I was born with a birth defect that caused my foot to be amputated when I was four. So I’ve worn a prosthetic device more than six times longer than I’ve had ten toes. Throughout the years, especially at a teenager, I lamented over not being able to wear high heels.
I generally received three main reactions: ambivalence, disgust or pity. The ambivalence came from those who had never worn high heels themselves and never wanted to. If you have never worn or wanted to wear high heels then you would likely not understand why I would want to. It might seem a silly reason to be depressed. They are just shoes. There are other shoes that can be worn. It’s not like I can’t wear any shoes.
The disgust came from those who had worn heels, thought them similar to medieval torture devices and never planned to repeat the experience. If you have worn high heels but hated them then you would likely not understand why I would want to. It’s a horrendous misadventure. Painful and hard to manage. Why ever would I want to do that to myself? I’m much better off never experiencing it.
The pity came from those who had worn heels, thought them the defining accessory of femininity and couldn’t imagine life without them. If you love high heels then you would feel as if I was losing something vital. You would think that my not being able to wear high heels would be worse than not having a foot to put it on. I might as well not even have a prosthetic. It’s not like I can walk comfortably or be a real woman in flats.
Occasionally I would get a forth reaction… empathy. While the person may or may not have worn high heels, and they may or may not have enjoyed the experience, they acknowledged this bothered me. That acknowledgement meant a lot to me, it in and of itself was a comfort. It validated my feelings and allowed me to feel them without insecurity.
Perception is reality. We perceive the world through our senses. These senses create a foundation for our personal experiences and are real to us as individuals. Each person’s reality is as unique to them as their fingerprints. It is complicated and difficult for us to step outside of our own realities into the reality of another. It is complex to have empathy and sympathy for their experiences. We understand our world as it appears to us. Therefore none of these reactions are the wrong reaction. Each must be understood and respected as a part of the individual’s personal reality. They simply feel the way they feel and my feelings are outside the boundaries of their experiences.
“White Privilege” is being discussed in lectures at Universities, in books and across the internet. During discussions I usually come across those same three main reactions. Those who have never experienced being non-white and have never wanted to, do not understand. They don’t see it because they don’t have an experiential basis to understand. Non-whites who have never thought about it, never looked for it or experienced it first hand do not understand. They can not because they do not have the basis for understanding.
There are some who feel like the term is racist. They are white and have experienced discrimination on a small scale. They were denied a job or entrance to a college or fraternity based on their race. The problem is not “white privilege” it’s discrimination and it happens to everyone. It’s wrong but calling it white privilege ignores white people who have been discriminated against. White people feel attacked and non-whites in this category use this term to attack whites. There is blame placed. Fingers pointed. Reparations demanded. This is a new civil war.
Some white people feel guilt over what their ancestors did in the past. They pity non-white people who are the descendents of victims. In an effort to correct these past errors they sometimes over-correct. They lower the standards for non-whites trying to level the playing field. They pat heads and fight against injustices, lamenting the color of their own skin. Some non-white people feel pitiful. There is nothing they can do. The system is against them. The system is too large to fight. This is the evolution of slavery and the master won’t let them free.
None of these reactions are wrong. They are founded in each individual’s personal experiences with discrimination. Their individual realities. There are some who move toward empathy. Those who are white who do not hate their own skin yet work to identify injustice and correct it. They do not believe that lowering the standards of non-whites is a way to create equality. They understand that the system of white privilege is so prevalent in our society that we all must work as one to destroy its foundations. Non-whites who have empathy toward white people and do not place blame on them. They know the system is at fault. They demand a level playing field, not pity. They work to destroy the system.
The first step is acknowledgement.
White or non-white if you can not acknowledge that the System of White Privilege is a Truth, then there is little you can do to destroy it. You can not work effectively if you are too far to the left or right. Or even if you are languishing in ambivalence, in the middle taking no sides save for your own. You can not fight what you can not see. You can not see what you are not willing to experience.
