How Ideas About Privilege Reinforce Racism

One of my internet crushes is whatever asshole writes the last psychiatrist, and one of his (I think it’s a man) themes is that the system defends against change.

Recently, I’ve been reading the word “privilege” everywhere in the media – often in conjunction with race, but not always. (This theory also applies to gender, sexuality, etc. – but, I’m going to talk about the race for right now.) Check your privilege! You know you’ve heard it.

Anyway – let’s say you agree with the idea that “the system defends against change.” (In this case “the system” can be thought of as “the media.”)

– The system defends against change

– The system is racist

– The system has completely embraced the concept of privilege

– Therefore, the concept of privilege is being used to inhibit useful change that would actually lessen racism.

Ok – so, to back up – what is racism? I’m sure there are many answers to that, but I’m going to go with “when members of one race are forced to absorb behavior against them that is detrimental to their mental or physical wellbeing because members of larger society choose to ignore these injustices.” This is systematic racism I’m talking about, not individual racism. Notably, I believe it is possible for members of one race to be racist against *their own* race – if, as part of larger society, they do not support actions to protect other members of their race. This happens sometimes, I think, because individuals expect they will benefit more personally than they will be injured by the actions that are harmful for individuals of their race as a whole. One of my other internet crushes, @dexdigi, writes about that here.

So, how does the concept of privilege solidify racism?

First of all, it sets up the frame of reference to be from the point of view of the white person. It’s “Check your privilege!” not “Check my injustice!” I can see why it took off this way – the media tends to favor the white point of view. White people have more trouble empathizing with minorities than minorities do empathizing with them. It’s telling, that even in our discussion of racism, we’re still parsing the discussion through the eyes of of white people. To *really* loosen racism, white people are going to have to learn to project themselves into the bodies of people of color. White people are going to have to *feel* a little part of what people of color *feel*. By keeping this discussion focused on what is happening inside the white body, we are preventing this empathy from developing. For white people to make this transition, they’re going to need to keep reading stories from the point of view of people of color.  Even just hearing a language change (Check my injustice!) would be an improvement, because it would invite the reader – for a split second – imagine what it’s like to be someone else.

The concept of “privilege” also implies a fix to something that’s not the problem. Many people with privilege recoil from wanting to talk about privilege, and in my opinion, justifiably so – they don’t want to lose it! For instance, sometimes feminists say men are “privileged” not to know what it’s like be scared walking home at night. This is dumb – I don’t want men to be scared walking home at night, I want women to feel safe. I don’t want it to be harder for white people to get jobs, I want it to be easier for black people to get jobs. These things shouldn’t be *privileges* they should be *normal*, and not having them should be called *injustice*.  The fact that the system has called it “privilege” makes it sound like some people are benefitting from the system being a certain way. Men don’t actually benefit from women being scared to walk home late at night, but by saying they have “privilege” sort of makes it sound like they do. This sets them up to defend it, no one wants to give up their “better” position, but they don’t actually benefit from this arrangement. Their wives and daughters could get stabbed. Similarly, black people having trouble getting hired doesn’t actually benefit white people overall, it just makes the economy smaller, and in the meantime we have to do something with all those people who can’t get jobs. (Prison, anyone?)

Lastly, the concept of privilege leads to a politically correct laziness. “Checking” your privilege is very easy – you just say “I acknowledge my position as a privileged white person” then don’t actually change any of your behavior. It has provided a code for people to project the image that they want (nice! liberal!) without actually changing the more destructive aspects of their behavior. It provides a way of objectifying people (“if I say all the right things, then I can’t get yelled at by minorities.”) As Lupita said, you can’t eat words (or beauty, works both ways.) Words are meaningless, if they don’t touch something deeper.

So, what do you actually do?

Anytime you want to “acknowledge your privilege” – flip it, at least in your head. Put yourself in the opposite point of view and imagine what it would be like to not have that “privilege.” Start with the assumption people who are complaining have a legitimate grievance, and try to understand it.

The deeper fix is to loosen the sytem’s grip on you. This is hard. I can’t tell you how to do this, cuz I haven’t done it yet. Check back later!

White People Gotta Write About Being White

You know, how sometimes people of color write about their experience being a person of color in American society, or whatever society they live in? (I live in the US, so it’s usually America.) White people gotta do that, but with respect to being white in American society. Or Peruvian society, or Somalian society, or whatever.

