White Privilege

Australians have very little concept of white privilege. I don’t know if this is the same for other countries but in Australia, judging by my experiences, the idea of white privilege is for the most part completely alien. Not that it doesn’t exist, it really fucking does, but to say it exists here is like some form of nationalist sacrilege. It offends the myth of egalitarianism that we’ve built up around ourselves. There’s an idea that everyone in Australia is treated equally, always have been, and that incidences of racism are isolated, only coincidentally racist or un-Australian. Un-Australian is a magnificent term because it epitomises the need to expel and reject anything negative from our national body and thus never accept that there is anything negative about our national body. Negativity or badness is always a foreign element that is corrupting our ideal self. It can be anything from foreign people to new technology, to TV shows etc. It’s always something coming in, something engendered by people ‘not like us’ (not necessarily in a racial sense). Witness the Cronulla riots and the desire to label it a ‘non-racist’ protest, or a racist protest by ‘un-Australians’.

 

 

Similarly, there is this need to divest ourselves of the concept of white privilege and non-white persecution and marginalisation. Before I go on it’s important to clarify that I am speaking purely from the experiences of a white woman in a predominantly white ‘Western’ country and the ‘white people’ I am talking about here refers to a particular mentality, epitomised in white privilege denial, that I have often encountered. To continue- I think the desire to deny white privilege stems from two major factors (although I’m sure there are more). Firstly, I think that in order to accept white privilege, one has to accept the history of white privilege that has engendered it. Secondly, white people aren’t used to be told ‘no’.

But first things first (I honestly can’t think of segue that doesn’t make me sound like a dick here). For white privilege to exist, there must have been a power structure in place capable of creating a world of white advantage. And as is the nature of power, there must be something to have power over, those who are the disempowered. This is a concept that white privilege deniers (WPD’s) don’t like. I think there is an intolerance for accepting our own sins, and for accepting the concomitant level of guilt, shame and responsibility that should accompany this recognition. Ultimately, people don’t want to have to feel bad. I think this extends from more than just the natural human aversion to negative emotion, and I think it extends from more than a desire for a naïve idealism, or even a racially informed lack of empathy. Although I am sure all those things have their place.

I think what people don’t want to have to feel bad about is themselves. If you are to accept that someone has been victimised, you must accept that there exists a victimiser, a villain. It is hard to accept oneself as that, given our fundamental need to perceive ourselves as Good and righteous. When viewing the history of white colonialism and imperialism, which fundamentally operates off ideologies of white superiority and actively worked to create white privilege, it is undeniable that generally speaking white people are the ‘baddies’. We are the ones who have systematically colonised various countries and subsequently implanted a racial hierarchy with whites at the top. We are the ones who, within this system, massacred, raped, dispossessed and degraded various races of people.

But, the white privilege denier will say that this very sentiment is unfair because they didn’t do it. They didn’t own slaves, they haven’t ever persecuted someone for their race, they have non-white friends, so why should they be punished for the sins of other white people? Isn’t that just as racist? Actually, no it’s not. As a race, or more specifically as a nation, we continually draw upon the concept of community and community history. We, without hesitation, align ourselves with and fundamentally connect ourselves to that in which we take pride- heroic figures, historical events, sporting triumphs, systems of government, civil rights movements etc.

We are more than happy to espouse the virtues of the women’s suffrage movement in Australia and rattle off the date that Australian women got the vote, and we include ourselves in the spirit of that positivity. We endorse it, and its existence reaffirms our sense of self. We identify ourselves as egalitarian and free and equal, and we have various pieces of evidence that are wholly unconnected to us in any real sense, yet we view those things as a part of ‘who we are’ as a nation or as a community. Yet, when it comes to something negative, something that goes against what we would now identity as the spirit of humanitarianism and ethos of egalitarianism, we are extraordinarily quick to disavow and deny. Not just in the sense of ‘I don’t endorse that or believe in it’ but in the sense that because I as an individual did not actively participate in that particular event, it should therefore have no impact on me, my sense of identity or how I behave.

