Friday, October 7, 2016

White obliviousness.

I've been posting about manifestations of oppression that target human Earthlings lately.

Part of my motivation for doing so is that I've slowly and with a lot of struggle and difficulty come to (only) vaguely comprehend that I live in a society and nation wherein oppression directed toward various (relatively powerless) groups of living beings is a core structural component of everyday life.

For instance, if you belong to that group raced as white...then you (me...we) participate in enacting and upholding oppression directed toward groups raced differently than white and we do that routinely and mostly with no meaningful comprehension of doing so.

I live in a society and nation wherein if you're sexed as male...then you (me...we) participate in enacting and upholding oppression directed toward groups sexed differently and we do that routinely and most often with no real comprehension of doing so.

I'm going to write here about an instance of my enacting whiteness that happened recently and it disturbed me greatly (and continues to strongly bother me). My discomfort comes not only from my being oblivious to enacting whiteness...my discomfort also has greatly to do with the fact that I had every element of information available to me that would have allowed me to not be oblivious to my white privilege...and yet I still was able to be deplorably oblivious.

Briefly, I recently became acquainted with a young man who commutes to the town where I live so that he can attend some university classes. He drives about 30 miles or so (one way) to come here a couple of days a week. I have interacted with this man a number of times and I thought to offer him my phone number so that if he ever had any sort of difficulty or mishap in his commuting then maybe I could be of some help.

I did this, in part, because I used to commute about that same distance to a town near here to teach a couple of classes and I always was a little uneasy because I didn't know anyone in the town I drove to and knew if I had car trouble or something there really was no one in that area I could call on for help or information. It would have been somewhat comforting to have known someone there I could have contacted in case I needed to do so. Sure, there are garages and mechanics around but I didn't know any of them or where they might be located and such and maybe someone who lived there would have been more tuned into what was available or whatever.

Another part of why I offered to be a contact was that this young man is raced as Black. I've worked at, over the past few years, to paying attention to the racial makeup of people I see out in public places. I live in a really "white" town...one source indicates only about 4% of the population here is identified as Black. That means that if he had some sort of car trouble or other situation...most likely he would have to approach and/or call on some stranger to help him and that stranger would not be Black. There's a lot more to be said about all that but I'm not going into it now...this post will probably end up being too long as it is already.

So...after asking if he knew anyone here in town...and his saying no, I decided to offer to be available as a contact for him and to help him in case of some problem if I could.

Hey, I'm a nice guy, right? Well...I'm really probably not...I don't mean I'm a daily jerk or anything (that I know of) but I've lived long enough to become aware that, more often than not, if people are around me for a bit they tend to decide they don't want to have much to do with me. Sometimes they don't have to be around me very often at all to decide that I'm sort of unpleasant or uncomfortable to be around. Over the years I've been told that I was "weird", of if they were being polite they said I was "unusual", a number of times and so I just figure that the quality of "weirdness" or "unusualness" off-puts most people. So be it.

Saying all that to say that I was offering to be a contact not because I'm all warm and gooey and "nice" but for several reasons, one of them being that I'm deeply bothered by how we white people are taught to be ignorant of and oblivious to people of color and what the experiences of living are for them and I wanted to bridge that socially created gap in some small way. Also...I liked this young man and liked his demeanor and he's young enough to be my grandson and when you get old you sometimes want to help out youngsters when you can. All well and good, right?

Nope...my making that offer to him turned out to be something that's brought me face to face with some of my white obliviousness and that is resulting in my become a little more cognizant of how very often many of the ways I comprehend my world around me are shaped and formed and directed by my social conditioning. It has called on me to be a little more aware of how poorly I comprehend "reality" and flawed my perception is of what living life is for someone here in the U.S. who is raced as African American.

A week or two after I gave him my phone number and let him know I would help out if I could, he approached me and asked if he could talk to me. I said sure and he proceeded to tell me that he appreciated my offer and he had been thinking about it but he realized that it might not, in some instances, be useful for him because he knew that if the police stopped him and he tried to use his cell phone to call me that his reaching for his cell phone might be used as an excuse by the police to kill him...because they could interpret phone use as a "threatening" gesture.

