Wednesday, January 25, 2012

White Privilege

In my first iteration as a doctoral student in 2006 at Georgia State, in a discussion in a communication education class, I was told I was oppressed.

"No, I'm not."  To me, that was as absurd as telling me I had green hair or a million dollars in the bank.  My interlocutor was an African American gentleman whose face and conviction I remember well but whose name I have forgotten.  He was a fellow doctoral student, further along in the program, and even older than I was (in his mid-fifties).  He had been in social services work, confessed to be a Christian.  I believe he was a sincere, fine man.

But today that conversation is as vivid as if it happens last week, as is my perplexity as to why I--American, middle-class, healthy, white, educated, professional, homeowner, voter--is considered oppressed.  It's because I'm female.

I let him know that I rejected that self-identification.  "Tehre are millions of women on the planet who are oppressed," I said, "but I am not one of them."  However, his world view dictated that I was oppressed and just didn't understand or recognize it.

Not long after that, I was seated next to a young woman at a dinner held after a professional conference.  She and I approached the same subject.  I had heard her say that day in a presentation, "Women cooperate in their own oppression."  In other situations, I have read Pablo Freire and bell hooks and about critical pedagogy.  If education can empower others to change their circumstances, that is one thing.  Whether that is the whole purpose of education, that is another. 

What is oppression?  If I am oppressed, what does non-oppression look like?  Are men naturally non-oppressed, simple because they are male (if I am oppressed because I am female?) 

All of this backgroud brings me to the theme, white privilege.  Am I a beneficiary of white privilege?  Of coure.  I don't deny it.  And I refuse to feel guilty about it.  I had no control over my parentage, my race, my acculturation, my parents' choices, my early education, the region of the country I was born in.  It does no good to feel bad about such things; to do so would only be a waste of time and energy.

At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore my white privilege.  I have no patience for white people who deny their white privilege and even have the nerve to assert that African Americans (especially) are getting some privileges or breaks.  This is not a comment on affirmative action (that is a whole different subject), but a comment on the reality of our culture and world system.

We whites cannot deny that there is an advantage to being white.  All we can do is decide how we will respond to it.  What might those choices be?

We cannot stop being white, nor can we change the past and how we have benefited from being white.

We can try to give up some of the accoutrements of our privilege.  For example, wealth; less hassle from authority figures who have bad attitudes.  If one follows Christ absolutely, to give all to the poor.  But that won't change the fact you are white or that you have been privileged.  But it will mean you are obeying Christ, who is not interested in your white privilege but in your obedience. 

We can work to change the "system"--the cultural system, the political system, or the church system.  I say start with the last; it should be most susceptible to change because it is full of people who know they should be counter-cultural, whose very job is to be counter-cultural.  We can start by courage, speaking up whe someone denigrates those who are not recipients of white privilege. 

How have I benefited from being white?  Simply by not being other. 

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