Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Problem with White Privilege

As a writer, I'm well aware of the power of words. But it still surprises me to see it in action and I wonder about the choices some people make. A term I've seen bandied about a lot lately is white privilege. I'm not qualified to offer an in depth definition and analysis, but the basic idea is that white people in this country enjoy advantages simply because of the color of their skin. I have no quarrel with the concept and don't doubt it's truth, but I do wonder about how people use the words and what they hope to accomplish by it.

Whenever a complex and emotional idea is summarized in a quick phrase, a lot of nuance will be lost. The words you choose can greatly influence people's reaction and ultimate acceptance of the message. A prime example is the difference between global warming and climate change. Global warming is scary - global affects everyone and warming can obviously lead to problems. Those who denied it, or perhaps just didn't want to deal with it, made a conscious effort to relabel the issue as one of climate change. Climate is something like weather, but more vague. Change isn't necessarily bad - in fact the weather changes all the time. And weather is different everywhere so it might not affect me at all. Both terms are technically correct and in fact climate change is broader and thus more accurate. But which term you use does play a role in how the listener perceives the topic - that's the power of words.

Which is why I'm not sure that the use of the term white privilege is always the best choice to accomplish one's goal. Because as I see it, the phrase puts off a lot of the people who would be best served by understanding what's behind it. It definitely does not come across as a compliment to white people, and it's often used in response to the opinion or experience of a white person, thus invalidating them. It furthers separates people into us vs. them, when we should be focusing on getting everyone on the same side.

Again, I agree that white privilege exists. As a white person, I know that I've had things easier in many ways. But it doesn't mean that white people can't know what it's like to be disadvantaged. They can know discrimination and prejudice, perhaps because of their gender or sexual orientation. Historically there's been much disenfranchisement of certain populations within the Caucasian world. White is a very broad category and painting everyone in it with the same brush smacks of the sort of indifference that's looked down upon when it happens in the other direction.

And if a white person points out that they have indeed suffered injustices in their life, a common response is: yes, but you still have white privilege. True, but hardly helpful. If we get into the habit of trying to compare who has it worse, we go down a road to fruitless debates. Who's worse off - a rich black man or poor white woman? A hispanic immigrant or a second generation vietnemese lesbian? Just when you think you've got it won, a transgender tibetan orphan comes along and steals your thunder. How does that lead to a solution?

And that's what I'm all about. How do we improve things? How do we help everyone, white people included, understand that the playing field is not level and all the negative results that come from that? How do we get the people who have the power (yes, predominately white people) to understand the suffering of others and be willing to make a change in the world to better the state for everyone? Shouting white privilege will get you attention. It may get you sympathy, support, and understanding from those who already believe in your cause. But will it win over anyone new? Will it open lines of communication and a healthy discussion in those who start out afraid and intimidated by the topic to begin with? I'm afraid it won't.

I don't have simple solution, a cool alternative phrase that carries the same weight but will not offend anyone. But I see a parallel example that gives me hope. Marriage equality has made far more strides in the best several years than gay marriage ever did. How did that happen?

When gay marriage was approved in Massachusettes some ten years ago, the resulting backlash created many laws and state constitutional amendments against such a practice. But the gay community didn't just shout louder. They started talking about marriage equality. Equality is a concept most everyone (except Bill O'Reilly) supports. Gay is a term that many people are uncomfortable with. The change in terms changed the message, leading to discussions instead of disagreements.

A lot of activists stopped pushing for immediate change across the board. They engaged on a personal level with the gatekeepers, often conservative politicians on the local and state level. It wasn't about a movement or a group of people, it become about individuals. I've read numerous stories of simple conversations with gay couples that changed someone's mind. A family member coming out leading to an understanding of the true meaning of the issue. Each individual change snowballing into a cumulative effect that ultimately led to a startling fast change in attitude across the country and a shift in legal opinion that is undoing most of the laws created in the past decade. It's wonderful to see and worth noting how it's come about.

The lesson I take away is that having a noble cause is not enough. Expecting people to be won over by your truth and correctness is arrogant and foolish. Shouting about injustice may get you attention and rally the troops, and that can be a necessary start, but it hardly ever wins over the other side. So think carefully about the words you use and who you actually need to communicate with in order to achieve your goal. The more you bring people together, the more we understand each other, the more we realize that there's only one side and we're all on it together.

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