dagAsk: Three Lessons
seltaire asked you: There was a phrase you used called “betraying white privilege” - what do you mean by that?
I use it in a specific context. I have had to learn three things. Bear with me. I was thinking about how to answer your question and wanted to say three things. I haven’t written this down before. So, it’s likely to be a little rough.
- I had to learn how to listen and observe. As a writing teacher, I can promise you that white people often do not know how to listen and observe without relying on highly constructed white-notions of reality. Constructed whiteness is an imagined reality that instructs us how to understand what we observe. It’s like a White Super Ego. I began learning how to observe when I was a young child in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1970s. Observing overt racism, overt Christian bigotry and sectarianism, overt white power, overt hate and listening to the responses to those things from all people involved helped me learn how to see whiteness in a critical way even at a young age. I have had a distinct distrust of my whiteness since elementary school. Nevertheless, this is an ongoing lesson. It’s not as if this lesson will ever end.
- I had to learn how to resist feeling guilty when confronted with the social problems white power and whiteness are responsible for cultivating and encouraging. I’m white, but when we talk about whiteness, I don’t make the discussion about me. To knee-jerk an emotional response and to wallow in guilt is never appropriate. To be white is not to be guilty of something. And this is a significant lesson. To resist guilt is to be able to remain engaged with the discourse. To dwell in guilt is to personalize the problems. It encourages a ME and THEM paradigm for examining whiteness and people of color. It reinstates the traditional white power structure, I’d argue, reinforces it.
- I had to learn to resist denial. The third lesson is the most important of the three and actually unites the lessons. You cannot have learned the value of one of the three without having learned the other two. They go together; they inform each other. I can say “that’s not me,” but I cannot become not-white. I inherited a privilege I cannot lose and simple rejection is useless. Many social justice whites deny their whiteness, which is a simple rejection. We see it on tumblr all the time. “I don’t identify as white.” Quite frankly, denial is a response to feeling guilty, which is why these folks will also almost always claim that people simply want them to admit some sort of guilt.
While we should not deny whiteness, we can betray it. That takes honesty and a commitment to participate in discourse where, though my voice is welcome, it’s not the essential voice. My voice is useful only in common with a chorus of other voices. And white people forget this because they cling to racist notions of what it means to be an individual.
Betraying white privilege, for me, is the one thing that keeps me honest in discourse about justice, equality, liberty, freedom, civil disobedience, rights, ethics, et al. Betraying white privilege is to resist denial and guilt. I will often write “we need to betray whiteness rather than deny it.”