White Privilege and Reproductive Rights Conversations

24 Oct

So, here’s the deal: I’m a white, (newly) 27 year old woman. And despite my degree in African-American Literature, I had never really encountered this concept of “white privilege” until recently. The African-American narrative is spoken and written by non-whites, and also, generally written more about experiences with oppression. Which is to say that we didn’t analyze this literature using the term “white privilege,” though we certainly discussed how fucked up the system is/was, but white privilege (and correct me if I’m wrong) specifically designates whites who don’t know that they, by existing in their culture, perpetuate racism, and in fact, benefit from racism. I would submit that anyone who participated in slavery and creating or enforcing jim crow laws, etc., knew they were oppressors (though they justified it in a number of ways, like using the bible and “medicine” to prove “white superiority”). White privilege isn’t about being racist oneself, necessarily, but rather, being unaware that racism and a culture of racism informs everyday, basic decisions which skews the system in favor of whites. This is where I feel blatant racism and white privilege diverge.

This whole idea of “white privilege,” which I was vaguely aware of, but not well-informed about, really came into my universe in the media surrounding SlutWalkNYC, which I was unable to attend due to a wedding. I’m assuming that most of you reading the blog are familiar with the pictures and the sign that inspired the conversation, but the gist, for those of you who are not aware, is that a white chick thought that it was totally appropriate to make and carry a sign that said “Women are the n***** of the world – Yoko Ono.” Many, many photos were taken of this woman and her sign (which was passed around a lot, for some reason) before SlutWalk organizers requested that she take it down. And thus, the discussion of the racism contained within our movement was struck up, centering on the concept of white privilege.

I’m prefacing my post not as an expert on racism in repro-rights, nor as an expert on the framework for this conversation, but rather as someone who is opening her eyes to this facet of the movement. Imma be honest: as a white chick, I don’t experience racism in my reproductive choices. I experience sexism, paternalism, bat-shit-crazy-religiousity, and in-your-face-anti-choice-conservatism, but not racism. It’s a totally new idea to me, that simply by participating in our society, I’m perpetuating racism. And I am at a loss.

I’ve been reading up on this idea so that I could be somewhat informed about it, and I ran across the concept (which some have “debunked”) of “white guilt,” in which, whites, upon being confronted with this societal reality (particularly when the idea is presented to them by a non-white), seek acceptance and forgiveness from the non-whites around them, and either a) use the same acceptance/forgiveness to cop-out on creating change or b) become so mired in their guilt that they do not seek to make changes, but rather to make “amends” for their participation in racism. And the “solution” to white guilt/white privilege seems to be simple acknowledgement and awareness.

I’m going to make the argument that being aware of white privilege is in no way a solution. So yes, now I am aware that this privilege exists for me. So what? What can I do to actively participate in shifting power to non-whites? Because ultimately, I’m a white chick, and there isn’t anything I can do about being white. I am not a minority and I do not have minority experiences. I speak a vernacular that has been instilled in our predominantly Indo-European-cultured society since America was colonized. I don’t have another language to work with, and “awareness” doesn’t help to teach me. I keep reading the argument that women of color bear the burden of educating whites about their privilege, and that because they have to constantly re-educate whites, that they are being held down by this. Maybe you all will think that I’m dumb or ignorant, but since I grew up with my privilege as my norm, I struggled to see how my experience was privileged. I think this is a human condition, not unique to whites. And we all bear the burden of educating others about oppression and privilege. Are we not all (females, woman-identified, trans men, trans women, etc) struggling for the right to control our bodies, bearing the burden of educating others about our struggles, movements, choices, etc.?

The other thing I’m learning from this SlutWalkNYC experience is that conversations (or “committees,” as I satirically refer to these types of conversations) don’t, in and of themselves, create change. There needs to be action. So what actions are we taking? What actions can effectively be taken? I don’t really know what these things look like.

The closest I’ve come to finding concrete advice is this blog post. An excerpt from the author, Aura Blogando, does a better job summarizing than I ever could:

“As Trymaine Lee has reported, black, poor and transgender women are being disproportionately and systematically branded as criminal “sex offenders” on an online database for engaging in ‘survival sex’ in New Orleans. Under the cover of an obscure, slave-era legal term called “crimes against nature,” police officers target those who engage in oral or anal sex-for-money. Those targeted for a second time are charged as felons (vaginal sex-for-money, meanwhile, is considered misdemeanor prostitution). 40 percent of those who appear on the sexual predator database are there because they were accused of committing a ‘crime against nature;’ more than 80 percent of those are black women.”

