Thursday, 18 April 2013

Racism: With Privilege Comes Responsibility

by Lottie Kent

          Recently, I have come into contact with and collated various forms of media that, cumulatively, have formed the impetus for this article. I was provoked to write it after coming across a multitude of YouTube videos, newspaper articles, blog posts, quotes and art forms – all focusing on the subject I have chosen to dissect: racism – or more precisely, the issue of white privilege.

          Racism – and rightly so – is not necessarily a neglected issue in today’s society and white people are mostly taught (again, rightly so) that racism is something that puts others at a disadvantage. However, what we are not taught about is the concomitant problem of white privilege – the aspect of a racist society that gives white people, like myself, an unearned advantage over people of colour. White people are taught that racism exists purely in the conscious acts of prejudiced individuals – something that is implemented through active malicious behaviours, such as verbal or physical abuse. This teaching makes us see racism as a discriminatory force achievable by any person of any race. By capitalising on this idea that a person can only be racist if they act racist, we are ignoring the fact that racism is actually a system of power and privilege. Individuals belonging to a dominant racial group (in this case, White people) cannot and should not be separated from the system of advantage based on race that they benefit from every day, whether this benefit is unbeknown to them or not. 

          Once we start to notice, however, this unspoken privilege from which we unjustifiably profit, we become accountable for a sin of omission: we are allowing our own privilege to continue and not speaking out for the people of colour that suffer because of our systemic negligence. We begin to notice how our society discreetly perpetuates racial stereotypes, how it allows the dichotomy of superior/inferior between white and minority races to continue, how unjust this culture is. As in law, so in ethics, ignorance is no defence. This initial realisation of culpability usually manifests itself in outward denial.

           This is how I felt watching ‘The Event: How Racist Are You?’

The program was a Channel 4 documentary that we saw during one of our first Cogito lessons in Year 10. I’m ashamed to say that it was most likely the first time I had properly confronted issues of white supremacy in such a patent way. In the programme, Jane Elliot, who was a white schoolteacher at the time of the Civil Rights movement in America, recreates the same experiment she carried out forty years ago on her nine-year-old pupils to teach them about racism. Thirty adult Britons undergo a simulation akin to Apartheid, experiencing discrimination based on eye-colour in order to show them how it feels to be on the receiving end of arbitrary prejudice. In her exercise, those with brown eyes are always the dominant group and those with blue eyes are made to feel inferior. All of the blue-eyed group are white. I remember watching it and feeling angered that Elliot had precluded the ‘fact’ that some of the white people in the group might not have been at all racist, but was treating them as though they were automatically guilty of this. Though I understood her purpose, I felt it was unnecessary bullying and couldn’t see that the experiment was valuable or relevant.

 I re-watched the video yesterday. I completely agreed that her method was, and is, entirely constructive and significant. Though the effectiveness of the exercise might be measured by the positive impact and the cultural lessons it imparted on the white participants, I personally found it to be an intense and incredibly educational practice. Understanding the effects of discrimination is an experience we should all undergo in order to best empathise with those who must endure it throughout their lives – so we can work for a better society for all.

My views changed greatly and rapidly after watching the program. This growth and understanding is a process that I can liken to ‘Helm’s White Racial Identity Development Model: Abandonment of racism and developing a non-racist identity.’ In this template, the initial stage is identified as ‘contact.’ A person in this status is ‘oblivious to racism, lacks an understanding of racism, has minimal experiences with black people, and may profess to be colour-blind.’ Furthermore, he or she would consider racial and cultural differences ‘unimportant’ and ‘seldom perceive themselves as “dominant” group members, or having biases or prejudices.’ This is how most White people will grow up.

The subsequent five stages are identified as: disintegration, re-integration, pseudo-independence, immersion/emersion and autonomy. Stages five and six involve searching ‘for an understanding of the personal meaning of racism and the ways by which one benefits from white privilege’ and ‘acceptance of one’s own role in perpetuating racism’ with a ‘renewed determination to abandon white entitlement.’ I would, as an individual, place myself somewhere in these two latter statuses. I still, however, feel guilty for my privilege and I know I have yet to grow and learn more about cultural and ethnic diversity. I try to be conscious of my advantage over others by reminding myself of an article by Peggy McIntosh, who sees white privilege as an ‘invisible weightless knapsack’ containing ‘unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day.’ She explicitly lists the daily effects that her ‘knapsack’ has on her own life. For example:

'I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.’
'I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.’
'I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.’
'I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.’

“As the grandmother of a half black (African) half white little boy, I am now very much aware of this now and slowly feeling my way. How can I use my white privilege to stand up against bigotry without offending the very people I want to stand up for?”

The video itself shows Joy DeGruy, an African-American woman, describing an example of experiential racism that she underwent on a trip to the grocery store. In the end, after obvious mistreatment by a cashier because of Joy’s race, her mixed race sister-in-law, Kathleen (whom Joy describes as ‘looking white’) makes a stand. She pointedly asks the cashier why she had treated herself [Kathleen] and Joy differently – an action that influences all of the other people in the store to see the racial prejudice acting against Joy and stand up for her as well. At the end of the video, DeGruy says:

But what would have happened – I can’t know for certain – had the Black woman said: “this is unfair. Why are you doing this to me?” Would it have had the same impact? But Kathleen knew that she walked through the world differently than I did, and she used her white privilege to educate and make right a situation that was wrong.’

It is from Joy DeGruy that I have learnt my most significant lesson thus far about racial dynamics and my own white privilege. It is important to stand up to other white people when they speak or act in discriminatory ways and not leave it to people from Minority to groups to do so. To quote DeGruy herself: “That’s what you can do. Every single day.”

See also: Martin Luther King's Letter From Birmingham Jail: Fifty Years On

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