Greetings, all, and happy Blog Against Racism Week! At first, I thought I really didn’t have much to say about this other than ‘Hey—IBARW! Go!’, but further mulling suggested that yes, I have some thoughts. My thoughts. Let me show you them.
Okay, first of all, I need to start out by copping to the fact that I am not an academic. I fangirl lots of academics, and I edit for academics, and I’ve shtupped a few academics, but none of that does an academic make. And I, because I am essentially an uneducated intellectual snob, have at times allowed that to get in the way of my commitment to anti-racist activism. Which, now that I look at it written down, is incredibly high up there on my list of Stupid Shit I Have Done.
I do, however, at least understand the impetus for this particular stupidity of mine. Because I am all too keenly aware of how much I don’t know, and therefore how quickly I am reduced in debate to arguments along the lines of ‘because my lower belly says so, that’s why’, which, unless you are being directly and physically threatened with my lower belly, isn’t exactly the most cogent or persuasive of arguments. Now academics, on the other hand, they have references—they have knowledge and footnotes and periodicals and all kindsa thinky studies and actual published books to back them up, and they have been trained by years of arduous torture to have all of these facts immediately at their disposal, ready to be deployed against any random stupid person who wanders by with their ignorance all exposed and hanging out there. I do not have these things. I have sarcasm. And my lower belly. That’s about it.
But. But but but. It occurred to me that there are more non-academics out there than there are academics, and that other folks might be wallowing in the same quagmire of uncertainty that I occupy, and therefore IBARW is the perfectest of perfect opportunities for me to cobble together what thoughts I do have, strive for coherence, try to leave my lower belly out of it, and hold forth.
With all that said: yes, I think that it is possible to ally oneself with anti-racist activism without having a degree in social justice studies. But there are some things that have helped me in my idiot grappling with this issue—basic, simple things, yes, unsophisticated to the point of ‘duh’, but I have talked myself into sharing them anyway, so here goes:
One: privilege. Gotta start there.
For an anti-racist ally, I think that understanding privilege is as important as understanding racism. I mean, in my sad and grumpy brain, these two things are inseparable: racism cannot exist without privilege. White privilege. And if you are a white person, and you have ever uttered or thought the words ‘I am not a racist’ or ‘I don’t see color’, this is definitely worth some pondering.
My non-academic definition: white privilege is ‘invisible’ racism (invisible to white folks, anyway). It is the ways in which white people are advantaged, represented, and validated by pretty much everyone and everything everywhere. It is the fact that I, a white person, will never in my lifetime have to struggle with the kind of challenges, disadvantages, dismissals, or disregard that every single person of color on this planet has to deal with. It is, at its core, the reasoning behind my statement ‘all white people are racists’, a statement which somehow never fails to get some white person all riled up. But there you have it: in my world, white privilege exists. All whites are privileged. All whites benefit from racism, including ‘invisible’ racism. Ergo, all white folks are racist. Including me. And what I get to do about that is… well, whatever I can, I get to do whatever I can. Beginning with trying to understand privilege.
Because of my academia-envy, this privilege babble would not be complete without links; references, you know, for those of you who prefer your information to come from a sane source:
And here’s a link to the definition page from whiteprivilege.com, which I haven’t fully explored yet but which looks like it stopped being active back in 2005.
Two: learn stuff. It couldn’t hurt. Well, it does. But it should.
Here’s the thing: I think the key to understanding privilege (since there is no undoing it on this side of the revolution) is about going beyond what is customary, known, safe and comfortable. In the ‘duh-est’ of all my ‘duh’ statements, I will say this: racism is some ugly, nasty, vile, and seriously fucked-up shit. But what this means is that I, in service to my own commitment as an ally of anti-racist efforts, need to come face-to-face with that ugliness, both contemporary and historical ugliness, and that means finding out stuff that it hurts me to know.
I don’t have to be an academic to do this. I only have to be privileged enough to have access to the internets and my local library, that’s about it. I am that privileged. I can find enough information in a five-minute Google search to make myself shake with horror.
I don’t do it all the time, or even every day. I’m not emotionally strong enough, and, lucky me, I’m a white person, so at any time I can walk away when I’ve had enough and not think about it for the whole rest of the day if I don’t want to (better living through white privilege!) But I do keep coming back, and I do keep learning more—because if racist ignorance is going to be my enemy, I had damn well better start with my own.
Three: resist defaults. Interrogate ‘taste’.
Actually, this is about media and art: there is a whole hell of a lot of media and art out there which is by, about, inclusive of, or focused on people of color. And very often it seems that the white-person default is to ignore or dismiss it. I think of this as the ‘I Just Don’t Like Hip-Hop’ default.
And you know what? I, personally, don’t care all that much for Hip-Hop. But, as it turns out, I am a huge, squeeful, fangirly fan of many other musicians, poets, artists, writers, and creators who are not white. And there’s some Hip-Hop that I have sincere adoration for (it turns out I am, here as in everywhere else, appallingly picky).
