Tuesday, September 05, 2006

sure, more on race why not?

I mean, more on race such as I know, which could fill maybe a bee's rubber boot.

I've had a few slightly strange experiences which directly address race. I hesitate to even mention them at all, as taken together they're only eversomarginally slightly less trivial than when they're considered separately.

eta: And, as my commenters have pointed out, they do nothing to prove white privilege.

but such is my privilege as a white girl, I suppose, this idea that race doesn't weigh on me. Whether it does or does not weigh on people of color, I can only gather from outside sources. Primary sources, sure, but outside sources nonetheless. I can sympathize with whatever the truth is, but never really empathize because I'm not a person of color. And I suppose race does weigh on white people too, in different ways, but that's something I can't really put words to, since I don't even realize it. I've been told I'm a fish, but I don't know I'm wet.

White privilege - I'm soaking in it!

So these couple-a three crazy random funny trivial things happened to me, totally in a non-life-threatening, non-important, non-political way.

Thinking more about my old friend Regina, I remembered the first time White Privilege was made evident to me. (not that I hadn't experienced it, but this was the first time I actually noticed.)

We were about ten years old, giggling and giddy about the summer rainstorm beshimmering our dismal apartment building and mitigating the dogawful humidity.

"Let's go outside," I said.

We raced outside to splash around in the puddles, slide on the slippery grass, play in the iridescent pools of motor oil and rainwater (the only rainbows we could find)...we had a blast.

The next day Regina refused to speak to me. Now this was unprecedented. We'd been best friends for five years - my entire conscious life. And now, suddenly - nothing but a hostile silence.

I asked her what was the matter. "I got in trouble," she said, sullenly.

I asked her why. "Because of YOU," she said, and burst into tears and ran away from me.

A little later I asked her mom why Regina got punished. "Well," said Mrs. Hillman, in her gentle Georgia lilt, "I say - she knows she's not supposed to go outside in the rain after she's had her hair done."

"How come?" I asked.

Mrs. Hillman then patiently delivered a 20 minute educational presentation on why black-girl hair is different than white-girl hair, and why it shouldn't get wet, and why Regina got punished for wasting money and ruining all her mother's hard work and time and energy. Though Mrs. Hillman seemed to lay the blame squarely at her daughter's feet, I still felt guilty and foolish for not knowing that thing about the hair.

But I understood that mothers had a lot invested in the hair of their daughters. Judging from the pitched battles that took place over the violent assault on good taste that grew on top of my own head, that seemed universal. I wondered why my mom didn't punish me, as she certainly spent the same amount of time and effort trying to tame my hair as Regina's mom spent on hers. But apparently black-girl hair and white-girl hair were different and that was just How It Was.

So I went to apologize to Regina for ruining her hair, which eventuality had not even entered my mind at the time of those blessed cool raindrops falling from the sky. We made up, but we were never quite the same.

Fifteen years later hair was to figure prominently in the second weird/funny/trivial race-related thing. I was on a late Metro going to Silver Spring, MD one night, and I was alone on the subway car with three Howard University men. I knew they went to Howard because of their backpacks, their T-shirts, their fraternity brands rising boldly and proudly from the skin on their upper arms. I was brushing my hair - well, wrestling with it would be a more appropriate phrase, I suppose - and slowly the three guys came incrementally closer and closer to me, whispering to themselves, peering at me, inspecting me, and creeping ever closer to me, the only other person on the train car.

I was starting to feel a little uneasy, as I was sitting there trying to untangle the hairbrush from my hair. Three giant men...one little me...three giant men...one little me...I concentrated real hard on pretending they weren't there, weren't even in the car at all, just me and my hairbrush, no threat looming and growing ever closer, none at all...finally when one of them got close enough he said, after an uneasy pregnant silence -

"excuse me, but we were wondering - are you part black?"

I was astonished. Here I thought I was going to become a "lone woman on the subway eaten by pack of maurauding males" type statistic. Really all they wanted to know was my ethnic heritage.

Well, that seemed reasonable.

"Um, not that I'm aware of, no," I said. The spokesfellow then told me that his sister had hair like mine, it gave her no end of trouble, she finally had to cut it short, and on and on about his sister, and the other fellows about their sisters, until finally my stop came and I took my leave. But it boggled my mind, how these three guys, who assumedly knew from Black Nubian Princesses, could have gotten me confused with a pretty girl of similar ancestry.

As I said, trivial, random, funny. Not at all political or important.

