Just recently I’ve had the good fortune to come across an article of my writing from some years ago. Reading it again gave me that rare, but sublime experience that Edith Wharton once described as “a backward glance.” This is one of the blessings life affords us, the occasion to review without harsh judgment, the endeavors of our youth. In actuality, the specifics of my own circumstances require that I appeal to my reader’s most generous nature; for the “endeavor of my youth” discussed here places me squarely in my mid-thirties. Not quite so young, but still with enough bloom on the vine to perhaps be pardoned for my excesses.
For me fall always conjures images of leaves and lessons, and so as it was, I was once again taking classes towards completing my undergraduate degree. During this same period, I was an adjunct clinical instructor at a health science university, a dental hygienist in private practice and I taught evening classes several times a week at a vocational school. Indeed, I was busy.
These facts, notwithstanding, I tackled the rigors of my class with enthusiasm; I adored the text, participated in group discussions, and consistently aced my hourly exams. All was right as rain…until the weekend after Thanksgiving. As it seems, the professor, a woman in her late forties with fiery red-hair, who once described herself to the class as a “feminist and a practicing Semite,” had spent some time at a retreat hosted by Wellesley University and been exposed to the scholarship of one Dr. Peggy McIntosh.
Clearly, having experienced some manner of orgiastic revelation, she had discovered herself to be white and had become painfully conscious of her unearned privileges. The dynamics of the class sessions changed dramatically, as this traditionally educated woman sought to become a part of what she deemed the avant-garde, and work out her white guilt and other assorted baggage within the context of her teaching responsibilities. So, our newly created capstone assignment for the semester became “What Is White Privilege, and Why Don’t We Recognize How We Benefit From It?” Trust me, I wish I tell you I was making this up.
Now, here’s the rub. I was the only ethnically Black person in the lecture hall at the time of her pronouncement. As the session ended and I approached her to discuss how the hell I was going to complete this assignment, I was subjected to the full extent of her discomfort with me and the topic at hand. She fawned and chaffed, until we settled on the idea that I would be “allowed” to conceive a position paper from my “unique’” perspective. Honestly, if I hadn’t been so pissed, I would have been embarrassed for her. So, what follows is the original position paper I submitted. I have added only annotations where necessary to assist in understanding the period, especially of (white) feminist ideology at the time. Every opportunity I got, I turned that stuff understood as scholarship on its silly little fair head, and used it to dig into her (well you know…)
I hope you enjoy reading it }:~)
A Response To:
“White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence through Work in Women’s Studies (1988)
“White Privilege” and its companion, “White Guilt” are concepts that I was surprised many may have been unaware. Both concepts have been assimilated into popular culture and satirized on television and feature films. Persons are likely to be unaware primarily because, having always had such privileges bequeathed to them, say as a birthright, they are remiss in observing that others may not. I am aware of the daily slights, oversights, etc. that society has apparently deemed to be a part of my birthright as an American of African heritage. It is beyond stating the obvious that racial issues are complicated, however, the issues of sexism and other related biases complicate them further. I am certain that there are instances where I have directly benefited in a situation by the sheer fact of being female and African American. By this I do not necessarily mean through the agency of affirmative action (although, I am a strident supporter of such practices). I mean in the same sense of unearned privilege that Peggy McIntosh1 writes.
I have been in the company of European-American males, professionally and socially, and have had them carve out a little space in the discussion where my voice could be heard. As I related these instances to my European-American female friends, they were perplexed; they were accustomed to being dismissed in those same settings, frustrated because they were not taken seriously enough. I do not and never will subscribe to the notion of the hysterical white woman.2 Nevertheless, at times I do feel as if I have greater concerns to consider than the “undermining and inherent dangers” or the potential “backlash” of being deemed beautiful by a patriarchal society.3 I am also certain that the more enlightened scholar’s involved in Women’s Studies would support these statements. I have also had instances in my adult life where I was confronted with acts of overt racism.
