Friday, December 16, 2016

White privilege?

I've come to understand and perceive that phrase, "white privilege", as being problematic and misleading.

I've been thinking about power and control and that stuff I call invisibling.

If you and your group (or me and my group) wanted to control another group of people (or any sort of groups of Earthlings actually) one way we could do it would be to use force or violence or the threat of force of violence to get them to do what we wanted. That would probably work, especially if the group you wanted to control had less power than you (or me) and they could be forced to do what you wanted and if they didn' could imprison or kill them.

There are a number of difficulties with this approach. For instance, if you're the obvious source of domination that means those who want to resist your control know who to fight against and if your methods of control are obvious and blatant, those who want to resist could easily identify what things to fight against. Hmmm...controlling a group like this could be done...but it might take lots of effort and be really messy.

And...thinking of yourself as a good guy and getting others to see you that way while acting like a dominating and violent a**hole might present some challenges. It could be done (and has been done by some prominent folks or groups of folks...think white people) but it's really cognitively demanding. You have to play hell with reality and do lots and lots of lying and covering up and such. It's, lots of work. And...outsiders, those not living in your system and subject to your control will, without much effort, see you for what you are.

Hey...wouldn't it be nifty if you could control them (maybe it wouldn't be 100% effective, but we're not worried about the small stuff, we just want to control mostly, a few exceptions aren't going to make us get excited) without their knowing that they're being controlled? The group members think they are making their own choices about what they do and how they think and understand themselves and the world but...all the while you're setting the agenda for their doing and thinking and understanding. Hmmm...pretty slick, eh? They wouldn't fight you because they wouldn't even realize that they were being controlled. What a deal!

And...if all else failed you could return to the tried and true ways of threatening violence or actually doing violence. But...that's ugly and messy and gets people all riled up...much better to make all this controlling invisible when possible.

And...what if I wanted others who weren't in on the system (for instance, those who are born and live after I'm gone) I've set up to go along with it and help keep it in place but without being aware that that's what they're doing? They might benefit from it...but...they wouldn't notice what it does or how it works. A system that, once it got rolling, could just take on a life all its own. A perpetual oppression machine needing little maintenance or thought. 

One way to think about "history" is to realize that included in "history" are ways of behaving and thinking and relating (including ways of interacting with both groups and with other individuals and even to ones self) that were established, perhaps centuries ago, and subsequent generations are socialized into enacting those ways...and...often they're also socialized to not think about the origin of those ways of behaving and thinking.

These inheritors of a history (us) are socialized to not question "tradition", socialized to not look at who created these ways, to not figure out what their purpose(s) were, socialized to see these ways of living and such as "natural" and/or "normal" and/or as "common sense".

Society members who fail to interrogate and investigate and think about all the ways of thinking and being and and perceiving and living that they inherited will end up being just little puppets doing a dance (called being "normal") that some goobers created long ago for their own purposes.

Welcome to now. Here we are...doing the dance steps to the tunes the folks before us created. Because we think it's "natural" or some such stuff. And we think we're "free". Jeez.

I first used "invisibling" as a title for a post almost two years ago. And here I am, still wallowing around trying to achieve some sort of coherent understanding of it. That's maybe because of my poor capabilities or maybe because what I'm trying to understand is complex and slippery...or...maybe it's both.

After two years into flopping around in the mental and emotional mud with "invisibling", one thing I'm certain of, is that it is way more potent that most of us realize. Part of the power of "invisibling" is that its effectiveness is also deliberately made invisible. Pretty neat, eh?

Think about hiding something and then hiding from yourself the fact that you hid something. That's similar to a terrific definition I once read of a defense mechanism called repression. It, repression, was defined as the mental operation of forgetting something and then forgetting that you've forgotten it.

I copied this image from Abagond's post about white privilege. Read the post...Abagond rarely fails to educate and delight.

One of the things that is problematical with that phrase (white privilege) is that it sort of suggests that the goodies associated with being white just "happen".  Like they (the privileges) fall out of the sky or something and whee...I get some nifty stuff just because my skin is white and isn't that hunky dory? Well...go read this post to become a little more educated about how hunky dory often happens.

There's no bad stuff happening that is connected to the phrase "white privilege", there aren't any bad guys, I just get some goodies and it's almost magical.

Always remember, humans doing "magic" means some stuff that's out of sight (or right in front of us but not noticed or seen) is going on. 

"White privilege" is code for material things and psychological and social benefits for dominant group members that are either taken from or denied to members of subordinated or marginalized group members. That phrase, "white privilege", is a nice or neutral sounding phrase that obscures and makes invisible the awfulness that has to be there for such 'privileges' to exist.

We white folks are socialized to believe that If we don't do anything that's racist, if we don't treat someone badly because of their race then we're good to go, right?

