There exists a kind of vacuum effect that occurs when people, particularly people who are privileged (which most of us are in some manner or another), read or learn information about the manifold oppressions that exist in society today. To be clear, when I say privileged, I am not talking about the upper-class “1 percenters” that we see in shows like Gossip Girl. I’m talking about white people, men, straight people, cisgender people, thin people, able-bodied people, and people who might not necessarily be rich, but don’t want for basic needs such as food and shelter. This statement alone might turn off a lot of you reading this — I know from experience that being reminded of privilege is not only uncomfortable, but is often, amazingly, viewed as boring or irrelevant.
When privileged people are confronted with information about the discrimination and oppression experienced by those who are less privileged, their responses are often embarrassingly predictable. Anyone who has even a cursory involvement in anti-racist, feminist or queer activism has experienced the “we’re not all like that!” echo chamber — that not all men are rapists, that not all white people are klansmen, that not all straight people beat up queers. There is a ton of excellent writing on the silencing and offensive effects these sorts of statements make, and it’s not my purpose to write about them here. Rather, I bring up the “not all (white/straight/male/abled people) are like that!” retort to illustrate what is one of the most jarring and frustrating responses to being presented with uncomfortable information regarding oppression, particularly for those on the other side of the fence (or those of us who are working to be allies to those on the other side of the fence).
I have a relevant example that I recently observed in a college classroom: On the first day of a class that focuses on the politics of the civil rights era, an argument erupted between a white student and a black professor. The professor, a scholar and veteran in the field of civil rights who has studied race politics in our small mountain city, made the bold statement that one of the largest and most beloved high schools in our region is a racist institution. The student, an alumnus of the high school, disagreed immediately. He began bringing up specific teachers and programs, which the professor was well aware of. This argument has continued every class meeting, with the student continuing to disrespect the professor and even bringing in information he gathered outside of class to refute his point.
As alarming (and fascinating) as this situation has been to watch at my otherwise polite and 96% white liberal arts university, it sparked in me a conundrum that I’ve struggled with myself and watched other people struggle with: Why do people become so defensive when confronted with the possibility of their own prejudice? What is it about the suggestion that we benefit from systems of inequality that causes so many people (particularly, in my experience, men and white people) to claim that they’re not “all like that”?
In my attempts to get to the root of the conundrum, I decided to use myself and other “well-meaning” white people that I know. Many of us consider ourselves liberal, even radical. We all have or have had black friends. Most of us probably voted for Barack Obama, and a lot of us are fans of rap and hip-hop. To all of us, my past self included, the assertion that we could be racist and that we definitely benefit from our white privilege is offensive at worst, dissonant at best. Cue the endless whines of “I don’t see race!” or, my overused favorite, “We’re not all like that!”
I obviously can’t speak for all white people (friendly reminder that nobody can speak for an entire race or group of people despite incessant urgings to the contrary), but in my experience, the reasoning behind the defensiveness exhibited by privileged people — in this case, myself — is caused by a feeling of isolation, alienation or polarization that occurs during controversial discussions regarding race, gender, etc, particularly discussions that indict the privileged class for their role in the perpetuation of inequality.
It’s at the moment of this experience of isolation, a feeling I would speculate is often an expression of dissonance (“But how can I be racist when I have black friends/voted for Obama/support the NAACP/like rap/etc?”), that most people stop listening. It’s an enormously uncomfortable feeling to sit with — to be accused of racism by one’s simple existence, by the accident of birth and genetic pigmentation, or accused of sexism by being comfortable with the male gender one was assigned at birth. Most white people and men choose not to continue that line of thinking.
It’s at that moment of discomfort, of polarization, that I believe privileged people can learn the most about oppression.
One of the most dangerous and insidious aspects of privilege, particularly white privilege, is that many who have it are unaware of its existence. The process of realizing one’s privilege — of recognizing simultaneously that your group is oppressive and, more importantly, that you are a member of the oppressive class — is difficult for those who have believed for their whole lives that they are purveyors of equality, or, at the very least, that they’re not racist/sexist/homophobic, etc. It’s a redefinition process that takes constant effort and is enormously difficult. But the fact remains that it is the discomfort and isolation of the privileged that stops them from recognizing and doing something about the oppression of others. I could lament all day about how difficult it has been for me to come to grips with my white privilege, but that struggle is nothing in comparison to the oppression faced by people of color.
That moment of discomfort and isolation is so essential to becoming a better ally and to becoming a better person, because it’s at that moment that, consciously or not, the privileged person recognizes that their whole entire life is based upon a system of inequality that is inescapable and wrong. It’s at that moment that the majority of “liberals” become turned off to race, gender, queer and disability theory. To look at oneself and claim that “I benefit from institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ability-discrimination” isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
And it’s at that moment that we must remind ourselves that as dissonant and uncomfortable and perhaps even painful as it might be to admit that we perpetuate oppression simply by existing, it’s a hell of a lot easier than actually being oppressed — and moreover, by denying that we are part and parcel of these systems, we are perpetuating them.
So to people who are offended or who become uncomfortable by the recognition of their privilege, I’ve got to tell you: Get the fuck over it.
Written by Noor Al-Sibai