One need merely look at the ‘sorry’ debate in Australia. Why should I have to apologise for the dispossession, genocide and degradation of Aboriginal Australians when I had nothing to do with it? My lineage doesn’t even go back that far, so why should I apologise? I am not directly responsible for it, therefore I should not have to feel anything that implies an ownership of blame- such as shame or regret. But I will, without cynicism, talk about the spirit of the ANZACS or the fact that Australia has never had a ‘civil war’, or even that mistreatment of Aborigines was done with ‘good intentions’, or the spirit of ‘mateship’, or Australia’s sporting record, or Australia’s tradition of authorial distrust and rebelliousness, our irreverence and rejection of classism- and from that I will draw and divine a sense of self. I will regard those things as reflecting something about me. I will feel connected to and in some way a part of these things that say something about my country.

Even if you are cynical about these things, you still may feel inherently connected to them, like you had something to do with them and like they have something to do with you. I know I do. In those instances, the WPD is happy to draw upon an abstract sense of communal connectedness that stretches back into history. They will join in with the feelings that this engenders, a sense of pride and goodness, but when it comes to racial discrimination or gender inequality- well that was them not me. ‘Don’t try to tie me to that shit because I had nothing to do with it and it is ridiculous to suggest that I should in any way feel a part of that.’ Right?

This is not to say that it’s ok to assume someone is a racist or sexist because they are white, or that white people should be held responsible to stuff other white people do. That’s ridiculous and I would never suggest that kind of automatic association. What I’m talking about here is completely different, I’m talking about accepting the existence of badness and goodness in our communal history and not trying to cherry pick what is most convenient to our sense of self and sense of entitlement. Especially when that cherry picking occurs to the detriment of recognising and working to heal factures in our history. These are things we must own. We must admit it, accept and embrace the bad and good parts of our past, and they are our past. We cannot merely enjoy the privilege and advantage that is afforded us via our association with the good aspects of our history, we must also recognise and accept the effects that our negative aspects of our history has on us, because the reality is that these things did occur and they do have repercussions in reality that must be recognised and dealt with.

Furthermore, we must accept that the power and privilege that has accompanied this history. And if we are to accept that we have an unequal past, then we must by the dictates of logic, accept that we have an unequal present. I think it is hard for some to accept that white privilege exists because they live it every day. It’s hard to see what is ultimately invisible to you because it is so naturalised and absorbed seamlessly into your day-to-day life. Although I accept that white privilege exists, I still don’t fully comprehend exactly what it means and I don’t know if I ever will- not entirely. I understand that I am afforded privileges and opportunities not merely in terms of a career, but socially and in basic daily human interaction. But really I don’t know what that means because I’ve never not had it. I don’t know how many ways or in how many situations I would have been treated differently if I were not white. I also don’t know what kind of subjectivity that would engender in me.

There are many times in my life when I’ve had the scales fall from my eyes, when I have realised the own assumptions inherent to my subjectivity, or realised the extent to which I am sheltered by the very nature of my life. One of the first instances was when I did a post-colonial literature course at uni, and was able to be transported into another world wherein I was reflected back to myself and I was exposed to a concept of the world that I had never seen before. Increasingly, as I got older I also started to hang out with people who weren’t white and that completely shattered my illusion that Australia is not a racist country. Merely as a kind of passenger, travelling alongside someone of colour, someone visibly different, did I become exposed to the insanity of racism that perpetually operates in all of its bizarre and ambiguous forms. ‘Oh, so this actually happens?’ was my thought. And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I recognised that it actually happens but I don’t fully understand what that means to the person that it is happening to. How could I? I’m not them and even if I were able to live in their shoes for a day in some kind of ‘Freaky Friday’ scenario, I still would have no fucking idea, because I would still merely be a passenger.

I think the thing that offends deniers of white privilege the most is the idea that they are being denied access to something. White privilege implies that a non-white person has a unique experience and subjectivity that as a white person you cannot understand or have access to, bar some kind of Vulcan mind meld or HGTTG ‘point of view’ gun. It is this that I think offends white privilege deniers because let’s face it, white people are so goddamned used to having access to and a sense of ownership over everything. We’re not used to be told ‘no, this isn’t for you’. We have always been the ones in a position of power, which has allowed us, when viewing something different or something we don’t understand, to reject, belittle and demean it. This has the effect of making the thing we don’t understand ‘stupid’ or ‘silly’, as opposed to having to admit to our own limited cognitive abilities and our own limited understand of the world. There is an arrogant presumption that has underlined whiteness, which is that white subjectivity is the only subjectivity. Or at least, the only valid subjectivity.