As he told me about his thinking, awareness flooded in on me that he was perfectly accurate in his assessment of what might happen and I also was totally chagrined and dismayed that I had been completely oblivious to that truth. It never, in any meaningful way, impinged on my viewpoint that such a risk existed for him. And yet...and yet...as he spoke and I listened and understood his words I knew that I should have known that. It's not like information isn't all over the place about these obscene police killings of black people. My god, an ugly and unjustified police killing of an unarmed black man just happened in Tulsa which is only about 100 miles from here. I'm "aware" of this stuff...and yet...it just didn't register with me that he was someone who was at risk for being murdered by the police.

I've been wallowing with this ever since he spoke to me...even as I write this it almost overwhelms me to grasp how grotesque it is that I didn't consider this aspect of one of the ramifications of his calling me. I see this stunning gap in my comprehending as a manifestation of white obliviousness. I see this absence of meaningful understanding and knowing as me enacting whiteness and all the while doing so without realistically knowing what I was doing. It makes me want to weep and it also really really pisses me off. I'm not "stupid"...I'm not wholly insensitive...and yet...I often behave and view the world around me and the living beings, human and not human, in the world in just that way.

And that ignorance and obliviousness isn't accidental...nor is it because of some inherent flaw or glitch in me. I've been carefully groomed and taught this way of being in this world...my culture...my society...has diligently and persistently taught me to not pay attention to people of color or to their experiences. It has diligently and persistently cultivated and rewarded me for being oblivious. And...I've learned my lessons well.

That results in my feeling sad...and...it results in really really angering me. I'm angry about my being lovingly and lyingly induced to be "stupid" and oblivious and thereby assisting in these sorts of wrongs continuing to be "normal". I'm angry at the creeps that came up with these teachings, I'm angry at my society for making those teaching "normal" for we white people and I'm angry and my own complicity in going along with them and horrendously thinking and acting as if...well...everything is just "normal" and ok.

It occurs to me as I write that that hey...if I'm going to be an ignorant a**hole...I want to know I'm being an ignorant a**hole. I don't want to act that way and not know it...I don't want to go around thinking I'm being helpful or useful or friendly or whatever and all the while being complicit and upholding of disgusting awfulness. I would like to have some choice in the matter. If I'm going to be a jerk I want it to be because I choose to be a jerk...not because it was chosen for me and I was seduced and suckered into jerkiness because I was seduced into and induced to not know what in hell was going on.

Here's one way I can think of this phenomenon that might illustrate (to me...and maybe to you) one (there are many) outrageous thing about my white obliviousness. It means that I end up behaving in ways that I would not choose to behave if I realized or comprehended that a choice was involved. If part of being "free" or having "freedom" is having choices then whenever I engage in life and do things without awareness of having a choice...then I have less freedom. Someone else made a choice for me...and taught me to be unaware or uncomprehending of their choosing for me so I wouldn't kick up a fuss about their controlling or influencing my behavior. I've been made into a puppet of some kind to further whatever their goal or desire was and that pisses me off.

Nobody asked me about it. Nobody asked me if I wanted to choose this or choose that. They chose for me...and taught me to not notice and to not be meaningfully aware and like a dork I went along with it...because I thought it was "normal" or something and then I end up operating like an oblivious a**hole.

When I do gain some awareness, I feel like a fool. And I feel sad...and I feel inadequate...because I comprehend that all the information was there in front of me and I just glided right over it and didn't put all the pieces together in a genuine and comprehending and meaningful way. I thought I was doing something positive (and don't get me wrong, I think I was, in one way, doing something worthwhile) all the while I was also doing something that might place that young man at risk if he were unaware enough of reality to act on my offer in certain situations. Thank goodness he wasn't afflicted enough with white obliviousness to not think about some of the implications of his acting on my offer. It's really frightening to think about the fact that he could have also succumbed to unawareness and maybe even have lost his life because of that unawareness.

He's been exposed to the same flimflam I have...all the same cultural messages that float around have drenched him too...but...he has black skin and because of that he has received many many other messages too. Those messages informed him that what was being presented as "normal" and such wasn't the whole story. Messages that I didn't get because of my having white skin or if I did get them I was carefully taught to minimize or deny or ignore them.