Most recently, about five years ago, I worked with this woman named Betty, a churchgoing Woman Of Color and a Good Girl by anyone's definition. She walked the righteous path at all times, in thought, word and deed. Mostly, she winced at what could be termed "foul language" and taking the lord's name in vain and references to sexual behavior and so on.

One day I walked into the office wearing a bright emerald green knit dress, very curve-huggy and clingy. (This was back about fifty-some pounds ago.) Boy, when I wore that thing I felt gorgeous, glamorous, shit-hot, just beeYOUteeful. So I sashay into work and Betty is staring at me. She's staring at me all day long. Just sort of assessing me with her eyes. Finally, just before it's time to go home, she pulls me into her cubicle and goes

"No offense, but has anyone ever told you you got a black girl's booty?"

"Well, does she want it back?" I snarked. I totally thought she was being funny.

"no, seriously, you got a black girl's booty." She seemed to want some sort of explanation for my ass.

I couldn't say anything. I felt so strangely ashamed. so exposed. so...so...shocked that she used the word "booty".

I left that job soon after, but I tell ya - I never wore that dress again, for fear that my ass might be offensive somehow.

So, that's all that I am able to say about my own experiences vis-a-vis racial privilege. Those three trivial things which I've never been able to fully understand.

I wish I had more to say on the subject.

i may be blind, but I really don't see how these incidents prove white privilege.

now don't get me wrong I don't deny it at all, and I wish I could give experiences of my own, but I don't have any.

what I do see is that the black people you interacted with had a definite view of the world and in their view they distinguish between white people traits and black people traits, but I fail to see how this visualizes white privilege.

i honestly don't know what a black booty is? why don't I know this? do I have to be black to know this?

i also don't know why white people don't have hair that refuses to do what you want, my hair disagrees with me all the time. do I have to be black to have bad hair? that seems weird to me, I know many white people who have unmanageable hair.

but they were very good stories.
the things that really prove white privilege I can't precisely name or pin down, from my own perspective.

And maybe a white girl talking about race is the same as a blind person rhapsodying on about the moon.

what do I even know?

Privilege I got, I'm sure of it.

but my experiences with regard to race, my experiences where race specifically was an issue, don't say much about my white privilege in a way that I can see it.
I agree with Divine Galaxy, these instances don't prove white privilege.

All I can say is - 'your rejection' of them does. I.e. you can choose not to be 'black'... or deny your 'black traits'. I.e. you chose not to wear that dress.

And btw, having a 'black booty' myself (I am not black), is considered a 'compliment' - i.e you have a big, round, black booty. The stereotype goes - black men - like big butts (sir-mix-a-lot).

You'll also hear the reverse "she's got a white girl's flat ass"....


Yeah, but in your examples the only thing that I can see about your white privilege is your rejection of the dress (i.e. not to confuse you with being black), and that you didn't get yelled at - but your friend did when her hair got wet.

Your white privilege shows moreso in the things you don't and never will see/experience. When you don't have to worry about having racist terms hurled at you as you walk down the street, when courts will believe you are a rational - caring mother and deserve custody of your children, people not making assumptions about your parents/socio-economic class/your ancestry, when you don't have to worry about reporting a rape by a black man of your own community because you worry about being a race-traitor vs. a rape-victim - same goes for when you do better in school than black men, when you are given the privilege of individuality and not being a 'representation' of your race (i.e when people ask you fucked up questions like "do all black people do that? do all black people like that? is that part of black culture?").
Your white privilege shows moreso in the things you don't and never will see/experience.

It's frustrating.

I mean, I'm not a total idiot. but it's like the wind. the only way I know it's there is because I see its effect on other things.
Yeah, but in your examples the only thing that I can see about your white privilege is your rejection of the dress (i.e. not to confuse you with being black), and that you didn't get yelled at - but your friend did when her hair got wet.

Eh... even there, I don't know if that's so much about white privilege as it is about the other girl's mom just acting weird. I mean, it wasn't AP's fault.
And btw, having a 'black booty' myself (I am not black), is considered a 'compliment' - i.e you have a big, round, black booty. The stereotype goes - black men - like big butts (sir-mix-a-lot).

stupid blogger...I just responded to this and my comment got eaten. damn it.

as I was trying to say before running afoul of the great god Blogger -

that was the crazy thing about that interaction. everything about her whisper-whisper-confidential tone of voice and the "I'm inspecting you and find you suspicious" look on her face told me she wasn't being complimentary - and if I didn't get it from those cues, the phrase "no offense, but..." was definitely a clue.

the whole thing was like an indictment of my ass.

now, my ass has come under indictment many times before (usually for simply being too big), so I was used to feeling weird because of my body shape - I mean, who doesn't? - but this was different.

she seemed to want to know what I was hiding, what my ass was betraying, and just who did I think I was anyway?

