Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Privilege wars

There was an interesting post regarding the interactions between racism and traditional body image issues on Shapely Prose the other day, which lead to a discussion which lead to a lot of argument. The first complaint was the that comment thread had been derailed, which was completely valid - I tend to forget about that aspect of many blogs' commenting policies since I love a good derail in my everyday life or in any conversation I am involved in. However, SP ain't my forum, so this is irrelevant.

However, the second aspect of the complaint I have a problem with, and I think it is why I get so annoyed about many of the discussions about white privilege.

A brief synopsis of the whole situation is that a post about one person's experience of internalising the racism that permeated her life diverged into a general conversation of the experience of racism and then white privilege. And then a few people started to talk about how white privilege might not be the universal that it tends to be promoted as, mostly by quoting the experiences of white people in places such as the Middle East and Japan. This was Kate Harding's interpretation of that chain:
A post about a woman of color experiencing racism throughout her life in the U.S. has now turned into a thread about white women trying to prove that they’ve been victims, too!
I feel more than slightly disingenuous here, because I don't deny KH's right to require that comments stay on topic, but she put the point so succinctly that I want to use it to illustrate why I have problems with the routine discussions of white privilege. I may well be misrepresenting her overall views on white privilege - I am speaking to these words, not her views.

Discussions about white privilege routinely speak about white experience as a universal - all white people live in a position of privilege. I rail against this, because my experience is that this is simply not true. And I am not saying this because I haven't benefitted from it. I live as a white person in a white country. However, I have seen enough of other countries to know that being white means diddly squat - or less - in many places. Another comment in that thread dismissed discussions of a different experience of white privilege in Japan as a unique anomaly.

Just because most people in North America have little experience of places where white is inferior, doesn't mean those places don't exist. To dismiss those cultures as irrelevent to the discussion is, well, arrogant. And this has nothing to do with me or any other white people. It seems incredibly disrespectful of the cultures who have no hint of white privilege.

As some commenters pointed out, to suggest that the Japanese beauty ideal of white skin has anything to do with Caucasians is ludicrous, and suggests that Caucasians just can't get their head around other people not thinking their default appearance is attractive.

Other comments mentioned that the only reason some places don't show any evidence of white privilege is historically based rage against white imperialism. Quite, but I'm not sure... well I'm not sure what that means. Actually, I do know what it means. The point of bringing this up is to say that the white experience is not the same in those countries as the experience of PoC in North America. Well, no, it isn't. But that fact is only relevant if I'm bringing up the issue to say "White people are oppressed too!", which I'm not.

The notion of white privilege seems to have been defined in North America and exported globally. I also find that when people go into more detail about white privilege, not all of it is even relevant in Australia. However, regularly when the universality is questioned, the questioner is accused of making it all about themselves and white people. It just isn't. Racism has many basic themes that are universal, however the targets are different all over the world, and the subtle ways that racism interacts with the rest of the culture differs dramatically, even between North America, the UK and Australia, nevermind primarily non-white cultures.

However, that discussion made me realise one of the gifts I was given being born white in a white country. I have been on the receiving end of a wee bit of racism (fairly nasty stuff, but extremely infrequent) from people from other countries, and it has never really bothered me. That discussion and my thinking on it made it clear to me that this is because I am very unlikely to internalise that treatment. I live where I am the default and acceptable in terms of race. If people want to question my ability based on race, that is their problem and not mine. It's really easy to know that in your heart when you didn't grow up having your race derided.

So I am happy to look at what being white has brought me, but I still can't quite cope with the standard, North American definition of white privilege.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Backstory: I found your blog when browsing the comment thread of the recent Harry Potter post on CakeWrecks.

    Comment: What a coincidence that you would mention Japan. I am an American university student, attending school in the U.S. (where I have lived my whole life) but my sister lives in Japan and I am currently visiting her for Summer break. I had a professor this last year who told our class that racism was, by definition, white supremacy, and that all racism was white supremacy. I disagreed strongly with her, and voiced that opinion but was told, in almost as many words, that I was just wrong. Like yourself, I freely admit the prevalence of white supremacy, in the west - almost to the exclusion of other forms of racism. Almost.

    However, my sister who lives in Japan is (obviously) in the extreme racial minority and testifies to observing (and experiencing) a significant racist attitude there.

    Racism. Against her. Because she is not Japanese.

    I am quite convinced that in the U.S. and W. Europe when people deny, or will not admit, the prevalence of white supremacy they are either ignorant or guilty themselves. However other kinds of racism do exist, and it is equally ignorant or guilty to deny that fact.

    Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

    In my opinion, any and all indictments of racism should indict every form of racism, everywhere, against any person.

    P.S. Sorry to write a book in your comment section - it just seemed so randomly applicable to my life at the moment. And sorry for the double-post; I went back to edit something. Your blog looks neat. :O)

  3. Hi Kelley, cool synchronicity. Equating racism with white supremacy just seems to demonstrate the most amazingly insular view. Mind you, someone who argues that you are wrong because you are wrong is probably already a candidate for dismissal. :)