Cos (cos) wrote,

Response to a testy comment

Over on aroraborealis's annual anonymous crush/confession post, this comment...

I confess that I spend more time than I wish angry that so many of the people I'm close to are white and that comparatively few of them spend any time thinking about white privilege--or any privilege. I think a majority of my community fail to examine the privilege that they live steeped in. Worse than that, a lot of them consider themselves oppressed because they are geeks. I know my anger is mine to deal with, but I really think others could help by owning their privilege more often and more vocally.

... got this response (among many others):

This is going to sound horribly argumentative, but i'm going to say it anyway.

why should i? if i'm living my life purposefully, and treating people right, why should i spend my precious time and energy thinking about a mental construct dreamed up by people who have significant negative energy invested in trying to make me feel like an asshole and a prejudiced jerk -- just because i happened to be born white?

i understand that there *is* white privilege, but instead of spending my days angsting about it and perpetually apologizing to every non-white person i meet, how about i get on with the business of living my life purposefully and treating people humanely and well?

There were several responses, some snarky, some reasonably attempting to make a point, none of which seemed to get through to that commenter. I tried to think about what this commenter's actual question, hidden under the aggression, was. When I thought I saw the question, to which I had an answer, I noticed that the answer I had in mind had not been given in any other comment. So I wondered, what if I ignored the snappishness and aggression in that comment, and just tried to answer the question, on the assumption that it was a real question and I had a real answer and it was perfectly understandable that this person had not yet thought of or come across this answer, and that didn't make them stupid.

So I wrote this response:

>> just because i happened to be born white?

Just because you happened to be born white - which was not your choice, just your luck - you were given some extra power over others around here, even though you didn't ask for it. What you were not given, simply for being born white, is an awareness of what this power is, how it works, and all the different ways and places that you might see it. If you never expend mental energy trying to learn about it, it's invisible, and even if you do put some of your time and thought into learning about it, some of it will still be invisible or hard to see.

So, just because you happened to be born white - which was not your choice - you may innocently, accidentally, yet frequently, throw this power around in ways that hurt other people who you never intended to hurt. And you won't know it.

This has nothing to do with whether you're an asshole or not, or feel like one. It has little to do with how prejudiced you are or aren't. And it's not merely a "mental construct", it's part of the real world - though if you think of it as merely a "mental construct dreamed up by ..." that implies that you don't see it acting in the real world, and throwing obstacles in other people's way, and hurting people. Not seeing it doesn't make you a prejudiced jerk, and that's beside the point - it's still real and your not seeing it is still a problem, even if you have no bad intent.

One thing you *can* do is try to learn more about it, because the more you know about your own privilege, the more likely you are to avoid throwing your power (yes, yes, you didn't ask for that power, and it's not your fault you have it) around in ways that obstruct or hurt people without intending to. Often at no cost at all to yourself. Sometimes at a small cost to yourself - but enough of a cost that you'd never have changed the way you do something if you didn't know there was a possible cost to someone else from you not changing it.

Another thing you *can* do is realize that since you can't actually give up your privilege even if you learn a lot about it, and giving it up may not be the right thing to do even if it were possible, and that even if you learn about it you still can't always see it and still will occasionally hurt or obstruct people unintentionally in ways that you wouldn't have done if you weren't white... realizing all that, you can decide that you actually do have a responsibility to spend *some* of your money or time or words doing things to counteract all of that. That it's not about feeling angry or guilty or like an asshole, but simply an awareness that while you can't be perfect, you can balance things out in the positive direction.

>> if i'm living my life purposefully, and treating people right

How are you to know how to treat people right, or whether you are treating people right, if you don't want to learn about how you fit into society and how your influence and power affects the people around you? Everyone has some - some have more, some have less - and you can't just blithely assume that what you believe constitutes "treating people right" is actually right, or actually has the effects you think it has and no effects you don't think it has.

Each of us can always stand to learn some more about this, and that doesn't make us bad people.

>> i understand that there *is* white privilege

... but the rest of what you said suggests that you don't know much about what it is or how it works, though perhaps you think you have the general idea (and if so, it appears to be mistaken).

>> how about i get on with the business of living my life purposefully and treating people humanely and well?

Yup! Paying attention to privilege will help you do better at exactly that.

I got several positive responses which made me feel good. This one was what I had most hoped for, yet not really expected, that made me really glad I wrote it:

OC here -- I'd like to thank you for giving a thoughtful breakdown of what many other commenters on this thread seemed to take for granted. I'm not normally as snappish as some of my replies to others might suggest, but since my original comment was snappish I can see why they'd choose to respond that way.

Even though white privilege was the topic of the comment, I can also see 'male privilege', 'wealth privilege', 'dominant-religion privilege', 'body-size privilege', and 'mentally-healthy privilege' operating on society as well. There's a congruency here that makes it easier to think about all sides of privilege, because few people are privileged on all fronts.

What I'm hearing is that it boils down to: Privilege bestows power. Power can be used to hurt, if it is not used responsibly. Part of using power responsibly involves acquainting oneself with the unintended consequences of exercising power. Or to put it another way: With great power comes great responsibility. :)

I'd be interested to know who you are. You are extraordinarily good at neutral-yet-thorough explanations.

Tags: essay, other
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