Wednesday, August 16, 2006

For White Folks: How To Be An Ally (Part 1b)

In view of the fact that I won't be able to post Part 2 of How To Be An Ally until Saturday (sigh), I thought it might be a good idea to post this little addendum to Part 1. In response to my statement (not very well explained, I'm afraid) that I don't tell people I'm "White," Yami McMoots over at Green Gabbro raised some important points:

"The shop clerk who doesn’t follow me around the store, the cop who lets me off with just a warning, and other notional tools of white supremacy are not responding to my ethnic identity as a North-European-Mutt-American (which is also a social construct), but to my race; they could care less about my self-identification.

"There are two ways to get them to not respond to me as White: engage in racial drag; or wave the wand of magic anti-racist enlightenment every time I meet someone new. Not practical answers. Since my assigned race influences my life whether I want it to or not, I don’t think it makes any sense to run around telling people 'oh, I’m not White, I’m Euro-American'.

"I doubt Changeseeker would deny that the way one is racially categorized has significant impacts on one’s experience in society, regardless of one’s personal level of antiracism/internalized white supremacy/etc., or that she thinks we can change the way we are identified by others (though obviously she’s welcome to correct me on this) - I think we just have different concepts of identity. She appears to see identity statements as claims about the speaker’s desire or affinity, while I usually interpret them as claims about the speaker’s interactions with the world, including the way other people respond. These aren’t mutually exclusive metaphors, and neither of us is wrong, but when there’s significant tension between personal desire and social response the distinction becomes important.

"If identity is a claim about my interactions with the world, saying that I’m not White is a lie, and all kinds of un-PC as it means I am denying my own privilege. If identity is a statement of desire and affinity, saying that I’m not White is a perfectly sensible and progressive statement whose truth value cannot be determined without a detailed, intimate examination of my antiracist commitments. Conclusion: when making statements about racial identity, it is important to be clear about what 'identity' actually means."

And this was my response:

What I was getting at in the paragraph you cite (and you are so right that I needed to be clearer about what I mean by identity) is that I am calling for a paradigm shift by reminding us that “race” is a socially-constructed, political notion while privilege is a system of practices. I can seek to reject privilege when it is apparent to me. (I will address this idea in Part 2.) What I was shooting for here, though, was to suggest that in order for privilege to be apparent to me so that I can reject it, I have to be able to recognize it as a response to a socially-constructed, political notion based on no actual deserved quality. Whiteness perceives itself as deserving. European-American individuals, on the other hand, have no basis upon which to perceive themselves as any more deserving than any other ethnic group on the planet.

Now, obviously, I know that daily practice at every level in U.S. society privileges European-Americans as “White” with or without their conscious awareness, admission, or acknowledgment, let alone any embarrassment or guilt. And yes, the first step is an ever-increasing awareness of this functional reality.

But this functional reality is based on (according to the famous UNESCO study reported in the early 1950's) a “social myth.” The realization of “race” as a myth in no way mitigates the damage done by its perpetuation as a concept. It just makes it that much more unconscionable or even heinous, while being totally ridiculous. How can a person think they deserve privilege because of their skin tone? If there was any sense to this, I would lose privilege in direct proportion to the sun tan I’ve been getting.

I don’t tell people “I’m not White”--for exactly the reason you brought up, Yami. It’s not immediately understandable as a statement given where most people in the U.S. (on all sides of the issue) reside. What I do is tell people that “Whiteness” is a meaningless social construction devised for the purpose of exploiting people of color for the enrichment of people that look like me. (Again, I might have and probably do have African heritage–as many people who look like me do–but I still get the benefit of “White” privilege, as long as I don’t tell people “I’m Black.”)

There is no need to abandon group identity. Each of us belongs to many groups and group identity is short hand (a code) for understanding another individual’s experience, reality, and/or self-determined claim. The difficulty has never been “difference” per se. The difficulty is the fact that we declare difference and then socially impose an entirely arbitrary hierarchy on it (men over women, “White” people over people of color, etc.). Then, those who find themselves privileged by this hierarchy begin to imagine that they are indeed better than those “beneath” them on the ladder. And therein lies the problem.

When I use the term “people that look like me,” I am challenging listeners to remember that they can’t make simple sense of “racial” difference without my complicity. So I don’t say: “I’m not White.” I just choose not to identify myself using that term, but rather create a series of teachable moments related to “race.”