I had an interesting dialogue on a BuzzFeed community page about white privilege. It listed 17 deplorable examples of white-blindness. Of white-sidedness. I would assume the author of the list fell under the category of disgust. They are angered at the system, striking out a white people for its creation. Demanding white people dismantle it and create equality for once and for all.
The person I was messaging with did not deny discrimination. He had experienced it first hand and knew it was real. That discrimination was true. The words, though, that title of white privilege was not real. There was no such thing and calling it white privilege was a form of racism against white people. I would assume he was under the category of disgust as well, just on another end of the debate.
We went back and forth over a couple of days. Him, stating his disbelief, and me assuring him that he could not understand and that was okay. I do not expect white people to fully understand what is means to be non-white in a system of white privilege. I urged him to move toward empathy. Toward that idea that you may not experience it, yet the reality of another must still be acknowledged and respected.
He said he would have liked me to write something about white privilege… and so I am.
I am purposely using the term “System of White Privilege” to acknowledge the reality that some white people feel may feel attacked. I am purposely using the term “system” because I believe that is what it is. It is a systematic, structural, institutional, genetic racism. It is a system that was created by white people to benefit the race. Self preservation was something we all evolved with. There are not many who can simply cut themselves on purpose. Our hands shake, thoughts about negative consequences flood our minds, and we often place the knife down before any blood wells.
This is not cowardice and neither should anyone consider a white person’s aversion to white privilege as cowardice. It simply is their need to self preserve. If they openly acknowledge their privilege they are faced with the consequences. They must make a choice to either accept it as right or deny it as wrong. Then either work to maintain it or work to disrupt it. Knowledge is a burden.
The System of White Privilege was created before the United States united.
It began with the arrival of explorers to these once foreign lands. Lands that at the time of their arrival were filled with a kind of people they had never encountered. Native Americans as we now call them, are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait ice bridge over 20,000 years ago. So while some may argue that they are not themselves native to this land, they were at the very least here first.
In school we are taught that in 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That he arrived in America and opened trade with the natives. It wasn’t until there were too many facts to dispute before the educational system acknowledged that he did not arrive in North America but in the Bahamas islands. His encounters with the Native people, we also discovered, was not as friendly. He enslaved the people he found. Not because they were hostile but because as his letters reveal, they were timid.
I’m sure in his mind he was better than these people he found. They did not know God. They did not dress in clothes and many lived in small villages not grand cities. As one who was better than they, he treated them as he saw fit. As less than.
This European privilege was carried over in the hearts of those who arrived later to settle in North America. They were bringing God and saving these savages souls. They did not believe that these Natives were equal. They definitely were not greater and therefore defaulted to being less.
As time progressed and oppression continued and extended to African people brought over as slaves this European privilege was the foundation of how this growing country worked. They would not have been able to be good people and enslave their equals. And they were good people, so these others were not their equals. Their perceptions created this reality.
European privilege became white privilege. It evolved from a dark reality based on individual preservation to a System of Superiority to preserve the whole race. The reality of this country was that white people were better than those who were not white. Therefore those who were not white did not have to be treated with fairness. If they were not equal they could be mistreated, and better yet, were not threats to the expansion of the power of white Europeans.
The system has affected every aspect of this country.
From education to media to community design. In schools we are taught the history as it was written by the conquerors. In the media these ideals are subconsciously relayed. White is good. Non-whites are almost human. Communities of mostly non-white people are slums and ghettos filled with lazy dangerous people. I’ve been asked if I’ve ever seen anyone shot every time I tell a group of suburbanites that I’m from Detroit.
I don’t blame these folks because I know that if something tragic happens in Inkster the news reporter is likely to say “Metro Detroit” and if something great happens on Livernois and Davison you probably won’t hear about it. Perception is reality, right? So violence and excess is perceived because of the way Detroit is portrayed. Therefore it must be real, even though it’s not true.
