Monday, July 15, 2013

Not Until It Touches You: Oppression, Allies, Privilege, and Personal Experience

This is going to be a long post that's hard to write.

In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, my social justice and race conscious social media networks appropriately blew up.

There were many intelligent, passionate, and thought-provoking conversations taking place. One of the facets of this complex and emotionally-charged conversation was the tension between being a white anti-racist ally and still recognizing racial privilege. Here are some of the most powerful tweets I saw on the subject:

But by far the tweet that personally impacted me the most was this one: 

Blinded by Privilege 

I grew up in a very monocultural environment. There was little racial, religious, cultural, or ethnic diversity to speak of. It was rural and isolated. News from "the city" seemed distant and dangerous. As I wrote about recently, our understanding of criminality was very different from the urban iterations of it. 

There was a time when I heard reports of racially-motivated attacks (specifically brutality from authority figures) and was dismissive of the experiences of the people who survived them. There was a time when I would have read a story like Cary Ball's, Gabriella Calhoun's, or even Trayvon Martin's and thought that there must be something more to the story. There must be some justification for this kind of violence. Those victims must have done something that isn't being told to the public. Surely they weren't just treated like that because of their race. 

I did not believe these things out of malice. I believed them out of ignorance. Having had no experience with that kind of racially-motivated brutality, I simply did not understand its existence. I heard the stories, but I had not foothold to them. 

With My Own Eyes

I remember the very moment my perspective changed. In two separate instances, I was at bars with my college boyfriend/now-husband (who is black). We were with primarily black crowds. In both instances, isolated fights broke out between two or three individuals. In both instances, the police reacted to the entire crowd as one monolithic group, mistreating and sometimes assaulting people who had nothing to do with the fight. In one incident, the police inside a club were evacuating it, telling everyone to leave. Simultaneously, the police outside of the building were trying to disperse the crowd and started using pepper spray. 

Read that again. The police inside were sending us out into a constant stream of pepper spray. Of course, this caused chaos. People outside were trying to run back inside to avoid the spray. People inside were getting shoved by the people trying to get back in. Elbows were thrown and people fell. I saw with my own eyes the police shove a handcuffed man on the ground and start kneeing him repeatedly in the back. A young woman who was just trying to get out of the stream of pepper spray bumped into a cop and was grabbed and thrown violently. There was absolutely no reason for it. As they screamed at, assaulted, and arrested people coming out of the club and onto the street, white patrons of bars next door stood and watched. 

For Police Use Only

Re-Seeing the World

Between incidents like those, conversations with people who had different backgrounds from myself, and college courses on race, class, and gender, I began to see the world differently. Once I was willing to look, there was no shortage of evidence to demonstrate that the world in general and the American criminal justice system in particular are not "post-racial." 

But I had to be willing to look. Even if I wasn't intending to, ignoring the stories and statistics of those around me with different experiences helped to perpetuate a system of white supremacy and racial oppression. By not recognizing those experiences as legitimate, I was denying the authenticity of the people who lived them. 

I thought I was being "neutral," but I wasn't. I was being blind. 

I'm Not the Only One

There have been two stories circulating lately that are pertinent to this discussion, and neither has to do with race or police brutality. 

In this clip of Dustin Hoffman talking about the film Tootsie (in which he dresses as a woman), he discusses how playing that character made him realize the unfair beauty standards that are placed on women, standards that he had never faced as a man: 

Elsewhere, a man named Kim O'Grady talks about how he didn't get a job until he put "Mr." on his resume and was suddenly much more hireable. 

Both of these men use their personal experiences to discuss a larger, societal issue. For both of these men, personal experience seems to be the key to unlocking their own understanding about a system of oppression that was always in front of them, but previously invisible. 

I've written about this before in other contexts. When some feminists criticized Ashley Judd for standing up to patriarchal standards only after she had benefited from them in her own career, I came to her defense. There, I claimed that getting hit head-on with an oppressive system is often the only way to recognize it. 

It's a trope we've seen in socially-conscious literature. It's the point of experiments like Black Like Me, a "switch places for a day" foray into social awareness that has shown up everywhere from reality TV (like Supersize Me's host Morgan Spurlock's show 30 Days) to kids' TV programs. 

We Can't Wear Every Shoe

These social experiments to get people to see the world differently are great when they work and valiant efforts. They do require, though, a willing participant. Even then, we can't wear every pair of shoes. There will be experiences in the world that are valid, lived, and real that we can never even touch. The world is too complex and too full of lives for us to understand them all on a personal level. 

So where does that leave us? 

It leaves me a little queasy. I am outraged by the Zimmerman verdict. I was also outraged by the Quvenzhane Wallis Oscar tweet fiasco. In both of these instances, I've had to ask myself some tough questions. I am the mother of a biracial daughter. I know that I would be angry about Martin's death and Wallis' mistreatment even if I were the mother of a white child or if I weren't a mother at all, but I can't be sure that I would be as angry, or angry in the same way. I am emboldened and impassioned because these issues now touch me in a way that they didn't before. My connection to my daughter has left tiny cracks in a privilege that used to shield me from such reactions. 

I worry about how many stories I am still unwilling to hear. I think that I am listening, but the real problem with privilege is that you don't have to be aware of what you don't know. 

I think that having a personal connection to someone who experiences oppression that we haven't gives us an opportunity to learn, but that's not good enough. We absolutely must make sure that we are leaving ourselves open to make those personal connections, but we won't know everyone, we won't see everything. 

