Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Sexism and Revisiting White Privilege

The sexism discussion didn't mean that much to me. So much of it focused on the interpersonal issues of men and women in heterosexual relationships. Honestly, the power dynamics between individual men and women are meaningless to me. I care a hell of a lot more about the systemic sexism that has the FDA approving medication for all people after drug trials on all-male test groups. I care a hell of a lot more about the insidious sexism that has little girls starving themselves to fit an unachievable standard of beauty. I care a hell of a lot more about the institutional sexism that has 3 year old "beauty queens" prancing around with pancake make up, teased hair and sexually suggestive clothing. I care about the sexism of our society that allows the president of Harvard say that women are biologically disposed to not pursuing careers in science and math. How the married couple next door makes parenting decisions or divides household chores is irrelevent to me.

But, this issue of white privilege has been under my skin for awhile. Considering that these trainings I have done are coming from the anti-racist movemet, I see too much racism still in the presentation of the material. This morning, as I took my shower, I experienced a moment of clarity. The term "white privilege" was knocking around in my brain. I have never liked the term, but have never quite known why. Today I realized the cause of my dislike.

Language is a subtle, complicated thing. Using the term "privilege" glosses over the reality of the situation. By calling it privilege, anti-racists give White people permission to maintain the status quo. After all, privilege implies that White people have something extra, something more than the acceptable minimum. Rather than admitting that people of color do not have enough, White people talk about the extra, nice luxuries that privilege gives folks with light skin.

In reality, White people do not have the privilege of access to medical care. People of color are denied the right of medical care. White people do not have the privilege of culturally relevant education. People of color are denied the right of education. White people do not have the privilege of safe and comfortable housing. People of color are denied housing rights.

But, by calling these things privilege, White people are glossing over the reality of the systematic denial of rights faced by people of color. If we were talking about the rights that go with Whiteness, the lack of rights of people of color would be laid out on the table. The term privilege allows White anti-racists to sugar-coat their oppression of people of color into something that is more palatable to their liberal psyches.

But, the real question comes next: if we do away with the term "white privilege," what term should we replace it with? And, as a white woman, what right do I have to coin the term?


At 1:13 PM, Blogger Kwynne said...

Hey there,

I'm loving these posts and love reading your thoughts about this course you are taking. As someone who is currently on activist LOA (ha ha) and have, in the past been very engaged in anti-racist/anti-oppression work and education, these types of discussions energize me. Too bad the sleep deprivation makes it so that I can't really spend more time on this these days!

But I hear you on the term white privilege. Whenever we would have a session on this in class, or in our activist circles (especially when Ruth Frankenberg was all the rage in academia) the discussions would always fall into a session on white guilt - which did little to nothing for a real deconstruction of how this world works. After reading your thoughts, I think you've hit it - we need to address the systemic marginalizations of folks who are oppressed (and in this case folks of colour) instead of once again focusing on the benefits that white folks get. In this way we may be able to illuminate the basic human rights that are being denied to folks that should be universal.

I was always curious as to how we, as anti-oppression activists and thinkers, would address this issue of “white privilege”. Would white folks just say, “I no longer want this privilege?” How could that possibly be done and what would renouncing it achieve? Thinking about white privilege the way you have outlined it, it makes sense now how white activists could engage in this anti-oppression work – to make the marginalizations clear and not reduce ourselves to simple guilty feelings (which I have also been guilty of, when thinking about how I benefit in this world).

Also, your last post about Bigfella struck a cord with me. Although we are in some ways on opposite sides of this discussion, I also find myself thinking about my son and the realities that face him in the future - especially on how he will interact with his 2 mothers. How will my white partner engage with him when he realizes how this world has been set up - and how his mother benefits from it? I also think about my own relationship to this light skinned male child, and that his experiences of racism will be similar yet different due to things like shadeism/colorism (especially in the Caribbean). I've already had to give some folks the what for as they try to tell me how close to white he really is (he has such nice hair and such light eyes!) and when my own internalized racism flares up (i.e. isn't he such a lovely colour?) how I deal with that.

Anyhow, all this to say that I love reading and can't wait to hear your thoughts on future topics. Gosh, I'm gonna miss school. :(


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