I couldn't wear that dress again, because I felt that if I did, I would be guilty of some kind of cultural hijacking.
you know it's sort of funny - just admitting that thoughts about racial issues cross my mind (to the miniscule extent that they even do) makes me feel all exposed and awkward and like I'm about to utter the Mother of All Stupidities - if I haven't already.

it's like there's part of my brain sticking out that should be covered up.

but there it is. some white lady trying to blog about race.

I've done a lot of listening (nowhere near enough), but not a lot of talking about it, mostly out of pantswetting fear of looking stupid.

but it's all out there now. the sum total in all its teenyweeny glory. Shameful, really.
I mean - do I want to go

"Yep, I'm privileged! Check out my privilege!"


"well, I am privileged but I don't like it and I wish I weren't and I can't help it and I feel bad about it and...and...and..."

or is there some sort of middle ground that it's possible to occupy?

on the one hand, it is possible to say "jeez, white women don't do a lot of blogging about race-related topics. it's like it doesn't even exist to some people."

on the other hand, how can I discuss such a thing - not just listen but engage and consider and compare and learn - without becoming oppressive in my ignorance?
of course, probably the only halfway smart thing I could say is that, because I'm white, I have the luxury of trivializing race in the way that I have done.
"Yep, I'm privileged! Check out my privilege!"


"well, I am privileged but I don't like it and I wish I weren't and I can't help it and I feel bad about it and...and...and..."

or is there some sort of middle ground that it's possible to occupy?


Good question.

yeah I don't know. I think it's just pretty much as with most people; or, well, think how you feel viz i don't know men blogging about Wimmin's Stuff/feminist issues.

you know; people like to be listened to; be shown an interest, basic respect.

it is unfortunate that there is this, how would you say, "walking on eggshells" thing that happens, i think. I wonder sometimes if this is a particularly American thing: everyone is so very anxious to be -good-; and don't understand it when people get irritated when they're -trying so hard;- and i think you know the truth is sometimes, esp. in these little political circles (not saying you, at all), people sort of let their own anxiety and other baggage, you know, wanting to get everything just right-- get in the way of just being with the other person.

That's not even limited to race I'd say, although it does seem extra-heavy there and with the white-->black interactions in particular.

and then too of course you get the anger because you scratch the surface with some people and it's actually pretty much the same old shit as it always was, just with more elaborate defenses and code words.
which is not, i hasten to add, what i think you have done here, any of it.
And, too, you figure: it's not necessarily an either/or: one could see that a particular situation revealed your privilege and/or others' resentment of same, and yet at the same time, other person could also be having hir own issues. anyway, i dunno: i think the hair story is interesting, one of those- consciousness-raising moments (I know the hair thing is commonly talked about); but i also think that there is an element of something or other going on that the mother came down THAT hard on her kid.

anyway i think aranhanadevindra has it right: it's really more about what you -don't- experience.

stuff about, hey, what's your ancestry, i like your hair, i tend to see that as an attempt to connect, if anything. I mean, it -should- be possible to talk about such things without it being heavily weighted; dunno if everyone would see it that way when it does happen, but i think some people do, sure.
i see those as sort of about white privilege, in as much as they're incidents when you were made aware of racial difference, of assumptions made about bodies and hair and all based on race, and then specifically as applied to you. so yeah, that's about white privilege mainly because for the most part, white folks don't *have* to think about race. it's the default mode, there's no opposition against which to form identity, so moments like these become important because they're unusual.

whereas in my experience, people of color *have* to think about race because being treated differently based on race is part of life from a young age.

and...you know...i think exploring the wind at your back is a great thing, looking around to see where and how your white privilege functions is important. it is possible to pick it out, i think, partly by playing compare and contrast with some of the people in your life.
I've got to blog about this now but a couple of thoughts first...

-anything that raises a person's awareness of how they interact with others in their world, and how to do so positively, is important, no matter how much you try to minimize it. Your views and feelings matter and anything that helps you to appreciate the views and feelings of others has got to be good.

-re: the black co-worker...I alomst wonder if she thought you were trying to "pass" and if that doesn't account for any true accusatory tone. I think that would really piss me off...like flaming queens with token women on their arms at public functions. Why bother, Honey? Everybody knows you're just sucking up for heterosexual privilege.