The above excerpt offers an example of something specific to combat; some way that I can help shift the power of privilege. And this is, frankly, eye-opening to me. I have been in my world of privilege, blindly doing the best I could. It seems shameful that I didn’t know about this before, but I am not going to apologize for existing as the person that I am, or my experiences thus far. And I realize that this post probably sounds, at best, completely naive, and at worst, completely ignorant, but I only have the power to change my future experiences.

So, in summary, I am asking not for forgiveness for my complete ignorance of this concept before the age of 27, nor of my undeniable benefit from said privilege. Instead, I am asking for those more experienced with this than me to teach me and to help me participate in change.

16 Responses to “White Privilege and Reproductive Rights Conversations”

  1. Kelly October 24, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    “Instead, I am asking for those more experienced with this than me to teach me and to help me participate in change”

    um…examining white privilege: you’re doing it wrong.

    It is not other peoples’ job to teach you. it is your job to teach yourself.

  2. Christie October 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Thanks, Kelly. That’s helpful. I’m trying to do that, but talking to someone who is more experienced with this than me is probably more helpful than bitchy responses to my post.

  3. Kelly October 24, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    posting an entire piece on white privilege and then putting it on someone else to teach you is simply crazy talk. Come on now. It deserved a snarky response.

  4. Christie October 24, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    I’m asking for a dialogue. I clearly did a little research about it, and I’m asking for experts on white privilege to help direct me to other resources. I found an example of how a discussion about privilege can be meaningful to someone coming from the perspective of privilege instead of the drivel that you’re insisting on posting. I didn’t put it on someone else to teach me, but rather to help me learn.

    “And we all bear the burden of educating others about oppression and privilege. Are we not all (females, woman-identified, trans men, trans women, etc) struggling for the right to control our bodies, bearing the burden of educating others about our struggles, movements, choices, etc.?”

    But maybe I am wrong about our responsibility to educate others about our movement too.

  5. Jenn October 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    I think it’s obvious that Christie is not expecting people to teach her everything in the world. She’s not being lazy and saying, “OK, it’s on you.” She’s saying I recognize I don’t know enough about this, where do I start. She is actively trying to teach herself, but is asking for some scaffolding. Which is commendable, not something to be attacked.

  6. Jennifer D. October 24, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

    It may be reasonable to ask, but it’s equally reasonable – it should be expected – for women of color to push back. Christie herself has recognized within her post that it’s not the responsibility of women of color to hold the hands of those who have the luxury of ignorance of their privilege. Her desire to address these issues is commendable, but her approach – and hostility in the comments – is misguided.

  7. Steph October 25, 2011 at 7:16 am #

    Flawed as parts of Christie’s argument may be, I do think it takes guts (ovaries?) to wrestle publicly with these issues and recognize your own failings. I’m not sure I could do it without getting a bit defensive too.

  8. Jennifer D. October 25, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Absolutely. And, just like yesterday on Twitter, I commend Christie for asking the question in this forum in the first place – many women in our movement would not take that step. I do not, however, think it makes sense to become defensive when women of color actually answer the question. What’s the point of putting it out there if you don’t want my reaction as a woman of color involved in the reproductive justice movement?

    It’s a bizarre defense, really, on everyone’s part. “Well, at least she KNOWS she’s privileged.” Do you get credit just for the realization? Nah. White privilege is insipid like that – you usually don’t realize you have it in the same way that it’s obvious you are engaging in outright racist behavior, like carrying around a Slutwalk sign with the n-word on it is, until someone points it out to you (not that one form of racism is “better” than the other, as the argument comes through a bit in the original post, since they have the same effect of putting people of color at a disadvantage). That’s how it works. The fact that Christie has lived 27 years without recognizing her privilege IS actually privilege. Though it’s a revelation to her as an educated, 20-something white woman, it’s not new to me. You don’t get points for recognizing it exists, you don’t get points for suggesting that it “empowers” black women who help you figure it out, and you don’t get points for becoming defensive when people point out the fact that even asking the question in a certain way is insulting.

    As a movement, I think we can all agree that we should be past this lame acknowledgment stage. I know Christie agrees that it’s time for action – that’s the point of her post. That’s what concerns me most, and I’m simply suggesting she should rethink the way she is going about it.

    I answered Christie’s question the way I did on Twitter not because I’m mean or hostile – but because it’s the way I feel, and I care about the movement enough to let people know that. My goal is always to edify, and not to tear people down, real talk.

  9. natasha October 25, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    I agree that Christie shouldn’t have gotten snippy when she didn’t get the answer she wanted. It’s not the right attitude with which to approach learning, particularly not in cases where you’re learning about how you’ve been participating in oppression. It’s exactly the kind of reaction that makes explaining sexism to guys so irritating & why much of the time they really need to go look up a book or a website and just read up for a while.