It’s not only white people who bolster the system of white privilege, non-whites do it as well. Youth growing up in Detroit have been told over and over again what being a black youth means. They have been told what a black youth looks and sound like. And have been told that anything other than that means they are not black. In order to honestly identify themselves as black youths they must conform to the societal ideal of what being black means.
In order for us to dismantle the System of White Privilege we have to begin by acknowledging that our realities may not be true. We have to be willing to look at how we view, not just each other, but more importantly ourselves.
If you are white (or identify as such) and feel that you are better than anyone else based off of what history or media has told you about being white I do not blame you. I do blame you if you feed into these false realities, call them truth and refuse to listen empathetically to those who do have not shared your experiences.
If you are white and have crossed the street because a group of non-white teenage boys are walking toward you, I understand but still blame you. I blame you for not recognizing that you are crossing the street not because you’ve been terrorized by a group of non-white teenagers but because society has told you these boys mean you harm and you gave in to that fear.
If you are white and you have said that you have a black/brown/blue friend and therefore can not be accused of any kind of color discrimination, but have never checked yourself to see if you are comfortable being their friends because they exhibit white acceptable characteristics or self hatred, I blame you.
If when confronted with the system of privilege this society malnourished within you fall back on exclamations of crimes being levied unfairly against your people yet you have never consciously reviewed your own biases, I blame you.
Guilt is a powerful thing.
I used to feel guilty about being proud of my heritage. I felt like saying I was proud to be black was like saying I agree with the stereotypes of blackness. That I listened to rap music and carried a bridge card with pride. This kind of self hatred is a genetic disorder passed down from generation to generation of children born in this vicious system. The reality that you had to pick a side…white or black. That you could not be a real black girl and listen to rock and roll and like it or you could not be a real black girl and speak properly. Or that if you were a real black girl, you had to understand that whiteness is proper and should be strived for.
We are not only separate but we are not equal. We segregate ourselves within the confines of our individual realities, terrified to leave its comforts. The known is safe. The unknown is dark and scary. We feel that we are better or worse than the others, than those outside our experiences. Those who have never known or gotten close to knowing what it is like to be us. Our perceptions are our realities and we are not letting go in search of truth. I blame everyone who exists within that ideology. Everyone who believes there is a right side and a wrong side and that they are obviously on the side of right.
I told the person I was messaging that one of the reasons I love science is because the very foundation of it is uncertainty. It is the idea that we only know so much, that more can be known, may be known or may never be known. That the right answer is only right, right now. That tomorrow with new information we may discover ourselves wrong. That we accept this uncertainty and never become entrenched in being the right one, yet the one always seeking to know more.
This System of White Privilege is a reality that has no foundation in truth. If we look back through time we see that other civilizations arose and fell without one white person inside the walls. This means that the system itself is false. Those who choose ignorance over knowledge, disbelief over acceptance, ambivalence or disgust over empathy are actively playing right into the system. They are the cogs keeping the machine moving. Without those parts the entire machine itself will fail.
This is not a request for white people to feel guilt. This is not a call to arms for non-whites. As my son so eloquently put it at five years old, “there are no white people or black people, only brown people.” We are all shades of brown. The lightest of light browns to the darkest. We are all humans, each and every deserving of respect and understanding. And if you can not understand because it is beyond your personal reality, then respect and empathy. The system is not too big to fight because the system is made up of each and every one of us. It is a genetic defect within each and every one of us, played out in large and small ways.
The only way then to destroy it is to approach this as we could any other scientific discovery. Acknowledge that at one time it was the right answer based of the knowledge that was had. That time and additional information has shown that this is no longer the right answer. There is no guilt, only revelation. Utilizing this new information we must change the way to interact and intersect. We must consciously check our biases at the door. Not share them with our off-spring. Not work inside the system. Not hide from discriminatory actions, but expose them. Not get angered at them, but empathetically correct them.
If all white people are not prejudiced against non-whites, and all non-white people don’t secretly (or openly) hate whites for a history no one can change… then we already have a lot of common ground to move on from. And there are already enough of all sides to move forward.