to walk around in a world that sees them, that loves them, that welcomes and celebrates them and tells them they're just as beautiful and worth every bit as much as anybody else alive. And if some heads don't get pulled out of some asses, that's not going to happen, and when you're advocating heads getting pulled out of asses, you have to check yours first.


Cobwebs said...

Another space poodle here. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

John Scalzi wrote about unrecognized privilege as playing on "the lowest difficulty setting," which might interest you:

(It should come as no particular surprise that a certain segment of the population lost their collective minds at this post.)

sal said...

Taking a hard look at the fact that I've been living my life as a "glitter-covered asshole eating hors d'oeuvres."

I wish I had more to offer on my end, discourse-wise, each Wednesday other than slack jawed mouth breathing and repeat comments about your top notch writing. Yet, here I am again...gawking and marveling.

Cheech said...

Definitely a space poodle here, also. But I'd like to think that I'm getting there, out of "space poodle-dom". I am a white woman in my 50's. After spending most of my life as you did, in white-world, married to a white man, having mostly white family, friends and neighbors, I went through an ugly divorce, then became involved with, fell in love with and became engaged to a black man in his 60's, who was the most wonderful, loving man I have ever known.

The stories he told me about growing up in the 60's during the race riots and his interactions, and at times, mistreatment, by white society, horrified me! There were many times that I cried out of pure shame and sadness of his mistreatment, when he told me these stories. I just never realized, or knew, being sheltered in a white world most of my life! It never occurred to me that there were no black princesses or baby dolls or Barbies, or TV shows or commercials when I was young. And when he told me these stories, they were never told with bitterness or anger, as I think I would feel if I were him. He just told them matter of factly and he accepted them as his reality.

He sadly passed away 2 years ago, but I hope that sharing in his life and experiences and loving him made me more sensitive, aware and loving toward people of other races. I can never empathize with their experiences because I will never know what that feels like, but I hope that I can learn from them and become more aware, respectful and loving when I am interacting with anyone who is not white. I hope with every interaction, that I am growing and evolving.

Teresa D. Lee said...

I love this blog and started to comment but then it turned into a blog post of its own:

I'm still figuring things out. It seems really hard to shine a light on EVERYTHING without negative feelings creeping in. I feel like my perspective gets complicated by disability, which excludes me but doesn't expose me to hatred typically the way race relations have done in this country.

But you looked at a difficult topic in your blog and I admire that you stayed as warmly loving as possible while you did it.

Anonymous said...

I love your writing and I applaud this realization. I have found to be a good resource for me in learning about social justice.

Dave said...

Thanks for posting this. I also had a bit of a wake-up call this year, I hope it happens to more people. Just recognizing the white (and in my case, male) privilege can be a very uncomfortable thing, but it's important that it happens, for everyone. Thanks.