For me, this is actually very easy: having already questioned and rejected the defaults of heterosexism, monogamy, meekness and motherhood, I am quite comfortable interrogating pretty much anything and everything that has to do with what I ‘should’ be into. To limit myself to the extraordinarily overrepresented white-centric and white-created stuff in the world: well, that would require me being way stupider than I am really willing to be in this particular life.
Four: my personal opinion of Hip-Hop means exactly jack shit. Just like my other opinions.
Number three above kinda gave me a major wiggins to write down. Here’s why: as a white person, it is absolutely vital for me to understand that my opinions of art and media by POC are utterly, completely, and totally irrelevant. As a white person, I don’t get to decide what does and doesn’t constitute good or bad art by POC. Because this art was not made for me, is not about me, and is not concerned with my particular white opinion. Does this mean I won’t have opinions, tastes and preferences? Hell no—not unless I manage to develop the kind of drug problem that my parents’ generation tended to cultivate. I get to love, hate, or be indifferent to art by POC just the same as art by whites: the key difference comes in understanding that my personal and exalted white-girl opinion as a Foremost Authority On What Does and Doesn’t Suck is, in the former case, entirely immaterial.
In keeping with this particular theme, I also don’t get to decide what does and doesn’t constitute racism. This is actually remarkably simple: if I do or say something that offends a person of color as racist, it doesn’t matter whether or not I was trying to be an insensitive or racist jerk—I get to take responsibility for it. I certainly don’t get to be all uppity and defensive and snippy about the tone some people take.
The first part of that actually goes against the grain for me, and I have to work at it, because it’s not directly in my nature to take responsibility for anyone’s experience but my own. But here’s where the insidiousness of racism and white privilege comes sneaking back in (not that it ever left us, oh no!): there are forces at work here, disparities in privilege and power, which I am benefited by, and against which my only form of resistance is to go ahead and transcend my humanistic instincts. Things are not right, things are not fair. White privilege exists, this power disparity exists. Therefore, if a person of color experiences me as a racist, well, I get to fucking own up to my honky racist ass and apologize and move the fuck on, and try to do better next time.
For me in particular, this concept is largely informed by my experience with sexism: a form of oppression where I am on the other side of the disparity, and therefore able to obtain more insight. And just as I really don’t want to hear some whiny Nigel tell me all about what a nice guy he is and how much he totally thinks women are just super but feminists are going to have to be nicer to him if we want to win the war, well, I need to pay attention to my own white Nigelism. And not do that. Because it fucking sucks.
Five: my failure to join the academic elite is my own damn fault.
This is a note on education, specifically, education around race and racism. It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate my ignorant white ass. I, as a privileged white chick with internets, have constant access to and opportunities for exposure to all kinds of dialogue, statistics, developments in theory, history and basic conversations (not to mention art) between people of color about race and privilege and racism. As an anti-racist activism ally, it is my job, and nobody else’s, to develop my own knowledge, to deepen my understanding of why something might be perceived as racist.
The key here, unsurprisingly, is listening. And not so much with the holding forth. Notice how I am flagrantly breaking my own rule here? But that’s what IBARW is for! Woot! Go nuts! Get all your anti-racist ya-yas out! Then go back and listen some more.
Six: if you want cookies, Martha Stewart has published several fine recipes.
It is entirely possible to be earnestly committed to anti-racist ally activism and still have lots of people of color ignore you, dislike you, and/or object to your presence. And guess what? Allies don’t get to resent this (see power disparity, white privilege, resistance thereto, etc.).
This is not so very difficult for me—I’m quite used to being considered loathsome and making people very uncomfortable, after all. The key difference is that when I do it to white men, it’s fun. But seriously, I think that this is part and parcel of being an ally: racism is some ugly, fucked-up shit. It doesn’t go away. And people of color are pretty fucking pissed off about it.
This is not about being liked. This is about resistance, about refusing to allow the hate to continue. Resenting the absence of cookies is not exactly blazing a trail.
Seven: do the stuff that’s easy. Also the stuff that’s hard.
So, the things that are easy for me, here they are: 1) listening, 2) rage, 3) research, 4) sarcasm, 5) creative vengeance, 6) confronting people, 7) being a dork.
Here are the things that are hard for me: 1) well-reasoned arguments, 2) debate, 3) keeping my temper, 4) confronting people (if I’m afraid of them), 5) granting the facts and realities of racism and the history of racism space in my brain, and 6) taking responsibility for it, for me and my life and what I do every day. Every day.
And I think that’s about all I have to say on this. Yes, it’s ridiculously simple, not to mention it’s been said so much better by much more articulate people, but it’s IBARW, and I’m taking advantage of it, before I go back into listening mode.
ETA: Because I am unsavvy in the ways of these newfangledy things, I forgot to link to IBARW, so here's that!