I remember the first one best because I guess I was so taken aback. I was in a supermarket parking lot, less than a five minutes drive from my home. I was driving behind a vehicle that repeatedly put on brakes, with no apparent reason to do so. Finally, in utter frustration, I blew the horn. A man leaped out of the car and very aggressively came to my window yelling “You got some kind of problem lady?” So, I said yes, “ Why are you braking, what’s the problem…? He cut me off with this : “ Stupid nigger bitch.” Well, I was raised to respond to this sort of thing, so I lost my mind as well and joined in the yelling of profanities and dispensing of obscene gestures as he returned to his car. I drove home, parked the car…and I just could not move. I had fifteen minutes of complete devastation. It had happened~ I’d had an authentic Negro experience, not the silly taunting of kids messing with one another. This was real. Immediately I thought all my white friends from school, work, all of them. Did they all feel this way? Is this what they did to us behind closed doors?
Now, perhaps the incident in the parking lot had more to do with his bad day, or road rage or whatever, but the fact remains that this man had at his disposal the most vile and vulgar terms, and he reached into his bag of tricks and extracted the ‘best’ of them for my special benefit. Interestingly enough, I find it quite easy to dismiss the anonymous idiot/sexist/racist at Grand Union and not feel forever marred by the experience. What I find hard to accept is the way some of my well meaning friends and coworkers often don’t see, because they don’t have to, or notice the things I must, in order to safe guard my emotional well-being. I am trained to anticipate circumstances where I may be made to feel uncomfortable and avoid those places. Saving this being possible and I am with “others,” then I must endure it so as to not make a scene that would cause anyone else embarrassment.
I am speaking here of privileges, simple creature comforts, that are not granted or guaranteed to me because of my race in my own country of origin. I have essentially been socialized in both a macro- and micro- culture. I have deliberately chosen to use these terms over minority and majority, because I feel they are over used. Within any microculture, parents are cognizant of that along with loving their children and teaching them to know their wonderfulness, they must also teach them that there are others in the world that will not love them or acknowledge their wonderfulness and greatness. Therefore children within the microcultures learn very early on to be discerning of peoples motives towards them. Actually, this may in fact make them more socially savvy than their macroculture contemporaries.
The wonderfulness and greatness I speak of here is our humanity. This brings to mind an essay I read during my freshman year in college. It was about an English explorer, who upon setting his feet on soil in the “New World” reflected upon it as an entry in his travel diary, how similar it was to his arrival on the African continent. He remarked on the expanse, and “vast nothingness” he saw all around him. Nothingness?
There were people, and language, and civilizations! This is a lack of seeing “others” as human as one’s self. I have had this conversation with African American males whereas, like McIntosh I used examples of sexism that parallel racism. I told one male friend that several of the problems we were facing in our relationship, was because he sought to treat me the way he “treated his women” I told him that this was tantamount to someone of another race treating him the way they “treat Blacks”. To his credit, he finally understood my point; there is a grave danger to everyone in a supposed just society when one’s humanity is disregarded, and like only extends privilege to like. When people fail to see people as people.
Members of microcultures therefore have the onerous duty of being nearly hyper vigilant about the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of persons within the macroculture. Not only is this notion exhausting, it is impossible. Revolutions must initially occur from within, not without, and it is not within the power of another to bring such a shift in someone else’s reasoning and frame of reference. So, the best that may be said of the McIntosh position paper is that it is a start, and for beginning the dialog she is to be applauded. The best case scenario following a reading of the paper would involve an awareness of one’s personhood, and that of others. This would hopefully translate into interactions that honor everyone’s humanity and obliterates unearned privileges.
This would in effect represent a truly evolved society.
1) McIntosh’s paper juxtaposed the similarities between White Privilege and Male Privilege in American society. It was published in 1988
2) Psychoanalyst such as Freud, et al frequently attributed the malaise of any women to “female hysteria” In fact, for several years the DSM-I (1952) and DSM-II (1968) acknowledged female-specific maladies. Historically, women of color were typically not studied and therefore not represented within these descriptions.
3) The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (1993) galvanized (white) feminist in a way that had been unprecedented since, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was published in 1963.