Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Everyone is Racist in a Racist Society

Due to some misunderstandings people have had about what I mean in this post, I want to clarify that when I use the word "racist" I am not talking about individual people's racial prejudices. I am using the word "racist" to describe the inequities in our society surrounding race. (None of this means I think white people are bad or need to apologize.) If you don't agree with me then that's fine. A lot of people don't. But instead of getting defensive or arguing semantics try to understand the underlining message I am making. (And to counter my argument you need to prove that there are no racial inequalities on a systematic level in which white people profit on the whole. Just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn't mean I don't make a valid point.)

As some of you know, there was a pretty ugly debate about what privilege is and whether or not it should even be talked about. There were so many other great responses written that I decided not to post on the subject (“beating a dead horse” as they say). I was also way too angry to even begin. Like with the “every man is a potential rapist” hoopla, I found myself getting too emotionally invested in the argument and getting quite drained afterwards. How people deal with commenters arguing every single point they post I have no idea.

The thing is, I feel like this whole conversation is based on a general lack of information by the side claiming privilege is bullshit. I know this is not a surprising thing to say when one is having an argument, but I truly believe it in this situation. There were just so many faulty criticisms about the concept of privilege and an almost appalling amount of misunderstandings regarding the entire premise of privilege. The entire argument furthered my belief that a Race, Class and Gender psychology class should be a college requirement. I really think it would make a huge difference in the way people look at things (because even the people who didn’t become flaming liberals by the end of the semester still made significant strides in my class).

I’m getting off track; my point is that there is one glaringly obvious incorrect claim a few people keep making that really bothers me whenever this argument arises. I don’t want to get into the whole argument again (because really what difference will it ever make?), but I want to point out the reason why the concept of privilege is relevant to everyone and not just the sexist or racist in our society.

The main problem with this claim is that it narrows the discussion to only individual acts of blatant racism while ignoring systematic racism. We cannot have an open discussion about racism (or any “ism”) if we only look at individual acts or people. It is not encompassing enough and is therefore disingenuous. When will the issue of whites earning more than blacks ever be brought up? It won’t. When will the system that puts black men in prisons at an extraordinary rate for drug offenses, even though five times as many whites than blacks are drug users ever be questioned? The answer is never. We must move past an individual focus in order to look at the whole otherwise the conversation is pointless.

Racism is not just some jackass in a white hood, but also a system of advantage based on race. I touched on this the other day and here is the point I’m trying to reiterate:

Racism is a system of inequality in which one race dominates over another race (or races) in order to benefit from it. The reason people are uncomfortable with this definition is because it basically means that all white people benefit from a racist system. This is not the same thing as saying all white people are racists or all white people are bad people. It just means that if you’re white, you are probably going to make more money at your job then someone who is equally qualified but black. Because of gender inequality, it also means that a white man will earn more than a white woman. (And that unearned benefit is part of what makes up that white person’s privilege.) Racism is not just something that puts some people at a disadvantage, but also puts some people at an advantage.
The best way I’ve ever heard of looking at systematic racism in America is the moving sidewalk analogy by Beverly Tatum:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt - unless they are actively anti-racist - they will find themselves carried along with the others.”
Now I simply don’t understand how people don’t understand this. When someone talks about privilege, they are talking about the conveyor belt itself. If you’re white, in America, then you benefit from the direction the conveyor belt is moving and therefore gain the privilege of the conveyor belt. This works for a bunch of different things in our society as well (gender, sexual orientation, religion, income, education, etc.) And, just in case you’re sensitive and think I’m being a big meanie, I want to point out that having that privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. But denying you have that privilege doesn’t exactly make you a hero either.

Now, there are obviously some disadvantages to looking at the situation as a whole. The claim the other side usually brings up, along with the one I mentioned above, is the idea that privilege is too generalized. They feel as though all their accomplishments or hardships are ignored in the light of privilege and this is a very valid concern. No one wants to feel like the two jobs they worked while going to school and raising a family means nothing since they’re white or male (or god forbid both). The problem with this thinking, besides a general misunderstanding of privilege, is the fact the claim is once again narrowing the conversation. See how both these ideas go hand in hand? People need to realize that when we talk about privilege we are not talking about you specifically (unless someone calls you out on your privilege but I’ll get to that).

The truth is if you are white you are going to earn more money at your job generally (and more likely to have a job). Privilege doesn't deny that maybe you won’t. Maybe you won’t fit into the statistics all nice and neat and you had to bust your ass to earn your wages. Fine. I acknowledge your effort (is that what people have been waiting to hear?). But that doesn’t change the fact that generally, just being white will be all the edge you need when compared to someone of equal qualifications but with a different skin color. (Gender is another huge issue in the workplace as well as economic background which doesn’t seem to get as much attention.) And if you don't make more money, then you are still very unlikely to have to wonder whether your race played a part in that decision (and that in and of itself is a form of privilege).

