Sunday, February 15, 2009

Notes on privilege and oppression from a privileged white male.

Gene Conroy-Jones 15th February 2009

My perception of racism in America has recently been transformed from a naïve feeling of "this problem has almost been eradicated," to "people of color are oppressed in a multitude of ways every day of their life." This paradigm shift is largely due to my wife's participation in a Masters of Social Work program at Washington University. It was after one of our numerous post-class discussions that I had to reluctantly accept that society is racist by design. The traditional white perspective views racism as a historical problem, fixed by the civil rights legislation of the sixties and modern day affirmative action programs. When we look at our political and media outlets we assume the problem is historical, usually justified by the successes of Barrack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. By doing this we miss the point. Although overt acts of racism are considered to be far less pervasive in society, an underlying racism by "design" still exists. As a white person, this is a difficult pill to swallow, as is the case in any consciousness raising activity, but as the reader I ask you to hear me out, because I believe the argument is compelling. Let me start by offering three examples to demonstrate privilege and oppression.

Example 1 – Oppression: Take a typical bus-stop in St. Louis, from my observations, and I freely admit this is not scientific but more of a gut feeling, you will rarely see a queue where all white people are waiting. The majority of stops in my experience contain a majority non-white population; which seems a little strange given that the majority of the general population is white. I am sure you can find individual refutations of this, and remember I am not asserting this as evidence but I believe if most people are being true to themselves they would probably agree that at the "average" bus stop, or on the average bus, the racial mix is significantly different to that of the general population. Why does that matter? Well I presume the people on the bus would love to drive to their destination, and I am sure their choice to take the bus is not for environmental reasons; therefore my only conclusion is that their decision to take the bus is a financial one. Society has not given their racial group an equal chance because the jobs they are deemed fit enough for, do not pay well enough for them to own and drive a car. Irrespective of the reason that they are using the bus, the sheer fact that the racial proportions of the bus stop are so out of kilter with the local racial proportions, is an indication of an oppressed racial group. Oppressed because they lack the privilege to own and drive a car.

Example 2 – Privilege: The bus-stop analysis can be applied to highlight instances of privilege; the lending hand that promotes people of the "correct" skin color, age, gender, sexuality and or religious persuasion to more lucrative avenues in life. Examining the distribution of CEOs, mayors, and politicians illustrates that to get on in life you have to be white and male. If our government is indeed to represent the people then surely the demographic of our nation's capitol should match that of the people which is supposed to represent. Ignoring for a moment the age bias of our politicians, all governments should contain at least 50% women, if they are not, they are inherently gender skewed. Take a look at Wall Street CEOs and you will see a similar privileged status. Whilst writing this it feels terribly like I am describing a cliché which is deemed acceptable and normal. Wake up people! Think for a moment! If we simply accept this then we end up living in a society which is guided by the thinking of old white males. Do not take this as a criticism of this group as they are part of the solution; but if they are the majority stakeholders in the decision making process then society is designed through their lens of acceptability. Other viewpoints more likely to be ignored because they are less represented.

Example 3 – Stereotypes: Our values are shaped by our experiences in television, magazines, radio, advertisements and conversations with our peers. Stereotypes in advertisements are often thought to confirm what we already "know" but the opposite is also true, that adverts also create the stereotypes. One spectacularly awful advert is the "Febreze Noticeable" product where a white lady gets on a "smelly" bus and plugs in a "Noticeable" to clean the air. The bus is intentionally made to look "awful", to presumably the white people it is selling the product too, by filling it with all the oppressed groups. The camera pans past the driver (African American), a lady (a large sweating African American lady), a guy (Dorky looking IT type), a dog; and she eventually has to sit next to a guy (who is large, sweating and asleep). Virtually everyone is oppressed here (apart from white males) by the sheer fact that only a clean skinny white woman can fix all the smell issues, and by the fact that only a woman has the ability to "clean" the area. The indication is that these poor people on the bus are too poor, too stupid or too ignorant to fix the filth issue on the bus. This advert makes me wretch, the bus is filled with the kind of stereotypes that are untrue and only confirm our inaccurate perceptions of these different groups. This then feeds back into our perception that it is perfectly acceptable for non-white people to catch the bus because the Febreeze advert has confirmed "what we already know". I believe Febreeze and other advertisers should attempt to introduce ethics into their advertisements; a call which will undoubtedly fall on deaf ears because it interferes with the profit making process, which at present has no conscience in the absence of regulation.

