12 November 2011

Advantage. And it's opposite.

A dear friend of mine recently started a graduate program in Social Work. She is learning so much and loving the way her awareness and way of seeing the world is changing the more she understands about social welfare and social justice. She is an incredible woman--brilliant, loving, hard working, insightful, patient, forgiving, tolerant, caring. I love her and I know that she will be an incredible social worker and help so many people!! And I was really excited when she shared this article about racism Because it sheds a lot of light on what goes on in the world and in America, especially the things we don't usually tend to notice. In this particular case it is "white privilege."

The article is written by a woman who studies women's issues. But during the course of investigating the ways in which men are privileged over women, she began to see the ways in which one race is also privileged over others. In "small" ways sometimes. But, when it comes down to it, in ways that make a difference in the way we interact, the opportunities we have,the way we feel about ourselves and the way we fit into society. The accumulation of these little, unnoticed privileges turns into a system of inequality and division.

The things she sites as white privilege really struck a chord with me-- little things like being able to easily find products for you skin or hair type; "flesh" toned band-aids that at least approximate the color of your skin (a black friend and I were joking about this very topic not long ago!); the knowledge that on any given day, if someone treats you poorly you can be confident that it is not because of the color of your skin; the ability to see people who look like you in the media, in positions of authority, or even among your friends and neighbors. The list goes on. And some things seem like a bigger deal than others. But the truth is, when you look at these details, and when you start adding up the ways these factors affect us on a daily basis, they are all part of a system that privileges, and not benignly, one race.

When I look at my experience and my own life, as a white American, I begin to recognize how distinct the differences are. I realize that out of all of my close friends, only two are black. And, in fact, I don't recall ever having a close black friend before starting college. In reality, I have only really gotten to know a handful of black Americans during my lifetime. Why? I don't completely know. Partly because they have been the minority in my communities, schools, and social circles. Because there are still dividing lines. Because we do not live in a country where all people have equal opportunities and where our skin color is irrelevant to where you live, what you do and who you interact with. And the truth is while it has been easy of me not to notice these divisions and the lack of diversity in my own life, it a loss for all of us.

So here is a bit more from the article:
"Disapproving of the systems won’t be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitudes. (But) a “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems. . .

"To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. . .

"It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already."
In all honesty, I don't know exactly what the solution is. I don't know how we break an "invisible" system of privilege, whether it is based on gender, race or other factors. But I think a start is recognizing it. And confessing to ourselves that we are part of it-- that we are a part of a culture ingrained with prejudices, as is every culture I've ever encountered. And once we recognize these advantages and disadvantages, we need to speak up. I am reminded of a quote a recently read in an essay by a wonderful friend of mine. She sited Elie Wiesel, who said, I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I love that! I want to be able to say that. I hope we can all take that to heart and live our lives with that conviction. We cannot be silent. We cannot be neutral. And we cannot ignore the injustices in our midst, even if at times they seems small or unimportant. It is our responsibility to recognize them and then to stand up against them, however we can.

I end with the insightful words of one of my best friends. She is hilarious, gorgeous, loving, innocent, yet unbelievably perceptive and wise. She is also a black woman. These are her thoughts on this article:
I wonder what can be done be bring people to look within themselves, both black and white and human in general, to question their (my) preconcieved notions about the world and the people they interact with? I believe that I as an person born in the U.S., even as an African American female, have many hidden privleges that others do not. Not only do I think think there are privleges with being White, but I think there are hidden (and obvious) privleges with being able to speak English in the U.S., or being "educated", or having health insurance for instance. How do we bridge the gap? How do we address the issue of communities not feeling that they can be in a position of authority, even though there has not been anyone that looks like them doing it? How we change the way people think? There are so many comforts that people would not want to give up. It just makes me want to re-assess how I view others and work to be more concious of the biases I carry and work to change them, because I definiely have them.

1 comment:

marissa said...

Wow, you are TOO sweet, Kendal! What a lovely friend I have in you. Your post is so well articulated, honest, and thoughtful. I am glad the article inspired you and that you are sharing it too! Oh, and that Elie Wiesel quotation, so wonderful. One of the biggest insights I've gained from study so far is that point: that standing by or being neutral just continues oppression because it doesn't call for any change. Thank you for this post, and always inspiring others to be more aware.

I hope you are so well in Spain. Love you!!