An Anti-Racist Lens over a Background of Privilege

I’ve spent a lot of time in my adult life thinking about privilege, gender, race, power, and prejudice. I always felt “not racist” coming from a liberal middle-class white family and I had the good fortune to grow up in a place where not everybody looked like me. It didn’t quite feel like good fortune when I was in middle school and getting treated like an “other” for being white and not wearing all the fashions of the day. But I say wholeheartedly that it was good to have diversity in my neighborhood and schools.

I read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” when I was high school aged (after we’d moved from Houston to more-segregated Arlington). I got the message to a degree but didn’t internalize the the term “white privilege” until after college, when I attended a Unitarian Universalist conference for young adults in 2003 (as of this writing, 12 years ago. It comes into play later in the post). At the conference, during Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression workshops when white privilege was brought up, my visceral internal reaction was “But I’m a woman! Sexism!” It weirdly helped my understanding of intersecting oppressions / privileges that during the same workshop, a white man who grew up poor had a similarly visceral, and much more vocal, reaction to the idea of having privilege. Without realizing it at the moment, I used my white privilege to get him to simmer down. Hearing that he had white-skin privilege (even if he’d been marginalized for being poor) from a woman of color made him react as though she was saying directly to him “you are a bad person for being white, you are oppressing me.” From me, someone also being “accused” of racism, it was easier for him to understand. (I realize now that him taking up a lot of the group’s time and energy with *his* discomfort is itself an often-unrealized-by-privileged-people symptom of privilege.)

Anyway, I’ve spent a lot more time in workshops and conferences about racism and privilege since then, and I wanted to write today to give some example of how I still do some racist shit (gratuitous use of scare quotes ahead):

Exhibit 1 (about 5-6 years ago): Meet a colleague that I admired, from another organization doing similar work to me, for the first time. I’ve known of her for a while, she is Asian-American and has a not-very-American name. I pull the “but where are you from” line over and over, continuing it after she tells me that she grew up in the U.S., until I get to the “answer” that I “wanted.” Which I don’t even remember anymore. She may or may not have been born in China but what business is it of mine? If she mentions it in conversation, great, if not, oh well. Part of the reason I don’t even remember exactly is that my head is now so filled with how awkward that was, how annoying and crappy it must be to hear that a lot, and how I think she’s awesome and does great work I hope that’s not all she remembers about me. But she has every right to keep me at a distance after I made such terrible small talk when there are so many better things to say to or ask of a person you’ve just met. Especially one you have a professional crush on.

Exhibit 2 (about 2 years ago): When I worked at a school I arranged professional visits for teachers and administrators to observe and/or meet with our teachers and administrators. One visit was for the principal of a well-known and very good NY-area private school and a few of her faculty to observe some of our teachers in action. They arrive, 3 of the 4 women are black, and I automatically introduce myself to the white person first. I realize what I’ve done as soon as I do it. The white woman was clearly the youngest person there. It might have made a little bit more “sense” if I’d just gone up or down the row and she was on one end, but nope, she was 3rd from left. My implicit bias, including but not limited to the assumption that my contact’s name “Lynn” was a white name, took me right to the blonde one. I thought about writing to my contact later to apologize, but I never did. I’ve gone back and forth on it, but now I think it is better to not have written, as it would be more about assuaging my guilt for the act than true reconciliation. A big problem with privileged people trying to do anti-oppression work: making it about us. I believe she and her faculty had a great visit and an email like that from me would have just taken her back to maybe the most annoying part of her day. Any readers have thoughts on this?

Exhibit 3 (since I’ve moved back to TX): I go to my volunteer supervisor’s beautiful, large home in a swanky part of town. I pull up into the big driveway/small parking lot and there was a Latino guy getting something out of his truck. I assume he’s a yard worker and ask him if (supervisor) is around. He says, “Yes, we’re over here.” We walk over to her and (supervisor) introduces me to the man, a board member of the organization I’m volunteering for. Not.A.Yard.Worker. Part of the problem with this assumption has to do with my long-time-in-NY snobbiness: because it’s Texas I assumed someone with a house like that here in smallish-town Texas would only associate with a man of color if he was working for her. Which is clearly not the case. And it still had LOADS to do with my own bias that a person of a different color than me and my supervisor would not be involved in what we were doing.

These are small, but still problematic displays of the way our society has programmed us to be. Even with my “consciousness” of these issues, I did these things. So when I hear stories of people of color being treated differently, badly, or even killed by authorities, or really anyone, I believe them. Here are some more examples of things I’ve probably done.

Believing them might make you uncomfortable, white people, because it means you can’t trust who & what you’ve been taught to believe. Sorry/not sorry that realizing the world is not what it seemed makes you uncomfortable, but people of color are not just uncomfortable, they are unsafe in their own communities, homes and everywhere.

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re wondering what this has to do with my arts blog, well, everything. As a white person I can choose to engage or not engage with issues of racism and privilege in my everyday life. People of color do not have that luxury, they are treated differently in big and small ways every single day. So I make it part of my viewing of the world; I have “-ism-colored” glasses on, and that extends to my passion for art. Assumptions get made every day in the art world, whether you’re an artist or administrator of color, or a white person buying, selling, commissioning, curating artworks. White arts people, pay attention. Notice who isn’t in the room (both literally and figuratively) and speak up for them to be in the room at the very least. Here’s a piece that gets left out sometimes: once they get into the room, make sure they have room to speak as well.

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