If we get some goodies because of our white skin...well...we're innocent since we didn't do anything harmful or hurtful. Isn't it nice to be white and get this neat stuff, eh?

But...what if that isn't true? What if what I get is because it is taken from someone else? What if my goody or privilege or benefit is the result of someone else being ripped off or prevented from having that same goody?

Am I still innocent? Or am I the recipient of the loot from a crime? A receiver of stolen goods and/or psychological or social well being?

Look carefully at the graphic, in each panel either Bob or his ancestors are benefiting...but...others are also being excluded or denied access or losing their freedom or otherwise being harmed.

Less for them, more for Bob. But Bob doesn't comprehend that...the bad stuff has guessed it...invisibled. Wow...what a deal! Bob is both "successful" and "innocent".

White privilege is an innocuous sounding phrase that, when you think of it, serves to uphold invisibling. doesn't sound too bad or awful (although some think it does, I sort of guffawed when I read this guy carping about the phrase being "needlessly confrontational", good grief) but it necessarily means crappy and harmful stuff is going on. 

If you or I benefit from "white privilege", that always means someone else is being excluded or having something taken away from them.

But, we don't think about that's made invisible.

This society uses that invisibling stuff sort of like duct uses it everywhere and in all kinds of circumstances where society wants you want to engage in sh*theel behavior but not comprehend that you're being awful. Or, it wants you to be targeted for being screwed over but society wants you to blame yourself and not make a fuss about being victimized. See what a handy dandy thing invisibling is?

Social "privilege" doesn't fall out of the sky...and if it does that's not the kind of stuff I'm writing about. I'm writing about instances where I get extra because someone else got less...or got harmed...or were excluded or those things happened to their ancestors. The kind of "privilege" I'm addressing is when there's a "goody"...and that "goody" came from when someone somewhere was screwed in the past or is currently getting screwed.

And...the term white privilege can serve to lull us into thinking it's all nice and nifty and nobody gets hurt...we just get some "extras"...nope...ugly stuff has to be for those sorts of "extras" to happen.

Let's do some thinking. 

Consider, the average African American female makes only 63 cents for every $1 the average white man earns in pay for equivalent work (that means task competence is the same, experience is the same and so on). That's white male privilege in action.

But for that white man to make that $1, that African American woman gets shafted. If disparities like this were leveled out, if we were all "equal" then it would mean not only an increase in pay for African American females but would also likely mean a commensurate decrease in pay for white men (all factors held steady and say we didn't look at how the employer is engaging in profiteering or whatever).

For example, if the total amount of pay available was $1.63 then averaging these pay rates would mean dividing this amount by 2, then each worker would be making about 82 cents in pay. This would mean a 19 cent increase for African American women and an 18 cent decrease for white men (again, if all other factors were held equal). Oops...the "white privilege" for that white man means that the unequal pay he is getting is being taken from the African American female.

Maybe the the author of that article, noted above, who described "white privilege" as being "confrontational" is not as silly as he seems at first glance.

You might have noticed...I've used an example that illustrated the intersecting of two forms of oppression...racism (African American) and sexism (female). That's the way this stuff often works, sometimes folks are socially positioned in more than one subordinated group, their deprivations intersect in complex other words, folks in marginalized groups often get shafted in more than one way.

And...recipients of "white privilege" are often reaping the results of more than one sort of harming.

Benefiting from or receiving a "privilege" isn't a neutral thing...your elevation or benefit is because someone else is being pushed down or deprived.

Nope, there are none who receive "white privilege" who are innocent. They (we) might think they are, they (we) might not comprehend what's going on (it's invisible) but there's crappy stuff going on and we white folks are right smack dab in the middle of it and we're getting goodies that come from harming or taking away from or denying things to folks positioned in marginalized or subordinated groups.

"White privilege" doesn't seem so innocent or neutral sounding now, does it?

All white people 'benefit' from racism, even if we don't see ourselves as racist or "do" racist actions or think racist thoughts...just like all men (mainly white men) 'benefit' from sexism, even if we don't "do" sexist actions or think sexist thoughts.

We may not have created it, we may not have chosen it, we may abhor and detest it...but...we white people get goodies from racism...whether we want to or not. There's no neutral place to hide.

And...we (white people) are the ones who have the responsibility to change this. If you (or me) are acting sh*tty, or benefiting from sh*tty stuff that's done elsewhere or by others then we have a responsibility to start resisting this. And...if that means we have to move toward changing the way things are done so that others aren't harmed for our benefit...then that's what we have to do. 

One of the things that you must do...unless you want to continue with the pretense of innocence and to work to comprehend and to understand. And one of the biggest obstacles to doing that is to begin to see what's right in front of you...that invisible stuff.

