Show me the color of your right hand, pt II

6 07 2015

I didn’t want to be racist, and knew that whatever good anti-racist politics I might hold, if every black person I saw was every black person, I was a racist.


So I figured I needed to get over that, and looked for apartments in, if not wholly black neighborhoods (as in North Minneapolis), then in neighborhoods where black people lived, which at the time included the area around Stevens Square. I took the bus with black people, shopped at stores where black people shopped, hung out in the park where black people hung out, and if I was still the (self-conscious) observer, I was, at least, beginning to see that one black person was not every black person.

It was also at some point in graduate school that I became interested in my own ethnic background, or at least the Irish part of it. I’m more German than Irish, along with Scandinavian, French, and, Polish, but in the 1990s I lay claim to Ireland. It was, I knew, a bit of a pose: I’d been Irish all along, but that had never mattered, and there was nothing particularly Irish about my upbringing, but I loved the Pogues and read Kate O’Brien and scoffed at green beer with the best of them. It was something I chose.

I was Irish. But white? No, that still didn’t make sense, and not in a how-the-Irish-became-white kind of way. It was something I recognized as a social reality—that people would look at me and see a white woman—but I didn’t feel “white”, didn’t know what it meant to be white.

A word about white privilege: I don’t much like the term, not least because it seems to personalize the issue too much, to customize the yawning fabric of white supremacy into a bespoke suit of advantage. It’s not that white privilege isn’t real, but that it isn’t the point: it’s just the final, small echo from the deep, deep well of white supremacy.

White privilege is the erasure of white supremacy, a forgetting that white, too, is a race. To call it a privilege to forget is cast this privilege in the most ironic of shadings: to use the term earnestly, piously, rather than sardonically, savagely, is just another way to dodge one’s own race—to look at the privilege, rather than the whiteness.

What does it mean to be white? What does it mean for me to be white? Again, I can look at social constructions and systems and structures of oppression, but do I know who and how I am as a white woman?

I prefer to talk about ethnicity, these days about how I’m mostly Irish and German, but that, too, is a dodge. I know I’m white, but don’t know I’m white. I see the history of whiteness in the US as a history of negation—this is what we are not—built around qualities and characteristics and people that those who are white are not. It’s not just that, of course, but if I reject the ‘positive’ characterization of whiteness, which is to say, white supremacy, then I don’t know that whiteness has any meaning at all.

I’m not sure about any of this. It seems that I’ve concluded that whiteness (in the US, at least) positively affirmed is white supremacy, that a whiteness without supremacy is a lack.  Is whiteness without blackness a thing of its own? Should it be? I don’t know what a non-supremacist whiteness would mean, that it could mean anything.

I am concerned these days with ontological matters: what does it mean to be? The question ‘what does it mean to be white’ appears as an obstacle, the whiteness obliterating the being. I don’t know if I have to answer this second question in order to get to the primary one. In contrast, I don’t feel as if I have to answer ‘what does it mean to be a woman’, that ‘a woman’ blots out the ‘to be’.

No, there is something about whiteness, a somnolent heaviness which masquerades as weightlessness, a history without a history, which interferes with my ability to make sense.

I’m a white woman, and I don’t know what that means.


Under my thumb

5 10 2013

I was going to say that I’m severely ambivalent about the use of the word “privilege” (as a marker of unexamined social status), but, y’know, I’m not.

I flat-out don’t like the term.

Oh, I get it, I get why it’s used, and I don’t disagree with the notion that being able to take certain social resources for granted is, in fact, a kind of privilege. But the term “privilege” seems both overly personal and underly political: it seems more to judge the person than the circumstances.

I don’t really have a problem with judgment—I can judge with the best of ’em—but as a diagnostic rather than a weapon. Hell, if I”m going to attack you, Imma coming at you directly, not interpretively.

Still, “privilege” gets used because it does get at something real, and because there’s not a good, pithy, substitute.

Aimai at No More Mister Nice Blog doesn’t offer a substitute, either, but does usefully break apart the concept in order to examine that part of privilege which really is personal—the desire to punish and anger at the inability to do so—and then links it all back to politics.

Much to mull, there, in terms of her? his? links to Jay Porter’s discussions of tipping and Punisher-customers, and the notion that federal workers are somehow servants who don’t know their place; I wonder if this couldn’t be linked up to the idea that private charity is better than public provision, Oh, and the meritocracy fetish. So: chewy good stuff.

Still lookin’ for a better word than privilege, though.


h/t Brad DeLong

What are words for?

6 08 2011

A few words about words:

Privilege. I have used this word, and will continue to do so in the context of “privileges and liberties” and “privileges and/versus rights” and “privileged information”.

I have also used in terms of “skin privilege”, as in I, as a white chick, have skin privilege: I don’t have to think about skin color/race because, through no effort of my own, I have, in this country, the default skin color.  There are things I don’t have to worry about because I’m white.

The term, in other words, can do some real work; unfortunately, it can also do some real damage.

What was meant at one point to lead to greater understanding now gets in the way of that understanding. It has become a term of opprobrium, an insult to be hurled at anyone who hasn’t had the worst of everything and therefore can contribute nothing to understanding anything.

It shuts people down, and, as a general matter, I don’t see the point of that.

I do see the point of trying to prod folk into critical (self-)reflection, to encourage people to be mind-ful of what in their lives was unearned and, perhaps, to then gain some perspective on what was earned. It’s not about individuals versus structures, but about individuals within structures, how individuals move structures and structures move individuals and the multivarious ontological and practical implications.

Good times.

Wielders of the privilege weapon, however, too often try to guilt the individual for the existence of the structure itself, that someone who’s rich is responsible for the class system, that the individual man is responsible for patriarchy or each straight person wholly owns heteronormativity (yet another word which should be confined to the academy), or that ablism is the fault of every person who’s able-bodied and ageism, each and every young whippersnapper out there.

How is this helpful to anyone? What role does such shaming have in creating a more thoughtful people or a more equal society?

The ends may not justify the means, but they should inform them.

Triggered/trigger-warning: This is not a term I’ve used, although I have some sympathy for those who do.

There are some topics which are known to set off intense reactions in those who read or hear them; knowing this, some people choose to offer a warning before diving into those topics. That’s a decent thing to do.

Now, perhaps I don’t do this because I’m not decent—entirely possible—or maybe it’s because I don’t know what’s going to set people off. And because I don’t know where to set the line I prefer not to set one at all.

I’m going to write what I write, and while (with some notable exceptions) I don’t intend to offend, I know I’m going to, regardless. If I worry too much about that offense, I may end up not writing, and I’d rather write and offend (and apologize, if necessary) than not-write so as to not-offend.

I don’t know if that’s better or worse than those who append a TW before a topic; it’s a choice and a preference, nothing more.

Swearing: You may have noticed I do not restrain myself in this area.

The best argument I’ve heard against swearing (thank you, Ms. G, my high school English teacher) was that it wasn’t creative (although, with all respect to Ms. G, I have heard some mighty creative curse constructions). Even that, however, was not and has not been enough to stop me from littering my blog and speech with blue words.

Now, if I give a formal presentation, I don’t swear. If I prepare an article for publication, I don’t swear. Professional situations? Ixnay on the ursecay.  I try very hard not to swear around little kids (let ’em learn these words from the older kids, the way I did), or, for that matter, around people who I know are offended by swearing—especially if I’m a guest.

But this blog ain’t a formal presentation: it’s a cyber-conversation, and in conversation, I tend to lay down the low language.

I’m not proud of this, and I periodically try to clean it up—but more for aesthetics than morality.

Goddess forbid I’d let morality get in the way of my rampages. . . .