Over the past few weeks, there seems to have been a recurring theme in my life — or at least in my lessons and readings.
A couple weeks ago, we watched a video in my SOC 1010 class called “Tim Wise: On White Privilege.” In his lecture, Wise doesn’t hold back on pointing out all the ways American society is unfair to non-white individuals, and it’s actually to a pretty dangerous degree. Up to 1 million African-Americans died in 10 years due to insufficient health care, according to Wise and both of my sociology textbooks. Listen to Wise (his lecture is available on YouTube), and you won’t brush it off as a coincidence either.
Important to note, so that no one feels defensive or singled out (Wise is himself white, incidentally), is that Wise is not calling any one person racist, or even saying the majority of people are. White privilege, he argues, is woven into the very fabric of our society, in ways most of us don’t even notice. In ways most of us don’t have to notice.
This theme was repeated in a very interesting event I attended here on campus called Strange Like Me. GTC Dramatic Dialogues brought actors who performed scenes dealing with different types of prejudice. After the scenes, audience members could ask questions, with the actors answering in character.
The performers did an excellent and fascinating job of improvising what their characters would say when faced with questions pointing out their unfair prejudices. A point that kept coming up from the prejudiced characters was the old argument of “he/she didn’t mind — it was just a joke!” To this, audience members repeatedly said something along the lines of “It was a joke to you, because you don’t have to live every day with reminders from everyone you meet that you are a different or lesser kind of person because you’re black/gay/female.” Even knowing that they were saying this to actors who, in reality, did not believe what they were saying, the audience members responding to these characters actually became emotional and defensive, as if they really were talking to the source of their being held back in society.
Some of the characters presented were both victims and perpetrators of prejudice. For instance, a female character displayed unintentional racist attitudes even while she herself was the target of demeaning sexism from the male characters. She was acutely aware of how cheaply she was being treated for being the lone woman in the group, but thought her comments directed at a black character were perfectly innocent.
“I didn’t mean it that way!” she kept saying, and some audience members agreed that they had interpreted some of her questions to be harmless and generic. Someone then raised their hand and said that they were lucky to not have to interpret it that way, that it’s not constantly in their face and is not personal to them how she might have meant it.
Some people answered that offense is taken, not given, that we choose to interpret comments positively or negatively. In my opinion, this too is a privileged viewpoint, a trite Band-Aid from those who don’t have to face the issue themselves. How easy would it be for someone like me, who is not constantly reminded of the difference or even inferiority of his/her race from the “norm,” to preach to others to “just not take it that way”? I’m sure others would love to be in that position, able to hold everything said or done to them at arm’s length and laugh it off. If you tell someone to “just not be offended,” you are operating under the assumption that the words have no real effect on them, that they are not a symptom of a larger and very real problem — that, if they “choose to be” offended, it must be something wrong with them, not our society.
The bottom line is that, if someone of another group — whether it is someone of another race, gender, religion, sexuality, nationality, ability level — has the genuine concern that they are not being given their fair shot in society, listen to them. Don’t tell them they like playing the victim, don’t tell them they don’t know what discrimination really is, don’t tell them you’ve done your research and it’s an imagined phenomenon — listen to them. Unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, then no, you haven’t done your research and you don’t know what it’s like for them (oh, you mean have the Internet and you found articles that said white/male/straight privilege doesn’t exist? What credentials! Tell me more!). Whatever other privileges you might lack, you still have the privilege of not knowing what life in an unfair world is like for other people.