Great post and comments!
hand to god - it's just my butt. It doesn't signify anything that I'm aware of, despite needing its own zipcode.

But that makes me wonder - just because I haven't been told I have african-american ancestry doesn't mean I don't.
What it IS? I stumbled across your blog and have no idea how old it is but I thought I'd comment anyway. I was interested to read it because I recently moved to Silver Spring and had been processing a lot of "race" stuff. I'm originally from Boston where the majority is "white", but had a non-stereotypical growing up experiance. My father was a blues harmonica player and my house was always full of "black" blues men when I was small. Also, my family in general broke some boundaries and I have Puerto Rican, Indian, and Cuban relatives. As far as MY ethnicity goes, I'm Irish. My bestfriend growing up was half Native American half African. That's the starting picture. In my youth I dealt with "race" issues like my bestfriend getting called the "n-word", the "black" kids we knew embracing her more freely than me, and some people even telling us we shouldn't mix. So that's the background. This will sound weird but whatever: I pay attention to my dreams. Every now and then I have a dream that shakes me to my core and I know it's a glimpse of something which will or should happen. When I was 18 I dreamt that I should go to Africa and do aid work. It really wasn't too surprising because I was very politically active and aware of world issues. So I saved for 2 years and I went. You want to become aware of "race" issues? Try THAT out. I worked as a teacher and traveled for 4 1/2 monthes. Not a lifetime but a damn good glimpse. I had everything from folks falling over themselves to please me, to the other end: being blamed for slavery, getting choked and spat on. That was just SOME views though. Since then I have also spent 4 monthes in India and 2 monthes in South America. I learned the language everywhere that I went, no matter how remote, and eventually was able to become part of my villages. Working side by side with locals, accepting no hand-outs and earning my spot in those communities. But I've also been called like 20 different negative words for "white-skin" and have gotten to see many perspectives. Mostly I hate all of the stupid divisions based on color. First of all, if you really analize it, I'm Irish not "white". When the Irish were in Europe they underwent treatement similar to the slavery that happened in the U.S. When they originally got to the U.S. they worked alongside "black" Africans. They were not initially considered "white". Then they were basically told: "you can be called 'white' and help us oppress the 'blacks' or you can reject that and be slaves along side them". So the Irish chose to be "white". My grandfather came over from Ireland after the Civil War. So really it wasn't even MY people that chose to be "white". "White"s a state of mind. All "race" is. It exists in our minds to keep folks separate and chained down. We can reject this, throw off these barriers and step into a new light. But we hug them close, exaggerate them, use them to push eachother away. Frankly I'm disgusted with EVERYONE on this matter. Everyone had messed up ideas about eachother and they all seemed to be going nowhere with them. Talking doesn't even seem to be able to articulate the BIG picture. True knowledge of all sides can be a burden. I want to be a color you've never SEEN before....... Now in Silver Spring, I think folks aren't quite sure what to make of me. I go to Mongomery College. I arrived with my hair braided originally and because I'm pretty tan (what they call "dark Irish") many people told me they thought I was "mixed". But then I took out the braids. So I've gotten 2 very different receptions from people. It's enough to make you want to abandon a social life all together. Why do we keep these seperations so alive and well? "White" privilage, "white" burden, "black" power, "racism", etc. etc. etc. Why don't we all just try something: it's called doing the next right thing. Treat folks how you wanna be treated and don't overanalyze being "white". In fact, how about you DO look into your heritage. But use it to CONNECT yourself instead of separate yourself. We ARE all connected you know, in some way or another. And don't survive entirely on the crumbs of stereotypes. I got angry for quite a while before I saw the truth. Example: I went to a slave fort once in southern Ghana to pay respects and found myself heaving and overwhelmed with emotion outside the gates. A local man came to where I stood crying and told me to apologize for "(my) people". I remember I wanted to peel my skin. To grate it off my body. I felt so helpless. But I allowed him to make me feel that way. You know who YOU ARE. If you're living right, you should have no shame or guilt. You are YOU not your skin color. Not the people in history who shared your skin color. Not even if your family owned slaves etc. You are the future not the past. If you take on the guilt of people long in the past, you are perpetuating racism. That's right. You think, it's being "aware" of all that crap that HELPS but really it keeps us down. So rise up sugar, it's a new damn day. It's NOT hopeless. It's only hopeless if you give up.......ummm....yeah....stepping off my soapbox now.... heh... :D I dunno, make up your own mind, THAT's the important thing. -Riah
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