    On the other hand, individuals aren’t synonymous with movements. The movement should perhaps have moved beyond the stage of white people admitting that we have a problem, but that doesn’t translate into individual white people simultaneously having the benefit of everyone else’s cumulative dialogue. Between now and the hopeful end goal of having a non-racist society, expansion of anti-racism will by definition feature an incoming stream of people who are still at the 101 level and will need some things explained.

    But to go back to the parallel with sexism, I can totally see being ticked off to show up at a feminist blog and find a post there by a guy who had just suddenly come to the realization that women get the short end of the stick and that he’s been participating in it all this time. So perhaps the issue might be described as an irritation that someone at the 101 level thinks their aha! moment should get center stage in what’s essentially an advanced implementation discussion.

    Which seems to be partly what I’ve gathered the complaint is about mainstream white-dominated feminist groups, where minimal to non-existent racial awareness isn’t seen as a disqualification for advanced participation. I can see how that’s unwelcoming, all by itself & just for a start.

    But there are still some things that baffle me and I find myself reflexively inclined to just ask because I’m not sure how to find a specific answer. Case in point, I was following a recent discussion where a person of color noted that white families in the US often choose to give up their ethnic ties so that they can disappear into the overall national white identity. Which makes sense and is self-evidently true in most cases. The suggested followup was to reclaim that ethnic identity.

    My family’s been in the US for at least four generations on both sides, and on one side is predominantly German. Not entirely, but moving on… I don’t know when they stopped speaking German or passing on stories and customs from the old country and all the people I could ask are dead now. Though like a lot of other white people with German ancestry, I know that no post WWI members of my family preserved any of that. So what does it mean in that context to take up a German ethnic identity? What does it mean when there are five other ancestral ethnicities that I have just as little real connection to?

    The person I was talking with didn’t have an answer for me. One of these days, I will investigate.

    Which I only bring up to say that I recognize that there are a lot of things I don’t know, Christie, so I don’t mean to come off like I’ve got all this stuff down. You’ve gotten past believing that this is a solved problem, and what I’d suggest is a) searching online through Google and perhaps Amazon for likely books to read, as well as b) finding blog spaces where these issues are discussed in a feminist or womanist context, and c) just soaking in the conversations and ideas for a while.

    Doesn’t need to be a ton of stuff at once, but there’s a lot out there and it’s not too hard to find.

  10. Jennifer D. October 26, 2011 at 9:54 am #

    Natasha, I like your point about movement vs. individuals. You’re right.

    Part of me does want to raise whether or not one is more tolerable – for example, would I be comfortable in a work environment where colleagues occasionally made racist remarks, but the overall organization had an inclusive/progressive mission? I think a movement can purport to be forward-thinking and respectful, but if my interactions tend to be with the “101 level” folks, or the few who couldn’t give a shit less about these issues, it’s not exactly where I want to be (double true if those few happen to be in leadership positions). The reverse scenario is equally problematic -I think a lot of us know what it’s like to be in an environment where a few people are really great, but the overall work just isn’t a good fit. Both situations can affect your ability to fully engage in and enjoy the work you’re doing.

    I also think that spaces like this one walk a fine individual/movement line. Folks who run these sites – movement leaders – are balancing the responsibility of creating a safe space for individuals to express ideas, to learn, and to engage with like-minded people while also having the goal of showing the flag, being young, pro-choice thought leaders, and organizing folks. But I think there are some complicated instances when you can’t have it both ways – you can’t be the go-to voice for the younger generation of pro-choice activists, and also dismiss what I feel is a problematic post as just the flawed thoughts of an individual.

    I also appreciate your breakdown of the conversation thus far. I see my comments as less of a critique of the initial post, or a reaction to the snippy tone, and more of an actual answer to Christie’s request. She bravely asked if we would help her figure out how to not exert her privilege. I answered her question: no. And, because I’m not necessarily interested in being hostile or mean, I’ve given many reasons for that answer, which hopefully will help folks better understand these dynamics within the movement, at least from where I sit (a. It’s not my job to do so, and I’m tired of playing that role; b. It’s not that hard to NOT oppress people; etc.).

  11. Christie October 26, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    Jennifer, your points are well taken, but I would also like to point out that you are judging me as a whole person based on one post that you read about me one time. Am I truly an oppressive person to people of color? I would submit that I’m not, and I think that it’s important for those at the “101” level (a derisive term, if you think about it) to have a safe place to learn and grow. And I get that you are tired of teaching, but no where in my post did I actually ask WoC to be solely responsible for helping to educate me. All I wanted was for someone, white or of color, to send me something that they feel is a GOOD source to start with.