Now, whenever I say that to my friends, I often get the response “But, most writing is written by white people. We already have too much writing written from the white perspective – why add to it?” to which I have TWO retorts.

1) Most writing written by white people is written with the *assumption* of white ubiquity – aka, most white writers think that their experiences with respect to race are *everyone’s* experiences with respect to race. (This is a big problem right now in feminist circles, for instance – or so I hear, I’m not in those circles.) Or, perhaps more accurately, white authors don’t even *think* about race because it’s not usually causing them the type of problems it’s causing people of color. Calling out an experience as a *white* experience, it is actually *less* racist than writing from a “universal” perspective when the author is white. White people don’t have a universal perspective, they have a white perspective. Let’s be honest about it.

2) There hasn’t been a lot of thought, at least that I’ve come across, about what it’s like to *be white.* According to Louis Ck, it’s great, but I think that our culture has currently caught a PC Privilege-owning mind worm where you can’t admit there is ANYTHING wrong with being white because zomg, it’s clearly SO MUCH WORSE to be NOT WHITE. You can only say, “I admit my privilege” as you keep sipping your caramel macchiato. But, like – that’s wrong. I hope when we get racial equality, everyone doesn’t end up living the current “white” experience. And, the things that suck about being white are *totally different* from the things that suck about being black.

Would you like to be a slave owner?

I’m guessing 99.9% of people reading that said no, and the other 0.1% are into BDSM. That means, on some level, it sucked to be a slave owner. BUT BEING A SLAVE WAS WORSE! I’m sure it was.

The point is not to say who is the biggest victim, the point is to end slavery. To end slavery, you need to know why some people choose to have slaves.

When black slaves were emancipated in America, what was their model of success? White slave owners. It proved *very difficult* to end slavery, and we still really haven’t, we’ve just replaced it with different types of servitude. Better types! But, on some level, we still view a person’s success as proportional to the number of people he or she can control. CEOs, for instance, are right at the top. College students with 100k of debt they need to pay back? They’re the new serfs. We may not be as awful as we once were, but we have a lot of room for improvement. To understand this hierarchical mindset, we need to understand slavery – both, from the slave’s and the slave owner’s perspective.

Anyway, back to the contemporary experience of being white. A little while ago, I wrote about Asian fetish. I *totally* missed the boat on cultural appropriation. I assumed it was just a *physical* preference, but talking to a few of my Asian female friends revealed a lot more going on. Often, white men make assumptions – and feel entitled to explicitly articulate those assumptions – about Asian women’s personalities, or tastes. There was added complexity around a woman’s specific cultural heritage, and one of my friends who is an immigrant from China said she believed that she was subjected to a different beauty standard than her culture’s, and found it offensive that other races set the standard for Asian beauty. On the one hand, I wasn’t really qualified to write about that topic, but on the other hand, I’m glad I did because I got to talk to people about their experiences.

One thing that was interesting, however, is that a lot of my white female friends liked my post. I had written something that had reached them – and, I think what it was, was the discussion of how critique of beauty culture often implicitly reinforces typical beauty culture. Slim, white women are sometimes seen as status objects, and this position as a “status object” is often read as a form of privilege when in fact it is much more complicated than that. Without confronting the true complexity behind this privilege, a white woman cannot hope to truly understand herself.

More generally, I would argue that the entire concept of white privilege is complicated in a similar way. What is it that the white race is most privileged to do? Oppress other races. Is this a form of privilege everyone else really wants? Are we lucky to have that?

Even more importantly, how are white people dehumanized by this privilege? White women have access to some amount of power through exhibiting conventional beauty – as do conventionally attractive women of other races. However, these women exercise this power at the cost to their own humanity; to get any amount of money or control they must allow someone to objectify them.

What is the cost white people pay for oppressing other races? To eliminate racism, white people will *need* to understand that cost. When people like Louis CK talk about how great it is to be white, they pander to a politically correct audience, however, they also reinforce the notion that white people benefit from racism. It’s time to move beyond that.

The Easy Questions

My senior year in high school, I was taking linear algebra and multivariable calculus – the most advanced math class that my school offered – and I had a teacher who would ask me all the easy questions. I usually got them wrong.

I could tell he was asking me the easy questions, that he didn’t think I was very smart, and I felt nervous. So, I’d fuck up. Fortunately, because it was my class senior year, my grades didn’t matter. I still remember the look of surprise on his face when I told him I’d gotten into MIT, a sort of polite incredulity.  But, I  can remember that feeling – that feeling of just *knowing* you can do something, but being unable to execute on it.