Is talking about systematic racism as a whole perfect? No. But talking about only malicious outspoken racism is ignoring the culture that nurtures that racism in the first place. (None of this means you have to apologize for being born white or male. The main premise that privilege is questioning is the idea that we have a meritocracy.) But by forcing the conversation on your specific situation you are silencing the voices of people who do make less because of their race in my opinion.

Now, one point the other side made that I actually agree with is the idea that calling someone out on their privilege is too often used as an insult. I agree with this. But at the same time, how does one point out another person’s ignorance without sounding a little snarky? Will some people call you on your privilege just because they don’t like what you’re saying? Of course (have you ever been to Shakesville?). But that doesn’t mean that they’re always in the wrong. Maybe some self reflection would be more beneficial in these cases rather then complete disregard.

I do want to acknowledge that not all people agree with the idea that racism is a system and that’s fine. Thinking of racism as a system where whites benefit is ugly and uncomfortable. It also places responsibility on the shoulders of those who benefit from that system and a lot of people don’t want that responsibility. I totally get it. But let’s not pretend that the only problem in our society is the outspoken racists as long as wage gaps and education disparities exist.

Otherwise how can we ever work on true equality? Denying privilege denies systematic racism and that hurts all of us (white people too).

Some links:
On Privilege
Why I Think the Concept of Privilege is Not “Bullshit”

White Liberals Have White Privilege Too!
White Anti-Racist
Transcending Race…A History Lesson
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
How Prejudice and Bias works
A Concise History of Black-White Relations In The USA (a cartoon)
Privilege Is Driving a Smooth Road And Not Even Knowing It


  1. Um...I work at a Subway, and my black coworker makes more then me...it kind of sucks cause we;re the same age and hes been working for like two weeks and ive been three months...so I don't think I really see the whole "privelage" thing in my area, but I get what your saying and totally agree. Anyone who thinks that racism is dead is...well, privelaged.

  2. See that’s what I mean though. This isn’t going to be accurate in every single situation, but if we only look at individual situations then we’ll never be able to see the bigger picture. (Plus, statistically whites make more then all other races on the whole.) Even if it’s not accurate in one way, that doesn’t invalidate the entire premise of privilege or mean you don’t have racial privilege in other ways (not saying that that’s what you’re claiming but I wanted to clarify for anyone who might read this…lol).

    But that does suck in your situation. I used to work at Submarina which is a lot like Subway (but we cut our meat on a slicer, like at the deli, when you order and we don’t make our own bread). I actually loved it.

  3. I thought this post was well done. Some white people I know minimize racism as a factor in our society because they don't believe themselves to be racist and can't imagine it would still exist even now. But I can tell you in my community that is about 60% caucasion, 30% latino and 10% "other," that the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of latinos tend to be the poorest neighborhoods with the highest rate of unemployment. Why is that? And this is a left leaning college town that on the surface is very much opposed to racism of any kind.

  4. This post is really, really great. I really have nothing to add. I wish that I could make my points as well as you do, because I know I have a tendency to get angry and emotional, and according to some people, I "invalidate" my argument that way. But, like you mentioned, I just get so. angry, especially when people on the other side are making inflammatory posts and personal attacks.

    I agree wholeheartedly about privilege working on a systemic level, and people personalize it too much. It's funny that the most privileged are the ones that tend to do so, though. In my comments, it was only the white males that took my post as a personal attack on THEM, when it was a general statement regarding sociological and societal mechanisms.

    I may, if I can stand to re-open the conversation, post some of this over at my blog. It's a fantastic post, Alana.

  5. Star Mama: Yes. You summed up my point perfectly. People don't want to talk about the past and I get why (since we weren't there lol), but if we're going to understand why things like housing and education disparities we don’t have a choice. Race has shaped our country in thousand of little ways that we’ve been taught to overlook and, I hate to sound so melodramatic, but I refuse to not acknowledge the very real way racism (passive and active) has hurt us in this country just because it makes people feel uncomfortable. The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know shit and everything I was taught on these issues was mostly bullshit from rich white dudes.

    Britni: You are one brave woman if you want to start up this conversation up again. I’m relatively left alone in my little bubble over here, and I don’t blame you for getting angry. Angry is good in my book though because this is a subject that should make us angry. Personal attacks are totally different though. I never commented again because the whole conversation made me too angry (plus it looked very much under control by time I got there again lol).

  6. Oh and feel free Brit. I never have a problem with it, but thanks for asking. :)

  7. This is a great post, Alana.

    I've been thinking for a couple days now about my reply to this and well, I've not been able to find a way to convey my thoughts into words that would make sense.