I know that most European-Americans are not prepared to do this at this time. Nevertheless, what I was nudging them towards in my post was the possibility of considering that their “race” is a “social myth” deserving no privilege and that keeping that idea foremost in their minds at all times will move mountains in their psyches, as well as their own and others' lives.

8 comments:

Hillary For President said...

I see that you say about the peoples of colour and how their at a disadvantage like that but dont you thing you shold admit what is relly hurting four equalitty is the Mislams?

Changeseeker said...

Many Muslims are people of color, H4P, right? Not all, of course, but many. Still, as you know, my focus is largely on African-American/European-American relations, as a rule, because that's what I know the most about. Also, discriminatory attacks on Muslims are typically driven by misguided religious or nationalistic fervor, though all people of color suffer to make the "White" power structure (and its transnational corporations) rich.

Peacechick Mary said...

I used to go to Haiti on a med support team. Within the Hiatian culture there are PoC's who discriminate against other PoC's and I could never figure out what triggered the discrimination. It was a matter of some sort of identifying clue, but I could not see it nor sense it. Lucky for me I never knew as it allowed me to treat everyone the same - with respect and dignity. May we all become blind to color and false politically based identities.

Professor Zero said...

CS, yes, it's a serious problem. I like European-American though because it then lets one go to finer distinctions: are you descended from founding fathers, like part of me, or from much more recent, more 'ethnic' European immigrants, like other parts of me? This can be good for self-understanding and so on. It does not, of course, mean we are not also encoded as 'white', do not need to be aware of this, and so on. Nor does it mean we have to take on cultural identities we don't relate to, just because our ancestors had these identities. It does mean, though, that we can distance ourselves from generic whiteness/white supremacy, and still know we come from real cultures (I'm thinking now about the Free Slave's threads on cultural appropriation, and all of the white people who wanted to wear dredlocks just to give themselves some kind of flavor that doesn't come from the mall).

Just my 2 cents for now...



Peacechick Mary, I'd love to hear more about Haiti sometime, am dying to go. My understanding is that the discrimination there is by whites (who woudn't look white here) against mulattos and blacks, and mulattos against blacks -- and these distinctions aren't always perfectly visible, because they have to do with class as well, and because in a mixed family, people come out different colors, so, etc. But that's just some stuff I've learned, I'm not a Haiti expert.

Clampett said...

I always enjoy your analysis, Changeseeker.

"There is no need to abandon group identity. Each of us belongs to many groups and group identity is short hand (a code) for understanding another individual’s experience, reality, and/or self-determined claim. The difficulty has never been “difference” per se. The difficulty is the fact that we declare difference and then socially impose an entirely arbitrary hierarchy on it (men over women, “White” people over people of color, etc.). Then, those who find themselves privileged by this hierarchy begin to imagine that they are indeed better than those “beneath” them on the ladder. And therein lies the problem."

Well said.

On the wild tangent of American attitudes towards Muslims, see this disturbingly revealing poll:

http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002984956

Changeseeker said...

Mary: What we must always remember about the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" is that it was created in the first place by "White" folks. If we keep this in mind, then it's much easier to grasp that Haiti, Brazil, Guyana, etc., etc., etc., (all of which were colonies) developed their "colorism" under the forceful tutelege of their respective colonial powers. And since no one now living was born before this occurred, even the populations in question perceive the hierarchy as "natural."

As for becoming blind to color, I would remind you that there's nothing wrong with differences that make us all so beautiful. In fact, can you imagine wanting to become blind to the differences in flowers?

PZ: I totally agree with your 2 cents, of course. But where Haiti is concerned, my understanding is that its classism developed directly out of the island's colonial period, that the more French you were (the closer to the oppressor), the more likely you would be to be lighter, as well as richer. All driven by colonialization (again). At least that's what I was told by Haitian friends. I was planning to go this year before things got so dangerous there.

clampett: That article on the poll is quite disheartening, though hardly a surprise. Interestingly enough however, a survey using the Bogardus scale (the one they used for the article) a decade or so ago found that European-Americans liked African-Americans even less than people from some country we had just opposed in a war...! I'd be interested to see the study in the article broken down by race, so we could tell if "White" folks are more likely to feel antagonistic to Muslims than African-Americans do.

glenda said...

I am what we call Heinz 57. So many different ethnic backgrounds mixed together that I have no one ethnic identity. Great post.
By the way, we are putting on a 1 day diversity conference in March.

Changeseeker said...

Glenda: in Texas, right?