How, then, do we put ourselves in places where we are able to hear the stories that we haven't lived? How do we make sure that we aren't hiding (willfully or not) behind a buffer of privilege?

I'll turn back to Dr. Jane Doe who tweeted some excellent advice on this topic yesterday:

Here Dr. Jane Doe is talking specifically about recognizing white privilege, but she could just as easily be talking about any number of privileges. Think about how your day-to-day interactions lack diversity. Think about how the media you consume does (or does not) mirror those interactions. 

We cannot walk in every pair of shoes, but we can work to make sure that we are hearing from all of the voices around us. The stories are out there. We have to listen. 

Photo: id-iom


  1. This reply is going to be way too long, but there are three points I want to touch on.

    I have seen that video of Dustin Hoffman going around, but this is the first time I watched it. That was pretty powerful. I've never seen Tootsie. I think I need to.

    "In both of these instances, I've had to ask myself some tough questions. I am the mother of a biracial daughter. I know that I would be angry about Martin's death and Wallis' mistreatment even if I were the mother of a white child or if I weren't a mother at all, but I can't be sure that I would be as angry, or angry in the same way."
    We are shaped by our experiences and it is easier to get passionate about something that affects us. I don't have kids yet, and when I do they won't be Black, but I'm still mad about the Zimmerman trial and the way Wallis was treated. I will admit, though, that I'm not as mad as you. However, I get viscerally angry at the way women and girls are treated in China. I know you agree with me that the way women here are treated is wrong, but I doubt you get as angry about those issues as I do. I also support gay rights, but I rarely get up in arms about them. I will defend them, but I don't get into screaming Facebook debates about them like I do with China issues. I don't think there is anything wrong with this. It is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting to defend your beliefs and the rights of others. We simply can't take on the weight of the world. Also, it;s OK if we just don't care about something as much as someone else. My husband totally supports my rants defending Chinese women (and women in general), but he rarely sticks his own neck out. We don't all have to jump on every bandwagon that rolls by, but we can at least support the people who do.

    "Notice the whiteness of your TV, movies, social circle. Work on that." I would say that this is also an English language privilege issue. Living in China, I am around a lot of non-white culture, but not speaking the language limits my involvement. Most of my close friends are still white because we speak the same language. The only way a Chinese person can get into my inner circle is to speak English. And how many movies and TV shows are there in English that feature non-white characters? Not that many, especially in genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and history. Even if they have people of color, they don't usually have a starring role. This is something Hollywood needs to work on so that people will have the option to support shows with people of color. It's hard to support something that doesn't exist.

  2. I think you're absolutely right that we are going to be more passionate about some topics than others and that that's okay. You're right that we can't be in every fight. We wouldn't win any of them.

    I'm cautious about putting too much of the blame for the lack of diversity in pop culture on Hollywood, though. (I also realize that as an ex-pat, your media experience is going to be different and probably more restrictive.) Hollywood exists to make money. They will change when we demand it. They will create characters that the public goes to see. Right now, they think that main characters of color and women in starring roles (that aren't love interests) are too risky because those films only draw money from a narrow band of the population. If more people supported those films, Hollywood would make more of them. It absolutely is hard to support something that doesn't exist, but we start to get into a chicken and egg argument. It doesn't exist because of the limited viewership, and there's limited viewership because it doesn't exist. (It also puts undue pressure on us to support ANYTHING that fits those standards, even if it's not as high quality as we'd like.)

    The main thing that gets to me isn't that I can't be in every fight. Even though it's sometimes difficult for me to accept that, I do intellectually know it. But to see that there are times in my past when I actively dismissed people's experiences because they didn't match mine and to know that only ended when I had a personal experience that allowed me to understand better worries me. I have no way of knowing if I'm doing the same thing to other groups right now because the major privilege of privilege is not having to know, being able to think that your experiences are the standard.

  3. I've been thinking about this all day, and I was afraid my wording was more dismissive than I meant. Obviously, it isn't just "hollywood needs to fix this." But I guess I'm confused why there seem to be fewer shows featuring minority families than there used to be. I grew up watching Living SIngle, Family Matters, and The Cosby Show. I can't name a single TV show on a major network today that features a minority family. Also, quality plays a role. I didn't watch those shows to increase my diversity. I watched them because they were good. I also watched Full House and later Friends for the same reason. There are some shows with minority characters on networks like UPN and BET, but they aren't very good and don't last. Even ABC had Deception which featured a Black female lead and romantic interest, but it just wasn't a good show. For some reason the best comedy of last year that also had the most diversity, Go On with Matthew Perry (featuring 2 Black actors, 2 Asian actors, 1 Latino actor, and 1 gay actor and a variety of diverse guest stars), was canceled. Why is this? I think that Hollywood has gotten less tolerant of people's tastes and open-mindedness over the years and I can't figure out why.

  4. I don't know, either. I don't watch a whole lot of current television shows, but I do love Scandal (which has a very diverse cast and a powerful black female lead) and the Walking Dead (which has some diversity in casting, but does a poor job of avoiding stereotypes within the script).

    I wonder if the appearance of so many streams of media, including channels specifically for minority groups (Lifetime and Oxygen for women, LOGO for the LGBTQI community, Starz Black, BET, HBO Latino) has given some of the major networks a free pass to fall back on white, straight, and traditional gender roles as a default, assuming that the "special" channels will take care of "their own," further reinforcing the otherness of those groups that made it necessary to seek outlets for representative media in the first place.

    If so, that cycle needs to be broken somewhere.