I’ve been getting it recently with my newest client.  It’s a remote gig, and they have a slightly unique system setup – nothing over the top, but something I’d need a little help to getting going. Unfortunately, I never really got setup correctly, and I’m only on it like 10/15 hours a week, so I don’t really have the time to fully figure it out. So, I ask a lot of questions. Anyway, I just feel – dumb – and it gets to me. It’s a Ruby on Rails project, and I have years of experience with Rails. Like, 6 years of experience. And, I find myself just fucking up things I already know.

My other client is working on a Python project. I didn’t know Python at all before starting the project, it was a totally new language and a totally new framework. But the clients *trusted* me, and when they trusted me, I trusted myself. Somehow I could just get everything working. When something doesn’t work with this client, they’ll email me and say “we couldn’t get this going, so we’re just going to wait for you to come in and fix it.” Sometimes, when they want to work on something they’re unsure about, they’ll say “can you just sit with me while I work through this, in case I get it wrong?” Can I? I’d be happy to!

When people treat me as competent, I find myself becoming competent. When people don’t trust me, I lose trust in myself.

This isn’t a reflection on my new client. I’ve never worked on a remote job before, so it’s natural that I would feel a little bit shakier about it, but it is a reflection on how my awareness of other people’s perception of my shapes my own behavior. With my old client, I know they trust me, so I take risks. If I tell them I’ve pulled down staging for 2 days because something went wrong, they’ll say “oh wow, that must have been a really difficult problem.” With my new client, if I pull down staging for two days, they’ll say “oh my god, this new hire is an idiot.” Because of that, I’m much quicker to ask for help when anything goes wrong with my new client, and I haven’t gained the confidence of being able to solve problems myself when I’m working on their system.

Anyway, this trust – this given trust – I think is a major problem for women and racial minorities. Women, for instance, are generally rated as less confident in male dominated fields (and, interestingly enough, men tend to be rated as less competent in female dominated fields like nursing.) What that means, is it takes people a little longer to trust women, and they don’t build up this competence as quickly, if at all. I can only assume the same thing happens to racial minorities.

Actually, I remember one time one of my black coworkers made a fairly large mistake which ended up deleting about weeks worth everyone’s of work. All my white coworkers were really nice about it, “it could have been any of us,” kind of thing, but I always sort of wondered if that was an ignorant approach. Part of getting the easy questions is that everyone is nice when you fuck up because they sort of expect you to fuck up. Like, his mistake in no way got expelled from his system – he was forced to internalize it. If it had been two white dudes, I’m *sure* some shit would have flown. At least a “dude, that was fucking dumb” would have been said.

What I think actually should have happened, is our CTO should have taken him aside and said “Drew, that was a pretty big fuckup. I know you’re better than this, so why did it happen? Why didn’t you ask for help? We’re trusting you with the most important parts of our website, and no one person can know everything, so I need to know my team members will ask for assistance when they are in an area out of their expertise.”

Children don’t get in trouble for their mistakes, adults do. Competent people do, it’s part of being competent – when you fuck up, it matters. I think when someone makes a mistake, you should either fire them, or  discipline them *while reassuring them of your trust in them*. Never hire someone you don’t trust, get rid of them. It’s bad for you, it’s bad for them.

At the end of the day, that is really my main worry with this client, “are they so desperate for developers, they’re going to keep me around even though they don’t trust me?” Women and minorities think a similar thing, “are they just keeping me around for diversity reasons?” These questions are no good.

So, what to do? I was talking to my friend, and he (no joke) suggested reading lean in. To try to learn techniques to help women seem more credible in the workplace, and that’s fine, but I’ve been down this path before. I’m sick of looking outside myself for confidence.

Right now, I have one client that thinks I’m awesome, and a waiting list of about 3 more clients. I’m done trying to prove my worth with gimmicks like not sitting on my feat when I code. My contract is up with my first client, so I’ll probably have an honesty moment – why not? Either I’ll get my shit fixed, or my contract won’t get renewed, and I’ll get to try again with a new client.

I Fucking Hate this Video


And, I don’t hate it because of what it shows about humanity or some such bullshit like that.

