Sunday, March 11, 2012

Interpreting American Experience: Which Facts Command Your Attention?

Sometimes, a truly honest conversation can illuminate the different kinds of experiences that people are having even as they live in the same country. That is precisely what happened when I shared my frustration recently in a facebook status and a white male friend of mine took the time to express how slanted my view seemed. I reproduce the exchange here because I think we were both honest, civil, and respectful in ways that are instructive for anyone who wants to think more critically about how americans are encouraged to interpret the realities that surround us.

My facebook status on Thursday, March 8, 2012: How I WISH I were wrong more often about how much white privilege & racism rule everything around me.

I commented on my own status:
James Baldwin always makes you think: " can be unutterably exhausting to deal with people who, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one has not made. One does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. [...] One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it. [...] The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this—to face their history, to change their lives—hideously menaces this country." ("Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes").

White male friend:
Hi Koritha. I will preface this by saying I am in no way hiding from or defending “white history” (although I can easily argue that there is no such thing, but that is not for today) but given that your post is in the present, I am a bit curious. You have a fantastic job at a prestigious university, you get to study and teach your subject of choice, you own a home (and presumably were granted a loan), you are married, with equality, to a wonderful, well educated, well employed man, you can freely post your intellectual opinion on Facebook, you are a published author, you pay US income taxes, your president is multi-racial, you freely associate, interact, and socialize with people of various races. I may have some form of white ignorance here, but where in any of that are you being “ruled” by white privilege and racism? Sorry, but I don’t see anyone or anything ruling YOU!

ME: Well, I said that it rules everything *around* me. I certainly recognize that I have a good life, but I've also shared on here that I know that my successes are thanks God and to the sacrifices of my ancestors—they are not the result of this country becoming fair or free of racism, sexism and other -isms. And, my having the *privileges* that I have is exactly why it's important for me not to be silent about the injustices and double standards that I see. If I'm encountering them with all that I have going for me, then how much worse is it for other black women and members of other marginalized groups?? And, please understand that I know this country's past and present well enough to know that my success has been DESPITE everything that the nation has set up to ensure that I am NOT successful. The fact that I have the life I do is not because things are so fair but because I managed to escape—to this point, at least—all the traps that are set by a society that has designed pretty much everything to favor/advantage white male heterosexuals with middle-class backgrounds. I also very much understand my being able to speak out is a *privilege,* but again, it is one that has been HARD WON (by ancestors and others) with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. And anyone who doesn't know that blood, sweat, and tears are still being shed today (Obama or not) should consider the possibility that not knowing that is also a sign of privilege.

ME: This makes me want to share this status from Feb 10 again: It must be nice: If you're a white man and mediocre, you're treated with respect, and your BELONGING in positions of authority is never questioned. Meanwhile, I can do exceptional work and folk act like I should be grateful for their even giving me a hearing. Then, if I'm more confident than overly grateful to mere mortals, it's interpreted as arrogance. It's the American way, and it's extremely tiresome.

ME again: And this too: @ Amy, I'm touched by this. Thank you. I appreciate that you can understand my venting. Yes, it's just part of the landscape. As you might guess, I'm articulating just a small part of my frustration. I'm in a moment when things are going so well but there's always got to be some race and gender BS with it. Not only is there some general hateration, as my girl Mary J. Blige would say, but there's also the reality that—because this is the United States, which is so good at being the changing same—I get to shop for something to wear to [an event at which I will be honored for my research] while dealing with sales clerks who act like I'm going to steal something and random shoppers trying to "girlfriend" me and make comments about how I probably can't afford x, y, or z. Just lovely. Accomplishments are always accompanied by this kind of stuff. So, on top of dealing with that, you also have to deal with folk forever trying to downplay the achievement, as if something was handed to you. You know, because this country has become so liberal, it's always cutting black women a break. The unearned arrogance that always insists that my accomplishments have to do with being black and a woman but whites' accomplishments have NOTHING to do with being white is just so freakin' old—and it would be funny if it didn't affect our lives so much.