There is a conservative myth that de-regulation is the best way to control a free market. The idiotic neoconservative experiment of the last eight years and the financial problems of our current times should help put an end to that. However for the nature of argument let us examine it. A de-regulated free market economy has only one goal – to generate a profit. It does not care how it achieves it, nor does it care who is oppressed in the making of it. All decisions are ultimately based on whether the profit is increased or decreased. This is in sharp contrast to how we expected to live our lives where our actions are guided by societies' rules and our own internal knowledge of right and wrong. Given that the de-regulated market has no conscience and appears to have little in the way of regulation. Is it surprising that people are oppressed in order to make a buck? Since it has no conscience we have to provide it one, by imposing a fair regulatory framework composing of the current acceptable rules in which we want to run our society. The neoconservatives would paint this as a socialist propaganda exercise to illicit the fear response and prevent the downfall of a system where they are the ultimate benefactors - older, white, heterosexual and male. I suggest that regulation of the free market is our moral duty to give a conscience to a process which has very little. I also want to make it clear that I think the free market is a charming invention; it fosters an entrepreneurial environment; and creates wealth and opportunity. However the rewards should not be reaped at the excessive oppression of another racial or national group here at home or abroad.

Taking a closer look at what we as individuals and the media deem acceptable in politics may offer another insight into White Privilege. An interesting experiment is playing before our eyes as we analyze our future presidents and their deputies. Tim Wise recently gave some excellent examples of White Privilege in the context of this election:

  • "White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because "every family has challenges," even as black and Latino families with similar "challenges" are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay."
  • "White privilege is when you can call yourself a "fuckin' redneck," like Bristol Palin's boyfriend does, and talk about how if anyone messes with you, you'll "kick their fuckin' ass," and talk about how you like to "shoot shit" for fun, and still be viewed as a responsible, all-American boy (and a great son-in-law to be) rather than a thug."
  • "White privilege is when you can attend four different colleges in six years like Sarah Palin did (one of which you basically failed out of, then returned to after making up some coursework at a community college), and no one questions your intelligence or commitment to achievement, whereas a person of color who did this would be viewed as unfit for college, and probably someone who only got in in the first place because of affirmative action."
  • "White privilege is being able to make fun of community organizers and the work they do--like, among other things, fight for the right of women to vote, or for civil rights, or the 8-hour workday, or an end to child labor--and people think you're being pithy and tough, but if you merely question the experience of a small town mayor and 18-month governor with no foreign policy expertise beyond a class she took in college--you're somehow being mean, or even sexist."
  • "White privilege is being able to attend churches over the years whose pastors say that people who voted for John Kerry or merely criticize George W. Bush are going to hell, and that the U.S. is an explicitly Christian nation and the job of Christians is to bring Christian theological principles into government, and who bring in speakers who say the conflict in the Middle East is God's punishment on Jews for rejecting Jesus, and everyone can still think you're just a good church-going Christian, but if you're black and friends with a black pastor who has noted (as have Colin Powell and the U.S. Department of Defense) that terrorist attacks are often the result of U.S. foreign policy and who talks about the history of racism and its effect on black people, you're an extremist who probably hates America."

Tim Wise: This is Your Nation on White Privilege 13th September 2008


The purpose of highlighting these points is to raise the consciousness of white people to the plight of other members of society. Typical responses include denial, disbelief, anger, and grief. One typical response when hearing these arguments is to utilize the "ad-hominen" attack where the messenger is identified as "left-wing" and therefore the reader should pay no attention to the content. I plead with you to ignore this often cited garbage and to pay close attention to the examples given above and just consider for a moment whether they could possibly be true. Another response is to dismiss these arguments as "angry" or "unhelpful" in not promoting social cohesion or discussion. However I think I would be angry if I was not given a privilege based on the color of my skin. Once beginning to take on board these arguments I can honestly say that I experienced a certain amount of grief, as my view of a "fair" society has been shattered. I now realize that I live in a society which has given me a privilege that I didn't know I had, and which contributes to the oppression of others. It is painful to be accused of something you didn't know you were partially responsible for. If you are still having problems taking these arguments on board try for a moment to understand that there are always more than one way of analyzing a situation and perhaps the lens through which you view society can also be viewed through a completely different lens by a different racial group. Try not to be arrogant that your perception of society's fairness is the only perception. Once we have accepted that there is evidence of a problem the next natural progression is to find a cause or someone to blame. This is highly frustrating as with any highly complex insurmountable problem a solution is not easily perceived or even available. There are so many facets to consider it almost feels like you should abandon the task because it is too difficult to solve. I would put those considerations aside for the moment as I believe this is a task society will ultimately solve, but the first stage to solving any problem is raising the consciousness of society's participants. If we are aware of a problem we can guide our actions as an individual and steer society to a less oppressive state of affairs.

I wrote this article to share my journey with the readers, raise this as a topic for discussion and to let the non-white community that they have an ally. My personal objective is to make society better and the first step towards this is to highlight the problem. I look forward to hearing the varied responses from your readers and even if you only accept some of the tenants of the article then it has achieved something. For additional excellent work in this area refer to Tim Wise's book "White Like Me".

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