I hate this video, and all other similar videos/essays/etc. which “bring awareness” to a problem without any proposed solution, or even an in depth understanding of what the problem actually is. I hate videos which use musical scores to “go for the onion,” as my dad would say. (Going for the onion means using some gimmick as a means to generate an artificial emotional response, similar to how cutting onions makes you cry in a situation where you wouldn’t normally feel sad.) And, I fucking HATE videos which lead me to feeling guilty and sad, but any expression of this in liberal culture would lead to some smug, white, liberal dmfb telling me to “sit” with my emotions. My Zen instructors and my therapist are allowed to tell me to sit with my emotions, everyone else can go get lost.

So, here’s the big question which was not addressed in this video. Why didn’t those people stop? That’s the problem that needs fixing.

I know why those people didn’t stop, because I am often one of those people. I have walked by homeless people who have fallen down, people on the ground coughing and in pain, and not stopped to help. Why did I do this?

Backing up a few years, I moved to downtown San Francisco which is basically homeless person capital of the USA. I knew I would be living in very close proximity to a large number of homeless people – I am on the same block as multiple temporary housing establishments for people who don’t have permanent residences. When I moved in, I don’t know exactly what I expected to see, but that somehow the naturally open and generous nature of my spirit would cary me through my interactions.

What I actually saw was fear.

I used to talk to homeless people more. I remember reading once that one of the most painful things about being homeless was that people just ignored you, so I always made it a point to look one of them in the eyes and say “I’m sorry, not today,” if I didn’t have any money to give them. Soon, I started specifically *not* carrying money because I would give it all away too quickly, and often tried to avoid eye contact. And, soon after that, I started wearing headphones and sunglasses so they wouldn’t know I was ignoring them. I started resenting them for their demands on my attention, and I started dehumanizing them in my mind by seeing obstacles not people.

When I walk by a homeless person on the ground, I look for blood. But, I try not to look too long because often they are just sleeping, and some of them don’t like to be stared at. Once, when I was looking at a sleeping man, a friend of his started bitching me out for being a judgmental white woman. “Bitch, thinks it couldn’t happen to her, who’s she to judge?”

Once, a friend and I actually saw blood. We stood there talking about what to do, should we call an ambulance? He almost definitely didn’t have insurance, and we weren’t sure what would become of him in the hospital. In the end, we did call the ambulance, and they took him away – but, we were uneasy about it. We weren’t sure we’d done the right thing. If I’d been fairly sure he would have survived without the ambulance, I wouldn’t have called it.

I’ve also seen many homeless people passed out, drugged out, who have ended up being ok. About one night a week, the entrance to my building shelters a passed out person, smoking up god knows what. I will literally step over unconscious bodies to get inside. Sometimes, the person apologizes in a half-awake way and I’ll say “Don’t worry about it.” They’re always gone by morning, and there’s never been a fuss, so I assume none of them have actually died. I’m not quite sure what happens when a homeless person dies, but I imagine it takes some amount of effort to remove them – enough, that I’d notice if it was happening regularly outside my building.

I have *never* seen a businessman pass out in the street. Not once, not even a drunk one.

Additionally, often when I *do* stop to talk to homeless people, I don’t know any reasonable action to take. I have tried to buy food for people who were unable to articulate what type of food they wanted. I have talked to people, who wanted to keep hugging me over and over – to the point that I felt uncomfortable. Sometimes, when I try to be friendly, I am met with sexually aggressive behavior. I rarely stop for young, male homeless men unless they immediately demonstrate a strong understanding of boundaries (demonstrated with phrases like “Excuse me, miss,” or “Do you have a minute?”) These polite, young men are not usually the ones passed out. It’s usually the ones muttering nonsense, often with some substance. The type of people who remind me of the man who punched my friend, the type of people who I’m worried might try to punch me.

So, to summarize, why don’t I stop for trampy looking people? Because, I see them in pain all the time, but I have never seen one die. Because I don’t know what to do – who to call? The police, the hospital? Because I am afraid for myself, for my own boundaries, my own sexuality, and my own safety.

What are actual steps we could take to fix this?

– Have a resource in mind to call when worried about someone’s safety. (Actually, I’m going to contact my Zen instructor and ask if she has any ideas about this one because she works with homeless people.)

– If you are with a group, make more of an effort to stop, because people may be too afraid if they are alone.

That’s all I got. Like I said, I said, I don’t know how to solve this, and I struggle with it *every day* and this video gave me absolutely *no tools* to help.

I fucking hated that video.