Owning your own white guilt isn’t cool yet. So you stuff the soft parts of other kids’ cultures into your pockets until you believe that it is not there at all. You are a matching sweat suit jukebox stocked with everything from Ice Cube to OutKast. Entire albums memorized and coiled in the damp of your throat. They are gunfire into the air above the high school parking lot at lunch, and that is as ‘Black’ as you think possible. And pulling blunts the size of magic markers into your tiny lungs before school is Black. And your dance routines are ‘Black’. They call you Justin Timberlake. Your crossover is the ‘Black’-est, though you are the only white boy on the court anyway, they call you Steve Kerr. You used to stare at a freckle on your left arm and imagine your whole body that colour. How much easier it would be to be… you if that were the case, and until someone tells you otherwise, that is ‘Black’ too. And it isn’t that you don’t know you are white. I mean, less white is all you really want to be. You’re sure there are good parts about having white skin too, even if you cannot see them yet. No one asks where you came from or how you got here, which is good because you could not answer any how. Right? You just appear. With an insatiable hunger to touch things that do not belong to you, and a culture that fits like a bed sheet. No one calls you carpet bagger. Tells you that you cannot place your favourite things about Black people into one single bucket and try them on, and parade around for years on the front lawn to feel better about what you cannot say. Until it is time to come inside for dinner. So you do exactly that. You dip your toe in, and then out, and you run when you must, but you stay when you choose. And that is the whitest thing of all.
Adam Faulkner has a series of poems talking about privilege, race and his own place in a system of oppression, which I really appreciate on a lot of levels. First, of course, I appreciate him as a poet, but second (and more importantly), I appreciate his attempts to articulate his white privilege. He works his way around a definition for his experience and figuring out the way to name it. He takes a few different runs at it and each time you understand another way that it has shaped his life, especially growing up surrounded by people of colour. In the above poem, privilege is clearly “the whitest thing”: the ability to “dip your toe in, and then out, and run when you must, but stay when you choose.” It is the freedom to transgress, while always able to return to relative safety without consequence. In another poem, “The Definition of Privilege” he discovers the definition of privilege to be “not having to think about it” and the “option of silence.” In these poems, his experiences are always uniquely his own, but also speak to something bigger. Importantly, he never loses sight of the fact that he’s not just talking about incidents; he’s talking about systems and histories and institutions. The weight of that grounds his work.
When I started thinking about the ways that I have been learning to talk about my own privilege, I wanted to start with Adam’s work because I learn a lot from examples, which can be hard to come by. There aren’t many people in the media walking up to their privilege, shaking its hand, and letting it stand. When I watch him, I don’t feel like he is proud of it and I don’t feel like his guilt is excusing him either. This may be because it isn’t just a single poem addressing the topic, so it doesn’t feel like a tactic or a brief moment where he remembers he is a white boy. It feels like he is understanding himself in context, and I think that’s my goal: to constantly understand myself in context. We’ll come back to this idea in a minute.
First, privilege is an unearned advantage, immunity, permission or benefit systematically granted to an individual or group, which can be exercised to the detriment of others. This is a definition drawn from this primer on privilege, which is one of the best introductions to the concept that I’ve seen recently. I just want to send Andrea Rubenstein (tekanji) all the virtual love in the world for keeping it up to date. If you have a question about privilege, this is a great starting point. Andrea outlines some of the basic first steps to follow to address your privilege in her post, which I’ve paraphrased/summarized below:
1. Learn What is Meant by “Privilege”
2. Accept Your Privilege
3. Understanding Your Privilege
Learn to Listen Rather than Speak
You Aren’t Bad for Having Privilege (but you’re still accountable for supporting oppression that privileges you)
Criticism is Not Hatred
You Can Only Sympathize, Not Empathize (no two oppressions are the same)
It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
4. Adopt a Language of Respect and Equality
Reverse Racism/Sexism/Etc Does Not Exist
Use Preferred Terms
Intent Isn’t an Excuse
Call People in Your Group Out
Learn Terms, Use them, Spread Them
5. How to Approach Marginalized Spaces
Respect that it’s Not About You
Safe Spaces are Necessary
All Opinions about Oppression aren’t “Equal”
Trust Needs to be Earned
6. Treat Us like Humans, not “The Other”
Do Not Objectify People
Treat People as Individuals with Dignity
7. If You’re Not the Problem then You’re Not the Problem
Careful, if you protest too much that you’re not the problem…you might be
So, yes, it’s a long process to come to terms with your privilege. I don’t know that it is something with an end at all. I mean, privilege is almost by definition something that you are unaware of. That itself is a privilege. You don’t notice your own advantages because you likely have never been without them. It’s hard to really imagine a world where you are constantly interpreted differently. Peggy McIntosh’s piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is a popular example of trying to articulate the many ways that white privilege benefits people.
Privilege also isn’t static. It can be both situational and relative, as pointed outby Melissa McEwan at Shakesville. This is where context becomes vital to consider, because we all have more than one identity marker, and so there will be times when I am actively experiencing privilege and times when I am not. People have intersectional identities that overlap and complicate each other, so that a low income white man with mental health challenges is in a different situation from a South Asian woman upper class professional. Their privileges will play out very differently and become active in very different scenarios. Melissa points out that there are even moments when aspects of your identity that typically result in marginalization (like gender) can still offer privileges in specific, rare contexts; she uses the example of a woman in a childcare setting having privilege relative to a man, as men are socially constructed as less capable of nurturing children. She calls this “situational privilege.” When you are “auditing” your privilege, examining closely how you are privileged in some ways and not others, you may run into these scenarios. However, you will most often be dealing with “relative privilege,” where someone is consistently and institutionally privileged compared to marginalized people.
What does all this mean for how to approach your privilege? Well, for me it means that the first conversation about my privilege I need to have is with myself. It isn’t just a one-off talk either, because my privilege interacts with the rest of my identity and shifts when I’m in different situations. I have to “check my privilege” regularly so that I catch myself acting on it thoughtlessly. When I start talking about my privilege to others, it means that I have to assume that I’m probably missing something. Likely several somethings. So, the conversation about my privilege might be better if I’m the one listening. Andreapoints out that using experiences of privilege to dominate a space that is being held to hear other, non-privileged voices is a crappy move too.
In addition, I can’t say things like, “I know I have privilege, but…” and then act like my first statement doesn’t impact whatever I have to say next.Acknowledging your privilege isn’t a get out of jail free card. It’s the bare minimum to state where I’m coming from; the next step is to figure out how my privilege might give me blind spots, oppress others, or influence my experience of the issues at hand.
These are already quite a few things to consider, and this is just a smattering of the advice from Andrea and Melissa, so learning to talk about your privilege does take time and effort. I will continue to get things wrong, but – recalling ideas earlier in the week – it’s still important to continue working towards a goal, even if I’m never going to be perfect. Keeping my privilege invisible (even/especially if it’s only to myself) doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it hurts a lot of people. Adam reminds us that privilege is “the option of silence.”
More from Andrea at The Shrub
More from Melissa at Shakesville
More poems by Adam Faulkner:
[Headline image: The photograph shows a white man with short black hair in profile. He is wearing a black and white striped shirt and his eyes are closed. In the center of his head is the image of a brain in a yellow glow.]