That is why in imperial and colonial texts, non-white people are represented as rudderless voids, only capable of responding to immediate external stimuli, never credited the depth and complexity that subjectivity implies. The narcissism of the ‘noble savage’ paradigm speaks volumes about this, wherein on his own the ‘savage’ lives in a world of chaos and self-destruction, yet when brought under the rule of whites he is able to serve an actual function. Within this framework, white people give black people meaning and purpose where before they had none. Not only is this arrogant, it’s narcissistic- the belief that other people only have real meaning in their relation to you. The idea that they are incapable of operating autonomously, without any regard for your existence is sacrilege to the narcissist, for whom others always exist in a reactionary position to the Self.

To say to someone of this mentality, not only that other subjectivities exist, but that it is virtually impossible for us to understand that subjectivity in its fullness, is a type of affront that offends the very sensibility that is, in its essence, one propelled by the need for narcissistic self-fulfilment. To acknowledge white privilege is not merely to acknowledge that you are a part of a system of thought, knowledge and information that has attempted to fundamentally cripple and demean Others, it is to acknowledge that this very process has engendered a perspective to which you don’t have access and to which you don’t have the right to access.

Denying someone white (of this mentality) a ‘right’ to anything creates this type of reactionary victimisation which screams out like a child having a tantrum, “but I want that too”. Hence the ‘white victim’ mentality, wherein white people are so quick to disavow and deny non-white disadvantage but are unnaturally eager to seek out opportunities by which to feel offended, excluded and discriminated. Like people who complain that they can’t say ‘n*gger’- “black people can say it so why can’t I say it”. It’s not that being unable to say n*gger is a huge burden. It doesn’t linguistically cripple the world. Personally I can’t think of a scenario that would actually required me to say the word where some other censorial equivalent wouldn’t do. Unless I had to defuse a bomb and that was the word activated password. That’s really the only situation I can think of.

But for the white privilege denier, the point is that they are suffering under a double standard in a world that is touted to embrace principles of equality and inclusionism- what they say is a hypocrisy- while completely ignoring that it was a world to which inequality and exclusionism were endemic, that produced this very situation. You don’t get to oppress, degrade and attempt to break an entire race of people, as epitomised through the use of racial epithet, and then turn around once it’s supposedly ‘over’ and demand free use of that epithet and everything that it implies. But the WPD wants people to ‘get over it’, because things ‘aren’t like that anymore and there’s no point in dwelling on the past’- in fact, it’s annoying that people harp on about racial discrimination for the WPD because they don’t want to have to think about or deal with it. It’s simply inconvenient to have to adjust or change oneself in any way.

This is another thing that the WPD doesn’t understand- why do things have to change? The WPD thinks that not saying bad stuff about non-whites and liking Thai food is the end of racial disparity and they totally support that, but when it comes to actual change that may disadvantage or inconvenience the WPD (even in some abstract way), well then people are just being politically correct, or pandering to special interest groups, or perpetuating a culture of dependency etc etc. It’s one thing to say that you think that Aborigines should be equal in Australia, it’s another to support land rights or to support changing the date of Australia Day. It’s one thing not to be prejudiced against Muslims and another to support mosque development and the right to wear the burqa. ‘I believe in racial equality but it pisses me off that I can’t say ‘n*gger’ and that golliwogs were removed from the Noddy books- it’s political correctness gone mad!’

But in reality, an unequal past does not mean an equal present, and really who could expect it to. In the eagerness to disavow the ugliness of the past WPD’s end up denying the inequality of the present. You cannot erase the past merely by willing everyone to be the same. Everyone is not the same, everyone’s experience is not the same and therefore everyone does not get to act the same. It’s similar to if a man were to tell me he understands what it’s like to be a woman. No. No you don’t. And what do I understand of being a woman? I understand being a woman within my life experience. I understand womanhood from the position of someone who is 28 years old, white,  middle to upper class, and who has had countless, infinitesimal experiences both significant and insignificant that combine, conflict, meld and intertwine in order to create my perspective on the world. I don’t know what it is to be any other kind of woman- racially, socio-economically etc. How could I? I can use the power of imagination and empathy to attempt to transport myself into someone else’s shoes. But that is really all it is. A transportation. A brief, visiting glimpse through someone else’s eyes that is still inevitably coloured by my own.