    And since I don't want to beat the dead horse either, I just want to say that in my post, I didn't mean malicious, outspoken, individual acts of racism and sexism. The point I was trying to make is that privilege had to start somewhere. It's not a concept that just created all on it's own. In the U.S. it's a concept that was brought about, in general, by racism and sexism. If you end those, then privilege wouldn't exist. White privilege would exist and male privilege wouldn't exist. (in my opinion, of course.)

    Today, privilege isn't as much of an all encompassing statement like it was 60-70 years ago.

    I understand that we're not going to agree on this, and that's fine. I do appreciate you taking the time to explain your point of view on the subject. I really should come here and read your blog more often.

  8. The end of the biggest paragraph should've said, "White privilege WOULDN'T exist....."

    It's called proofreading, April. DUH! =)

  9. I totally agree that racism and sexism isn’t as prevalent in our society as it was in the past. For the most part public opinion has completely shifted and is less welcoming of racist or sexist attitudes. I don’t want you to think that I don’t acknowledge that we’ve come a far way. Believe me, I know we have (I realize I wouldn’t even of had the opportunity to go to school in the past).

    But in a lot of ways we haven’t come far enough; that’s my point ultimately. Privilege is essentially the vehicle in which we can explain those places we still have to work on. And I’m not inflexible on this. If a better model comes around that explains why we don’t have reflective representation in congress or any of the hundreds of other things that I think are wrong then I’d be happy to accept it. You’re right that privilege isn’t as much of a strangle hold as it was in the past, but I reject the idea that privilege bears no responsibility for the inequalities this country has. I cannot look at history and at the numbers without coming to the conclusion I have. I just don’t see how anyone can.

    The most powerful thing privilege does is it renders itself invisible (usually by appearing to be neutral). So while you’re right that privilege comes from racist and sexist systems, most people can’t see that those systems are anything but what they’ve always been. Privilege is a means to do that. It’s a way of saying, “men make more money then women for doing equal work; unearned wages are a privilege and it’s wrong.”

    Also, blogger should really allow us to edit our comments. I have a habit of leaving out words for some reason. lol

  10. I think it's great that you're talking about this and bringing the conversation out there into the blogosphere- but at times, it seems like the sermonizing of a psychology student rather than an open discussion.

    In fact, you could even say you have 'intellectual privilege'; in essence, you are able to fully comprehend and understand this topic in the way others can't. And because of where you live/upbringing/rank; you may have less prejudice to begin with than someone else, or less reason to feel that prejudice. If I had been mugged by four black people in the last three months, and then you come along and rant about white privileges, it isn't going to mean much to me - because my truthful life experience is that of having been attacked by a lot of black people in a very short space of time.

    And my point about intellectual privilege, is that racism or the issues surrounding it are real hot spots for most people, and they're really difficult to facilitate. And whilst you may be able to craft wonderful blog posts like this; the guy next to you may not be able to, and despite being a good person, they may really struggle to deal with their feeling around race.

    Within each privilege are other privileges, and other prejudices.

    In another post of yours, 'The greatest privilege of being white is to never have to think about one's own privilege' is a good point, and one I agree with. THAT BEING SAID, there is nothing wrong with accepting your privileges, that isn't inherently racist in itself. i.e. - I shouldn't quit my job because a black person didn't get it, or wasn't considered for it.

    But I agree with the root of what you're saying and your intentions; and I think if people were more aware of these privileges, our understanding of each other's lives would increase and make things a hell of a lot more wonderful.

  11. For some reason I'm really bothered by the word "sermonizing" (though I could just be a little oversensitive), but you're correct that this post isn't really about garnering conversation. Since most of the debate happened over at Britni's blog (and a few others), this is really just me venting about some claims that were made on the subject. I admit I have a tendency to lecture though but I can't help it (I'm like this in real life as well. It must annoy people terribly).

    I included a link to Britni's post at the bottom, but I've also put one at the beginning so that will be more clear.

    I also wouldn't say that I have "intellectual privilege" (since privilege is a concept based on systematic advantages and I don't think it applies in this case), but I agree 100% with your point. My view of privilege comes directly from my educational privilege and I totally understand how it can be difficult for people to accept the concept of privilege who haven't learned about it in an academic setting. I also agree that there is nothing wrong with having privilege. We're all privileged in some way and no one can help being privileged. It’s simply a reference to the systematic unearned privileges a person is given based on factors they can’t control (race, gender, etc). To hold one's privilege against him/her is no better then holding some one's race against them. But to deny privilege (or at least the premise of it) is to deny some pretty glaring racial inequities IMO and that's not cool.


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