He's probably aware of the "The Negro Motorist Green Book" and the implications of the necessity of such a publication, he's probably aware of the implications of the phrase "driving while black" while I've been taught (and not clearly told I was being taught) to either be unaware of these or...if I was aware of them to just minimize or ignore or deny them.

What I'm calling white obliviousness and/or enacting whiteness is a phenomenon that victimizes...or sets up victimization situations...for people of color. Sometimes those situations can have disastrous and horrible consequences. I believe it's important for me (and for other white people)  to work at knowing this and to also realize that being oblivious does damage to white people too.

It harms differently yes...but it harms nevertheless. People of color can lose their lives because of it...that's horrendous. White people can, without desiring to or intending to, be supportive of and complicit in this stuff too. And...if you're white and you're upholding or engaging in white obliviousness then you've been damaged because your ability to choose...part of your freedom...has been taken. And you're harmed because you end up supporting or upholding monstrousness thereby making you complicit in hurting others.

This white obviousness stuff is a screw job all the way around. People of color get, by far, the worst of the screw job...but if you think the white people who wouldn't choose this crap escape wounding...well...that's not true. It's not a win/lose situation...it's a lose/lose tremendously situation.

I'm not comparing the differing results depending on which side of white obliviousness that you're positioned. I'm simply saying that it's a really ugly and destructive thing that can inflict the ultimate harm on some and lesser harm on others...but make no mistake...all are harmed. And it's all so unnecessary and disgusting.

I made reference to a question in a post back in September. The question was: "Do we really want a society that is based on dominance and control and the valuing of some lives more than other lives?"

Well...I don't...but...my stumbling around in the fog of white obliviousness means I participate in upholding and maintaining just that kind of society. And that pisses me off because that obviousness means that I'm being controlled by the a**hole fools that started this whole mess and it means I'm being controlled by all the generations after them that refined and continued this crap...and...all I can say is screw them.

I resent the hell out of being suckered into helping along their crappy and monstrous version of society. Understand...I'm not letting myself off the hook here...I'm the goofy one who swallowed their stuff and then blundered around thinking I sort of knew what I was doing. That's my responsibility and it's my job to undo it when and where I can. I can tell you this though...there's no way in hell I would have created this mess if it had been left up to me. But...it wasn't...and I'm left with the undoing of it...and if you have white skin...guess what...you're faced with the undoing of it too.

This all makes my head hurt...and my heart too.

I hope this makes sense...it's so disorienting and upsetting to me that I'm not sure whether it does or not. Jeez.

(any errors or omissions here are mine and go ahead and give me hell about them if you need to or correct me gently if you're so inclined, thanks)  







2 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

Gosh, I almost don't know what to say. But yes, it DOES make sense, and I'm sorry you had to grow [meant to type "go", but think I'll leave the typo!] through this experience.

It sounds though, like the young man in question knew that you were, in fact, trying to be supportive. So please don't be any harder on yourself than he was, because you've been, as you said, "carefully groomed and taught this way of being in this world..."

And not too many people can, or are, trying to work through white obliviousness, so give yourself some credit as well. You're doing your best, and good intentions do sometimes count!

veganelder said...

Thank you for writing HGV. I apologize if my writing indicated that I was being hard on myself...at least in any bad way. I think, for me anyway, it is critical that I be disturbed whenever I encounter obliviousness in myself in the sense that such a finding means that it is important and urgent that I focus on figuring out (and remediating) whatever is/was going on that creates and maintains that operation of obliviousness. Heck, I reread this post before writing this comment and it re-aroused my disturbance.

One thing that has come out of my wrestling with this is that I've accessed some anger that I hadn't not experienced before...and I've noticed that that anger is activated when I detect white obliviousness in writings by other white folks. I never had that available to me before and I've noticed that my ability to detect white obliviousness in writings/thinking/doings by white folks has increased. This is, I think, a good thing.

I'm firmly convinced that such instances of disturbance and/or turmoil and/or discomfort offer opportunities for learning new things if I can just get myself to stay in that disturbance/turmoil/discomfort without trying to escape it or flee from it (which is always a temptation because it is not a fun place to be). Since I still experience upset about this...that suggests to me that there are still things for me to learn from it.

Does that make sense?