    I am lucky enough to work in an academic realm, so I know better than most how much garbage gets published in the guise of educational literature. I was asking for someone, ANYONE, to say “You know what, this is a great piece and you can get a great foundation here.” That’s it. And I wasn’t asking you for that, necessarily. I appreciate your answer. I get it.

  12. Jennifer D. October 26, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    I’m sorry you feel judged – that wasn’t my intent. I don’t feel that I know anything about you personally based on a single post. I also don’t mean to imply that you are an “oppressor,” but I’m sorry if my language is confusing in that way. I just mean that the oppression of people of color is generally the result of privilege and racism.

    I do think that a large proportion of people who understand privilege and how it can be a tool of oppression are women of color. So, yeah, I’m generalizing, but not assuming that others aren’t willing to help you (including WoC other than me).

  13. Amz October 27, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    There’s a piece at Tiger Beatdown called “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” That’s a good place to start, because it will probably make you uncomfortable, and I’ve found when I’m in those places myself I tend to learn the most. 😉

  14. natasha October 28, 2011 at 3:51 am #

    Jennifer: Total agreement about the need to work in a space where both the mission and individual interactions need to be a good fit for doing work that’s fulfilling. Hard to find, but worth looking for in every respect.

    Also entirely valid to get burnt out on playing a certain role and decide to do other things. & I don’t think it hurts the movement to be honest about it. For all the people lost to burnout, how many more do we lose because they saw everyone else’s brave face and thought there was something wrong with them? If it’s one, it’s too many.

    Christie: Just want to respond to one thing you said, because I didn’t mean it that way; the 101 term.

    You admit in your post that you don’t understand this issue and are new to it. Then you say that the term 101 is derisive, when to me, it’s not only synonymous with the term beginner, it implies that someone is taking a deliberate action to participate in their own elevation of understanding.

    There’s a Buddhist practice term for a state of openness to new knowledge, aptly termed beginner’s mind. That’s not my faith, but it encompasses so much of what can go awry in a person’s mind from eager young learner to old dog that can’t be taught new tricks.

    Beginner’s mind is a statement that this is a choice we make. We can choose to be a beginner when confronted with new knowledge. Though that means more than recognizing a lack of knowledge, and extends to the recognition that changing our state requires a willingness to experience being bad at something, being wrong and making mistakes. It becomes easier as we acquire more skills and control of our lives to stick to topics and situations where we feel comfortable and competent, and to no one’s very great surprise, we often prefer to avoid feeling like a beginner again. But this desire for mental comfort is incompatible with being a competent beginner; someone who owns responsibility for their learning and expects to feel ignorant rather than seeking offense when they have to face feeling that way.

  15. placenta sandwich November 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    Jennifer and Natasha’s dialogue here is making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside about the prospect for meaningful conversation, including hashing out the finer points, in a no-nonsense yet *generous* way that leaves defensiveness at the door.

    All that to say, those were some really good points y’all made, PLUS I hope to speak like that all the time someday. We all have times when we’re short on comfort, and as a result pushback pings our ego instead of our humility.

    Christie, I’m not sure if you’ve ever encountered the concept of “male privilege,” but there are plenty of parallels there. Anyway, here are some reading suggestions that are by no means exhaustive:
    -“The Invisible Knapsack” is an explanation of the privilege concept
    -I love the blog Racialicious
    -Colorlines is also really good
    -Sociological Images isn’t particularly focused on race but it comes up very often in their explorations
    -Echidne of the Snakes
    -The Unapologetic Mexican is a blog that will get you right in the thick of things quickly
    -“This Bridge Called My Back” is a classic work about Latina, Hispanic and Chicana women
    -Tim Wise has a website and several books; he’s a white man doing anti-racism work, and I think taking up that role is important if we’re serious about not expecting people of color to educate white people about racism and privilege, BUT on the other hand it’s also important not to let people like Wise become, like, the White Folks’ Guide To What People Of Color Want.

    There’s so much more, of course, but this is just somewhere to start and you can link-surf to your heart’s content!

  16. Alex March 21, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Well I wish you white people would start to realise it becuase you are making life miserable for the rest of us. I suffer every day from white privilege at work; white people treating me like I am a skivvy. Giving me the most mundane jobs which they could easily do themselves. I have pointed it out to individuals how debilitating it is to be treated this way but they don’t seem to understand. I have seen other black people have massive of time off work because of the way they are treated. It is costing money but still nobody wants to confront it. When I have complained about doing something, the white people just complain to the company (which is probably one of the biggest public sector employer in the UK) and I am then told by my supervisor that I must obey them. It’s getting worse every year because white people are just defensive if anyone tries to point it out to them.

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