Having said that I would fucking hate to be a white man. It must be hard to reconcile yourself to how fundamentally ignorant you are to every experience of marginalisation. Because even if you experience discrimination in some way, like someone’s all ‘I don’t like your white manliness, you’re not getting this donut’ (or whatever) it’s not endemic to your life experiences or your subjectivity. Like Louis CK said, “How many advantages can one person have? I’m a white man. You can’t even hurt my feelings.”

That’s how I’m ending this. On Louis CK. ‘Cause he’s fucking awesome.

 

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5 Comments on “White Privilege”

  1. cyffermoon says:

    Thank you for your comments on white privilege and its deniers. I’m pretty sure it’s covered in your essay, but I want to add on my emphasis on what I think is the most important aspect of WPD: the denial that your privilege, that you are even now *at this moment* benefiting from, is *directly caused by* all the negative stuff you wish to ignore about your national/racial/etc identity. Yes, you have a better life than most non-whites, not because you’re better, or even by chance. You have a better life not in-spite-of, but BECAUSE your ancestors were assholes. In my admittedly individual experience, it seems that to most conservative-identifying people, this is the thing they would most hope to deny.

    That’s all I have to add. Great post!

    • You’re absolutely right, cyffermoon. I don’t know if I did emphasise that enough (or if I even said it- I’ll have to reread my post!) so thank you for drawing attention to that. There is definitely this drive to disavow. Instead of putting advantage down to the inherent benefit provided by a society with an entrenched racial hierarchy, people will say things like “oh, my family were just really hard workers” etc. While I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people, it still ignores the fact that there is a structure of privilege in place that ensures that hard work will pay off.

      Awesome insight- it sparks off so many more thoughts about it all. Thanks man!

  2. Dianne Jones says:

    Very interesting read

  3. nemo says:

    I’m not sure anyone one will ever read this but heck i’ll leave a reply since i enjoy reading this. I have rarely seen a more balanced assessment of modern notions of white privilege, far to often it is simply used as a political weapon to get people to shut up. On the flip-side there are also idiots who as you pointed out foolishly complain that they’re being barred for using a couple of words, when there are really more important things to talk about. I also particularly liked the the line about owning the good and the bad. That’s really a very good way to look at it. It is an inescapable fact that Australian has done some terrible things in the name of race. There are however a few areas where I will disagree with you mostly in the context of history, where to my mind a lot of people discussing this go wrong. These discussions are always framed in the context of the grand European colonial powers that expanded throughout the world in order to foster “white superiority”. Ironically in saying this you seem to presume that the rise of Europe as the seat of world powers and the cultural norm in many places was inevitable. This is in itself are rather Eurocentric world view, which is understandable considering were you were raised. However, most historians (pull out any late medieval/ 16 century history book) would strongly disagree with this sentiment. The fact is that Europe has mostly been a relative backwater up until the last couple of hundred years, even then it’s success was far from guaranteed(to categorize it very broadly). Also, far too often we read our own modern views of scientific and genetic racism back onto the past, where it simply did not exist. These things are only really codified in the early 20th century. The average Spaniard or Englishmen in the 1500’s would have cared much more about the religion and culture of say a Aztec or Iroquois rather than because that was what they were. Colonialism was really done neither on a systematic level nor a racial one. More often than not it was extremely haphazard and disorganized, particularly in the early days, performed by small groups of men with little connection. European powers were perpetually worried about their neighbors becoming more power than they. As a result they were in a perpetual scramble to maintain the balance of power. This was one of the primary causes of European expansion. Nor should we forget the long history of external attacks of Europe and how that also affected their mindsets. For example the Ottoman Turks or the Golden Horde. Even before those one could point to the rapid expansion of the Islamic Caliphate and the influence that exerted and still does over the European mindset on Islam. Speaking of these, can we really characterize white people as The “baddies” certainly we have performed many terrible acts, but do these, and the relative historical proximity propel us further? Should we not also consider the Rape of Nanking, The sack of Baghdad or Delhi, the campaigns of Shaka Zulu. To my mind characterizing any one group of individuals as the ultimate villain, seems in a historical concept foolish. Finally it is interesting to point out that many modern notions of the “Noble savage” originated in the writings of the Roman author Tacitus, who was referring to Germans. Ok I’ve gone on way to long. To sum up though, none of these ideas change how we should act toward modern notions of white privilege but i think are important to bear in mind in order to as accurate as possible. To finish though i’ll apologize for any spelling or grammatical errors and add.
    “fuck you whale, fuck you dolphin”


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