I’ve mentioned before that I am somewhat argumentative. Where “somewhat” means “could start an argument while in an empty room on a deserted spaceship orbiting at the edge of infinite space”. I’ve also got a highly developed sense of social justice which has been getting me into trouble from a young age. Mummy dinosaur had to, on more than one occasion, usher a pre-teen me quickly from a room to prevent me taking on racist comments made by acquaintances or older family members. Despite (or, perhaps, because of?) growing up in a predominantly white and affluent neighbourhood I guess I was an early adopter of the ranks of ‘ally’ before I really understood the concept. So it’s with embarrassment, and a little amount of shame, that I recall the first time someone tried to introduce me to the concept of ‘white privilege’. More on that later.
We hear the word ‘privilege’ a lot online, and increasingly in the media, these days. It’s a relatively new concept but one that has skyrocketed in terms of dissemination over the last few years – in that ‘check your privilege’ has in the space of about 6 months gone from being a useful checkpoint in discussion to a snarky debate-ending insult. Much like the word ‘feminism’, the word ‘privilege’ has a bad rep. It’s got some major baggage. Let’s face it, it pisses people the fuck off. But it’s a bloody useful word because it pisses people right off. ‘Feminism’ needs to have that FEM in there to bring people back to the basic point that yes, we’re should be all equal and work towards equal rights for all but it’s woman that are behind right now in the gender race and therefore ‘equalist’ (which isn’t even a word according to spellcheck) quite frankly doesn’t cut it and if that pisses you off then GOOD, it SHOULD. And ‘privilege’ needs to be a word that smacks you in the face and makes you think, because that’s the point.
It didn’t half upset me when I was first told I was showing white privilege. It was 2004, and I was an active and vocal (surprise) member of an online community discussing the show ‘Big Brother’. (Please don’t judge me. I was young. And bored.) I can’t remember what I said, or what the topic of conversation was, but another poster took me to task for something I said. I can’t remember much about the conversation, and it would take someone with better google-fu than I to track it down in the archives of The Interwebs. All I remember is that she wasn’t saying I was A Racist, but that assumptions I had made showed a lack of awareness of my white privilege, and therefore what I’d said was racist. I got terribly upset, all my (white) friends piled in on the thread to support me, I said that I wasn’t privileged because my mum and I were homeless once, retreated back to my own blog where I said “waaah some girl called me a racist” and I got lots of support from my (mostly white) friends. After patiently trying to reason with me, and posting a link to an article I didn’t bother reading because I didn’t need to because I am TOTES not a racist the girl left the thread with the parting shot that she “hoped I’d get it one day, and remember this conversation”.
And thus it was I found myself on the internet this week, getting into debate after debate with other white people about privilege – linking them to that same article that I never read at the time, trying to get them to realise that having privilege doesn’t make them A Racist, that just because they’ve had a shit time of it doesn’t make them not privileged and hoping that just as I had my revelation, they too will one day look back on the conversation and have a lightbulb moment. Not all of my arguments/debates go well. Some I have to walk away from – because I get TOO ANGRY HULK SMASH MUST BREAK THINGS – but at least I *said something*.
The week’s debates have involved white privilege, male privilege, size privilege… all sorts. There are lots of different ways structural privilege can manifest – and this seems to be what is so difficult for people to grasp. They hear the word ‘privilege’, just as I did 10 years ago, and assume that they’re being put in a box that says ‘well off, happy, fortunate’. When actually you can be incredibly structurally privileged and completely fucking miserable. All ‘privilege’ means in this sense is that you have something innate and outside of your control which gives you a ‘leg up’ over other people purely because of the accident of your birth. If you are white, straight, male, able bodied, average sized, well off, with a nondescript accent then you simply don’t face as many difficulties as people that don’t tick all of those boxes.
All this arguing with people who don’t see-your-point-yet-but-one-day might-see-your-point is exhausting. And if it’s exhausting for me, a white person with all the advantages that confers upon me (like, for example, being taken more seriously and not ‘self serving’ when I talk about white privilege) then how exhausting must it be for people like the woman who tried to engage me ten years ago? How exhausting must it be to be subject to the casual systemic discrimination of our culture and then still have to argue with people telling you that your lived experience of being a person of colour is flawed because LA LA LA NOT LISTENING. Well, actually, I can sort of understand it because I am female, and that’s what I experience when men (#notall) tell me I am wrong about the sexism I experience daily. But I am still better off than a woman of colour, who is battling even greater levels of systemic prejudice than I.
That’s not ‘white guilt’ talking. It’s my acknowledgement of my unearned privileges, which I have, whether I want them or not. And no, of course it isn’t fair. And it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, or whether you even agree with this concept or not. Much like gravity, you can not believe it and/or disagree with it all you like but you’re still subject to its force.
So far most of my debates have been with people I don’t know – friends of friends or random strangers commenting on friends’ public posts. It’s easier to debate with strangers than people you care about, because a stranger’s opinion matters so much less. I need to get better at challenging people closer to me. At doing it in a calm and measured way, so that my point doesn’t get lost in a sea of facepalm gifs which I am wont to post when debates become hopelessly cyclical. Finding out that a friend has a point of view which you find problematic is potential-friend-losing territory. But then, if that person’s view is so very offensive to you, perhaps you should be either talking to them about it or evaluating your friendship anyway. But it’s worth taking on, because even as the debate might be frustrating. circular and full of cat gifs, even if you have to walk away, you never know when someone might remember the conversation, realise they were wrong, and add their voices too.