I was taught to not think critically and carefully about what's going on around were all of us. Even people who are positioned in marginalized groups are taught such avoidant mental maneuvering.

Our society abounds with "nice" or neutral sounding words and phrases that make horror invisible or difficult to see. "Settler" (murder, genocide and land theft), "pioneer" (same thing), "colonist" (same thing), "founding father" (wealthy white male slave owner), "southern plantation" (human enslavement, rape, murder) and on and's sort of sickening and disorienting when you start digging into the real meanings associated with these nice/neutral sounding words and phrases.


We don't have to continue to go along with this sh*tty stuff.

I'm slowly coming to understand that you don't have to be a rocket scientist to comprehend all this...the hard part is making the invisible become visible...once that happens...well...figuring out the way the these things work is something a 4th grader could do. Or a sharp 3rd grader.

Go back and look at the example above and the simple math I did to achieve some equity in pay. That's not calculus, ok? Granted, it's a simplified example, but it illustrates the principle that underlies way too many things we take for granted and pretend are "neutral" or "just the way it is".

The tough part is realizing that the $1 that white guy is paid comes, in part, at the expense of the African American woman who only gets paid 63 cents for the same amount of work. Both are working, both are exerting effort...but...the white guy is being overpaid and that extra pay is available because the African American woman is being underpaid. 

When you go shopping...either at the manufacturer of the thing you bought or in the store where you bought it (most likely both)...there are people getting paid unfairly...just because of whatever group(s) they happen to be positioned in. And you're participating in that systemic enactment of racism (or other systemic oppressions). Even if you didn't intend to, even if you didn't want to, even if you dislike or hate racism or oppression. You're helping it to roll right on. 

Heck, I was the recipient of white guy pay throughout my career...that means folks who weren't white guys were getting screwed so I could get that pay. I didn't comprehend that, but I benefited from it. All of us who are positioned in a dominant group (white or male or able-bodied and so on) are benefiting from the shafting of those who are positioned in corresponding subordinate or marginalized groups.

We don't live in an "equal opportunity" society, we live in a society that uses code phrases like "white privilege" to hide and make invisible the oppression and awfulness that are the foundation and core of this here "land of the free" (that's another of those code phrases that lies to us to make us feel good about ourselves without involving the hard work of making it be true).

We (most especially we white people) can do better than this.

But...sitting around with our thumbs up our a**es and thinking we're "innocent" because we don't think bad thoughts or do bad things isn't going to make things better. In fact, that's exactly what your ancestors want you to do because that helps the sh*tty stuff keep right on keeping on.

(As always, I'm floundering around trying to figure this stuff out and...I'm limited by my being socially positioned as a white comprehension/understanding is necessarily constrained by that positioning. So, any omissions, errors or screw-ups you might detect in this post and that you're willing to let me know about will be respectfully appreciated. Thank you.)   



Have Gone Vegan said...

"These inheritors of a history (us) are socialized to not question "tradition", socialized to not look at who created these ways, to not figure out what their purpose(s) were, socialized to see these ways of living and such as "natural" and/or "normal" and/or as "common sense"."

I'm reminded here of the powerful short story by Shirley Jackson "The Lottery", which illustrated the above point excellently. :)

Interesting how defensive the very first few comments were on Abagond's post. Makes one wonder that given how people react so defensively to a term we think quite innocuous, how something a bit more to the point ("white theft" perhaps?) would go over, snort.

Oh, and one thing I thought about with the pay scale example that you provided is how much more, if any, white women earn in comparison to women who aren't white. I mean, we all know that women earn less than men across the board, but do they still earn more on average than African American women?

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. Regarding the comments on Abagond's blog. I sometimes use negative comments about books that address history and/or racism (as I wrote and/or I realized that unless racism is written about in a book about "America", it isn't truthful history) as a guide to whether to try to get the book. The threatened come out, often in droves, when racism or white benefiting from racism is written about (tellingly, the threatened are almost exclusively white men). It is important to pay attention to defensiveness, because it's an excellent signal that someone is frightened and instead of being interested in learning, they're interested in denying so they don't have to be scared. Learning unpleasant or uncomfortable facts means having to endure discomfort...those who deny are exhibiting their lack of courage (being unwilling to endure discomfort) and their commitment to comforting ignorance (which means their seeking intellectual honesty and integrity of knowledge takes a back seat to comfort). Juanita Browne made the comment in the documentary "Traces of the Trade" that white people piss her off because they're cowards who've sold out their integrity...I think that very accurately describes those who attack Abagond. (when I hit enter on my keyboard no paragraph jump is made in this comment so excuse the running together of thoughts) This link gives more detail about pay differentials associated with various race/gender identities. From what I saw white women make 75 to 80 cents for each dollar white men earn, so yes white women earn more than African American Women.