White male friend: You are awesome. Privilege is earned (be you Bill Gates or Bruce Springsteen or Oprah Winfrey or Ken Chanault) and you have clearly earned yours, and I think we can agree on that. So my point remains firm. You may feel those things rule "everything" around you, but the very fact that you are who you are and a guy like me is so impressed by you, and what you do, is proof that you are not. You are so much better than all that nonsense!

And, for the record, I am a thoroughly mediocre white guy and routinely treated with little to no respect. Case in point, I would wager you have little to no respect for me right now!!

ME: Thanks for the compliment and for taking the time to share this. It's astonishing how different our experiences have clearly been because our perspectives feel worlds apart. I am made to see things that you simply don't, I guess. When I acknowledge that I have privilege, I am referring to the fact that I know that some of what I have is NOT EARNED because WE LIE when we say that we live in a country in which people have what they earn. I'll give just one example. Of course, I work hard. I certainly work harder than those who are even more privileged than I am by our racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist society. However, because I'm not invested in lying to myself about how much I earned x, y, or z, I can admit that I know that I have had certain breaks and only those breaks allowed me to get here. Why are breaks so crucial? Because we live in a society that consistently withholds from some and gives to others; it is not invested in equal distribution of ANYTHING, including opportunity. So, (for example) I've seen how black boys who were just as smart as I was did not get the opportunities that I got in the early decade or so of schooling. So much is set up to make everyone see black boys in less innocent, less child-like ways, so if my black male peers weren't extra bright (and caught on extra fast) and weren't extra perfect in behavior, they could easily be treated with no patience and end up falling behind in learning, etc. etc. etc. So, my decent intelligence coupled with the fact that I was girl and knew how to walk a VERY straight line—because enough imperfect behavior from me could've easily led to my being thrown away too (certainly quicker than misbehaving white children)—allowed me to end up okay. Now, this didn't mean that I didn't still encounter all kinds of craziness. Despite my record, despite honors classes, I was NEVER given college counseling. The only reason I ended up going to college is because my mom worked too many jobs for me to go to the college nights that the school sponsored anyway, so I always had to be proactive and figure out how to get exposure. Because I did that, I ended up at a college fair in downtown Houston (not associated with my school) and met a representative from Ohio Wesleyan University. Again, I know better than to think that I deserved x, y, or z because I took that extra initiative. How many breaks did I get that allowed me to know to figure these things out on my own? If I hadn't figured it out, it certainly wouldn't have been because I was lazy and didn't deserve it. It just would've been that I fell through the wide cracks that the society left for me. Anyway, I can't try to go through it all. The point is that I know the workings of this society well enough to know that it's not just about EARNING. It's also a lot of blessings and luck and chance because what is most consistent and systematic are those mechanisms that nearly ensure that people like me would never get to where I am. Again, there's more than I can say. But there's plenty of evidence that our society constantly advantages certain kinds of people, constantly ensures that certain kinds of people get 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances and ruthlessly increases the likelihood that ONE MISTAKE will destroy another type of person's life. That's the United States that we live in and not knowing just how unfair its most systematic practices are requires a willingness to ignore that I can't pretend to have. Because I know that my privileges are unearned, I try to use the ones I have to create justice for others. I can only do that within the limits of the power that my privileges give me, so I hope and pray that those who have more privileges and power will see the value of using that to create justice for others. But here's the thing: Doing that means looking at the environment and what can be improved about it rather than saying, for example, "Well, if Oprah, Obama, and lesser folk like Koritha made it, then that proves that this is a country that spells opportunity for all." That's the hype we're told to believe, but the evidence to the contrary is everywhere—and it doesn't take being a researcher like me to find it. To refuse to see the environment and insist that all that matters is those few who escaped the traps of that environment has been the american way. I am working to inspire people to see that we can do a lot better. The country can actually walk its talk one day.
All that I will add now is that I am grateful for whites who are allies in anti-racist work. There have always been whites who are serious and proactive about being anti-racist thinkers and activists, and they have been in the trenches along with people of color and other marginalized groups. Tim Wise is the most visible, but I am grateful to know of others. Rather than list here, I would just encourage those who don't even know about Tim Wise to consider getting his latest book Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority. Also see his website